Eckert hopes to revive Northeastern State’s football fortunes
Cherokee Nation citizen J.J. Eckert has followed in the footsteps of his father Tom to coach the Northeastern State University football team. MALLORY SEMROW/NORTHEASTERN STATE UNIVERSITY
TAHLEQUAH – Since the turn of the 21st century, the Northeastern State University football program has tried to resume what it did in the 20th century.
It had its ups and downs, but its ups were spectacular with four title game appearances, two NAIA national titles and a West Regional title in just its second season as an NCAA Division II program.
But since the departure of head coach Tom Eckert after the 2002 season, the RiverHawks have posted only two winning seasons and have not returned to the playoffs, making only one post-season appearance in a 2011 bowl loss.
However, there seems to be some optimism around NSU football with the new coach. Fans, locals, alumni and the university want to see what hometown kid and Cherokee Nation citizen J.J. Eckert – son of Tom – can do at his alma mater’s program.
“Look at last 15 years of football here, and it hasn’t had great success,” Eckert said. “I knew it was going to be a challenging process. But digging into it, there were a lot of positives. We’re in a great (Mid-American Intercollegiate Athletic Association) conference. We have some unbelievable student athletes. When we walk into the weight room or a meeting on Sunday, then going all the way through to the game on Saturdays, we have some great kids. That makes it even more rewarding, but the scoreboard has not indicated success.”
Eckert wants to win, but improvement is needed first, and he said he sees his players getting the other benefits of playing the sport.
“You may not see it if you only look on Saturday afternoons,” he said. “We’ve made headway in practice habits and from a schematic standpoint. We are a team with a truly good family atmosphere. They enjoy being around each other, and the camaraderie and the experience. Football is football, but when it is done, are you going to be friends with these guys the rest of your life? Will you come back to homecoming and have a yearly event with each other’s families?”
Eckert has roots in Tahlequah. He attended Greenwood and Cherokee elementary schools en route to playing quarterback for Tahlequah High School. He spent a year at the University of Central Arkansas before returning to NSU to play for his father. He was on the 1994 NAIA championship team, started at quarterback for the 1995 national runner-up and was an assistant coach for the 1999 team. He witnessed other successful NSU seasons, including the 1991 team that went 10-0 and was ranked atop the NAIA. As a child, he followed the 1980 team that lost to Elon (North Carolina.) College, 17-10, in the NAIA national championship. His father was then an assistant coach.
After leaving NSU, Eckert found success in the junior college ranks. His first head coaching job was at Garden City (Kansas) Community College, followed by a 12-season stay at Kilgore (Texas) Junior College, where he went 72-53 with three conference titles, five bowl appearances and was the Southwest Junior College Football Conference 2018 coach of the year.
However, Eckert never completely detached from Tahlequah or Cherokee County, despite being employed in Texas for two decades.
“I was gone for 20 years, but then I’ve been here a bunch,” he said. “I would come here to see grandparents, parents, or catch crappie on Lake Tenkiller or chase a turkey at Camp Gruber. But I would drive back 300 miles south to a new opportunity. I’ve always thought that was a unique deal. For 20 years, that was really special, and there were a lot of things (at Kilgore) that appealed to my family. When we got down to the whole idea of coming back, was it a good move for the family at the time? That was important to me – to make sure my oldest daughter, wife and two twins thought this was a good time for this to happen.”
It is not likely that this assignment is a “stepping stone” for Eckert. He insists he doesn’t “chase jobs” and is focused on getting NSU back into competitive shape. He wants his players to enjoy the college experience, and not solely measure their success by the number of games won.
“I’ve had chances to develop great relationships as a player and coach,” he said. “You want to provide that opportunity for your athletes. You want them to be successful academically and athletically. But also, how are you going to leave college, and what are you going to leave this place as?”
Because he made trips to Tahlequah, he saw the community grow – often through the CN’s efforts. “I…see the influence it has had in this community, region, state and this part of the country. I drive by the new (outpatient) clinic on a daily basis. I think, how impressive is that? That used to be my grandparents’ land, and I used to go shoot quail and ducks, feed cattle and catch fish. I’ve spent a lot of time there, and I’m so proud as I drive through there. I remember thinking that W.W. Hastings Hospital was one of the most impressive things ever.”
Eckert said the growth of Tahlequah and the CN have mirrored each other, and that the tribe has had the benefit of great leadership for several decades.
“A lot of those guys from the 1994 team have been back,” he said. “But those who haven’t, can you imagine what they are going to think when they come back and see what has changed? Coming from Muskogee, they will see the new casino on the right. They’ll remember seeing cows and a pond there. It creates a lot of pride to see what the Cherokee Nation and its people have done in the last 15, 10 or even five years, being able to promote Tahlequah and northeastern Oklahoma.”