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Eastern University makes bold hire from FCS ranks to launch new NCAA DIII program

The private Christian school near Philadelphia has major plans and funds for the future

Eric McNelley sifted through the résumés, applicants and emails numbering in the hundreds, for his brand-new football program.

Eastern University's athletics director found an ample amount of potentially qualified candidates for the start-up NCAA Division III football team in the Philadelphia suburbs.

Yet, Billy Crocker shined through McNelley's computer screen.

Northeast native with rich ties to the region? Check.

Experience at college football's highest levels? Check.

A shared vision of the school's mission – on and off the field. Trifecta.

Multiple interviews and a dinner meeting later, McNelley and Eastern's search committee had their first-ever head coach for the private, Christian institution less than 20 miles west of downtown Philadelphia.

Crocker, most recently Elon University's defensive coordinator and also with experience at Villanova as well as Football Bowls Subdivision UConn, accepted the job and will be announced Friday.

“His resumè jumps off the screen to me right off bat,” McNelley told FootballScoop. “He has ties to Villanova and our Mainline area. Obviously being a Division I coach and being able to have that instant credibility and expertise.

“Once I got to know him, and résumés can look good but you've got to fit Eastern, man he is as quality of man, a family man, and you know what he values. That all really put him over the top.”

Said Crocker, “The No. 1 thing that caught me right away is the plan that Eric and the administration already started and put together. It's well thought-out, been on their minds a long time. That stuck with me, because there is a plan in place. And obviously that plan will adjust as we go, we're going to hit some bumps and roadblocks here and there, but the support campus-wide is there and willing to make this be done right way.

“We want to be an extension of the university and the university mission. We want to build a program, that first and foremost the university community can be proud of. Not necessarily from wins and losses but bringing in the right guys and student-athletes. I've coached at the FCS level for almost 20 years now. And I think for Division III, it's about the experience, providing a great experience of playing football and competing but also having that experience of being a student-athlete on campus.”

With Eastern's bold plan, which was launched with more than $20 million earmarked as part of the athletics initiative and included an already secured deal to play home games at Valley Forge Military Academy, Crocker also will be empowered to hire multiple full-time coaches – not always a given in the budget-conscious confines of Division III.

“I want good men,” Crocker said of the top criteria to join his inaugural staff. “That's first and foremost. Guys who have some values I have and do things the right way and treat players the right way. I value relationships, and I think that's extremely important, regardless Xs and Os. It doesn't necessarily need to be people I know or have to be friends, which I have lot, but it's finding the right fit. I want guys who want to be here, be with us. Who want to go out and recruit. We want that feeling reciprocated because when somebody is somewhere they really want to be, it shows in the product and I want that in my players and coaches.”

While those are the intangible characteristics that top Crocker's list, familiarity on the defensive side of the ball with Crocker's 3-3-5 system doesn't hurt. After all, in 2016 at Villanova, Crocker's defense was Football Championship Subdivision's No. 1 scoring unit during an era of consistent postseason success for the Wildcats.

Ultimately, however, Crocker has targeted the component most critical for building the program to match the vision both he and McNelley outlined: recruiting.

“We're going to go one step at a time, and that first step is recruiting,” said Crocker, who has a business degree from nearby Villanova and whose wife, Kristi, also is a 'Nova alum. “We want to go out and recruit as well and as much as we can. Get the right individuals to campus, the right guys as we can.

“As that number continues to grow over the next six to eight months, we can start talking about potentially putting it together for this fall. Outside recruiting, we're going to make our plans to be ready to put a product on the field if the numbers allow us to do that. But we're going to make sure we can put something productive on the field.”

The launch of the program, slated to potentially include a couple of junior varsity games in 2022, pending numbers, and to begin competition in 2023, comes from the aligned vision of Crocker, McNelley, school leaders and a plan now two years into its implementation and growing closer to its realization.

“The fact that Coach Crocker is looking for the right fit, for Eastern, our community and his program, he's not going to short-cut anything,” McNelley said. “I don't think he's going to bring in the wrong kids to lay down a terrible foundation. He's about culture, he's about family. And he's going to sustain success because of that. What really hit home to me was when he said he wants to know what the program is going to look like in 10 years, 20 years. To have sustainability. He wants to be a top-25 team in the country. Everybody does, but his expertise, he's been on a staff to win a national title, he's seen what it takes at the highest levels of college sports. I think that definitely translates to his program and all of our programs.

“We're going to fund this right to be competitive at a national level. We're committed to it.”

Now, so too is Crocker. As Eastern University's first-ever head football coach.