Steve Lewis/Durango Herald file photo
Steve Lewis/Durango Herald file photo
One final meeting to inform his players. One final major duty as head coach, and it was done.
After three years, Cesar Rivas-Sandoval is moving on.
The head coach of the Fort Lewis College football program stepped down Wednesday after three years in which, despite his best efforts, the Skyhawks struggled to gain traction in a steadily improving Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference. He informed his players of his resignation in a meeting Wednesday night at Noble Hall on the FLC campus.
Rivas said the decision to step down was his, although athletic director Gary Hunter was part of the process. Hunter said the search for a replacement is underway, and he hopes to make a hire sooner rather than later, with signing day looming Feb. 6 and spring football following soon after.
“We had chatted with some other coaches, including assistant coaches and head coaches,” Hunter said. “And it will be my challenge to bring in the most successful coach we can find.”
Rivas took over at Fort Lewis in January 2010 for former head coach and current defensive coordinator Ed Rifilato. In three seasons, he went 6-25 overall and 5-22 in the RMAC, including an 0-10 overall mark last season – the third winless campaign in school history and first since 1998. The head coach said his final season at the helm was hard not simply because of the losses, but because of what the team had to endure in a winless campaign.
“It was only difficult from the standpoint that my heart aches for kids who go through disappointment,” he said. “But at the end of the day, I know disappointment makes them stronger.”
The Skyhawks battled injuries and tough offensive sledding in 2012. Quarterback Tim Jenkins played in just six of 10 games, while the defense was forced to use younger players and players in new positions after several injuries.
FLC ranked 139th nationally in rushing offense, 134th in total offense, 152nd in scoring offense, 148th in total defense and 151st in scoring defense. Chalk it up to a depth issue, something Rivas had hoped to fix.
“We’ve got quality players in this room, and we need to surround them with more,” he said. “And they need to be dispersed between redshirts, freshmen, juniors, seniors.”
In games against FLC’s three biggest rivals – Adams State, Colorado Mesa and Western State – Rivas’ squads went 2-7, with wins over Adams State in 2010 and Western State in 2011.
Part of the problem for the Fort Lewis program as a whole is its standings in terms of facilities and scholarship money compared to the upper reaches of the league. As programs such as CSU-Pueblo, Chadron State and Colorado Mines have soared in recent years, FLC hasn’t been able to keep up as the RMAC has become more of a player on the national stage. And even in the context of its own campus, football has had to fight from under the shadow of the success of a national champion men’s soccer team, an increasingly strong women’s soccer program and both basketball programs, which have made runs to the Sweet 16 and beyond of the NCAA Tournament in the last five years.
“I want to see the community to jump behind this program and understand that there’s going to be peaks, and there’s going to be valleys. But unless you completely support this program, it’s not going to be what any one of us really want, which is a success,” Rivas siad. “There’s no reason why you can’t win football championships and basketball championships and soccer championships and volleyball championships. There’s no reason you can’t win them all and do well in all of them.”
Rivas has coached 23 All-RMAC players during his 17-plus years as a coach and player, including three All-Americans, the most recent being former Fort Lewis wide receiver Justin Johnson in 2010.
Rivas’ charges fared better in the classroom. He coached 20 players that earned RMAC All-Academic honors and two CoSIDA Academic All-Region members – Frank Atherton twice, and Nick Frizzell. Atherton, FLC’s former punter, became just the second player in FLC history to earn first-team CoSIDA Academic All-America honors in 2011.
Add in community service projects, the beginnings of an influx of a handful of Division I transfers and an increase in the overall size of the roster, and the résumé isn’t too shabby except in one key area – wins.
“I feel like we’ve improved in every which possible way you can improve a football program other than the wins and losses,” Rivas said.
“We’ve got camps now, regional camps and tournaments, coaches’ clinics and fundraising,” he said. “We have a football alumni association. ... We’ve quadrupled our recruiting areas. Our staff has tripled since I’ve been here. We’ve done a lot of positive things. ... The goal is to turn these young men into men by the time they graduate college with degrees.”
Rifilato will take over the program as interim head coach until a permanent replacement is found. Hunter expressed confidence in his interim coach and excitement for what a new hire could bring to the program. As for Rivas’ assistants, Hunter said he’ll encourage whoever he hires to consider keeping the group around.
“I will certainly encourage the new coach to interview the existing coaches because I like them very much personally, and I think they’ve done an excellent job under difficult circumstances,” he said.
As for his future, Rivas said he plans to take a breather and plan his next move while spending more time with his wife and two daughters. But he’s hoping that even though he’s no longer a part of it, the program will be able to make inroads in terms of local support. And he’s hopeful the next man up will be able to have success.
“I haven’t come up for air since I took this job in January of 2010. It’s been a grind, and it’s been a good grind, and it’s been great for me and great to my family,” Rivas said. “But I only know one way to work, and that’s to grind. And the next guy has to be able to come in here and grind and take this place to the next step.
“I want this region to get behind this football program because I really do believe at the bottom of my heart that it could be great here. But it needs more than just a few people who care.”