SAN MARCOS — Frustrated at his inability to get to the quarterback during spring practice, a Texas State football player stopped by the office of new Bobcats coach David Bailiff last week to ask for some pass-rushing advice.
Between bites of barbecued brisket, Bailiff told him that he wasn't pointing his toes at his target, and reassured him that improvement would come with more practice.
"If it was easy, everybody would play," Bailiff said with an encouraging smile.
It's hard to imagine such a scene involving Bailiff's predecessor, Manny Matsakis, whose perceived arrogance and aloofness played a role in his firing after just one season with the Bobcats.
Less than three months into Bailiff's fourth stint at his alma mater — he played here from 1977-80 and was an assistant from 1988-91 and 1997-2000 — Texas State players credit their new coach for raising the team's morale following a miserable 4-8 season and the ensuing fallout.
"Everything we heard about him, it's all true," sophomore safety Epsilon Williams said. "The enthusiasm he's brought has changed the whole team around. Going through Matsakis to get coach Bailiff was worth it because he's a perfect fit for our program." Said freshman quarterback Chase Wasson: "The attitude was real sour. Nobody was upbeat. It's been a (180-degree) turn under coach Bailiff."
Much work remains, Bailiff cautions. After all, no coaching change can alter the fact Texas State has had just one winning season since 1992.
But the Bobcats, who had their spring game Saturday, have made enough progress that Bailiff still feels good about his decision to leave his post as TCU's defensive coordinator.
"If I didn't like everything I saw, I wouldn't have come, because I had a pretty nice job," said Bailiff, who graduated from MacArthur in 1976. "We're not where we want to be, obviously. But we've got some wind in our sails, and we're headed in the right direction."
Preferring instead to look ahead, Bailiff resists any comparisons to Matsakis.
But it's impossible to judge where the Bobcats are headed without looking at where they've just been.
The Matsakis era was as controversial as it was unsuccessful. It ended in January, after just 13 months, when university president Denise Trauth fired Matsakis after an internal investigation uncovered 12 NCAA violations.
Many were related to excess practice time that resulted in myriad academic problems and a collective case of burnout.
"Practices were very, very long, which you'd expect," Williams said. "But we'd be up at 5 in the morning and wouldn't be done until 11 at night. It made no sense. There was no break."
Bailiff's first order of business was to demand better performance in the classroom. He reinforced that mandate on his second day, when he suspended several players for skipping class.
"They knew right there we weren't going to put up with any nonsense," Bailiff said.
In return, he promised to treat his players with fairness and respect.
"There was a lot of apprehension when I got here," he said. "I'm the third head coach in three years (Bob DeBesse was fired in 2002 after six seasons). If I were playing here, I'd be upset, too. You'd almost feel ripped off because the staff you probably came here for is gone.
"We had to come in here and establish ourselves as to what this program was going to be about. I think they've accepted what happened. They're learning to trust us and believe that what we're doing is in their best interests."