The 2017 campaign marks the fifth season that Mike Babcock will serve as the head coach of the McKendree University football program. Babcock was named as the 17th football coach in the history of the Bearcats’ program back in December 2013.
In the half-decade since taking the helm of the Bearcats’ program, Babcock has helped lead McKendree through its early steps as NCAA Division II members and become perennial contenders for a Great Lakes Valley Conference title. The Bearcats increased their win total in each of Babcock’s first three years in Lebanon while leading the team’s rise within the GLVC ranks as well. Babcock enters the 2017 season with a record of 25-17 at McKendree.
McKendree took an unconventional path to its second consecutive eight-win season in 2016. The Bearcats used four different starting quarterbacks throughout the season, which marked the first time that has happened since McKendree revived its football program prior to the 1996 campaign. After opening the year with home victories over Angelo State University and West Liberty University, the Bearcats dropped three of their next four contests to sit at .500 entering a Homecoming match-up with Saint Joseph's College.
In front of a sellout crowd, the Bearcats trailed the Pumas by nine points with just under two minutes to play. McKendree then erupted for two touchdowns in a 43-second span, which was fueled by a blocked punt from John Alvin III after a crucial stop of Saint Joseph's with one minute to play. Skylar Paulson made a spectacular juggling catch on his game-winning four-yard TD reception off a pass from Elcee Burke III to lift McKendree past the Pumas, 20-16. That win sparked a season-ending five-game win streak to give McKendree an 8-3 overall record and a 6-2 mark in GLVC play. It was the second time in three years that the Bearcats reeled off five straight victories to end a season, matching a similar run in 2014.
Babcock and his staff utilized a strong running attack during the year as the Bearcats finished second in the GLVC in rushing offense. First-team All-GLVC selection Shayeen Edwards showed the way for the McKendree running backs as he rushed for a career-best 771 yards and was second in the conference in rushing yards per game.
Senior wide receiver Sean Dowling made his final season in a McKendree uniform his best, leading the Bearcats with 39 receptions, 467 receiving yards and four touchdowns. Dowling hauled in the game-winning 15-yard TD catch in the second overtime of McKendree's 10-9 win over West Liberty. By the end of the season, Dowling had moved into second place on the Bearcats' career list for receptions (107) and receiving yards (1.375).
Defensively, the Bearcats flexed their muscles once again in 2016. McKendree allowed the fewest points of any school in the GLVC, giving up a meager 18.4 points per contest over the 11-game slate. That marked the second straight year that the team led the conference in scoring defense. The Bearcats also paced the league in total defense in 2016.
The Bearcats' defensive assault was led by seniors Lucky Baar and A.J. Wentland. Baar wrapped up his McKendree playing days by becoming the NCAA Division II career leader in quarterback sacks. The last sack of his career in the second quarter of McKendree's regular-season finale at home against Truman State gave Baar 46 1/2 career sacks to ascend to the top of the charts. In addition to taking the top spot on the Bearcats' sack list, Baar established a new program mark with 65 1/2 tackles for loss and tied a program record with eight forced fumbles.
Baar collected numerous national honors during his senior season. For the second time in three years, he was named an AP Little All-American. Baar was also selected as the Ron Lenz National Defensive Player of the Year by the Division II Conference Commissioners Association (D2CCA), earning first-team All-America honors from the organization as well. He also garnered first-team All-America honors from the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA), becoming the first McKendree player in six years to grab the honor. In addition, Baar was chosen as the D2CCA Super Region 4 Defensive Player of the Year. Baar was also a finalist for two national awards -- the Gene Upshaw Award, which is presented to the top interior lineman in NCAA Division II, and the Cliff Harris Award, given to the top defensive player in small-college football.
Wentland also completed his work of rewriting the Bearcats' record book with another memorable season in 2016. For the third consecutive year, Wentland established a new single-season record for tackles as he amassed 145 stops in his final year at McKendree. In the first quarter of the Bearcats' double-overtime win over West Liberty on Sept. 10, Wentland became the program's career leader in tackles. He also matched the team's single-game record for tackles -- which he set in 2015 at West Liberty -- with a 22-tackle performance at Southwest Baptist in early October. Wentland wrapped up his McKendree career with 421 tackles.
Following the season, Wentland was honored as the 2016 GLVC Defensive Player of the Year. He became the second McKendree player in three years to capture the honor, joining Baar, who was the 2014 recipient. Wentland also collected second-team All-America honors from the D2CCA, along with first-team All-Region accolades. Wentland was also a finalist for the 2016 Cliff Harris Award.
On special teams, Steven O'Block brought his four-year McKendree career to an end by tying the Bearcats' single-season kick scoring record with 81 points. O'Block booted a McKendree record 15 field goals in 2016 and closed his career as the Bearcats' all-time leader in kick scoring (277 points), extra points made (148) and field goals made (43).
Under Babcock’s leadership, the McKendree football program enjoyed a breakthrough season in 2015. The Bearcats turned in the first winning season in the program’s NCAA Division II era, going 8-2 overall while finishing second in the GLVC standings at 6-2. McKendree -- which won its final five games of 2014 -- continued its roll into 2015 by opening the year with a five-game win streak. The Bearcats’ success was noted by the raters in the American Football Coaches Association Division II poll as the team earned its first-ever vote in the weekly ratings in early November. Along the way, Babcock coached 15 players to All-GLVC honors in 2015, including six first-team selections.
Babcock received the first post-season coaching honor of his McKendree career last fall when he was selected as the HEROSports 2015 Super Region 4 Coach of the Year. The award placed Babcock among a list of finalists for the HEROSports 2015 NCAA Division II Coach of the Year.
Offensively, McKendree rewrote the team’s record book, setting new program marks for points scored (388), points per game (38.8 PPG), total offense (4,873 yards), passing yards (2,872 yards), completion percentage (.661) and passing touchdowns (23). McKendree also equaled a school record by scoring 51 touchdowns. In addition to leading the GLVC in scoring offense, total offense and rushing offense (200.7 yards per game), the Bearcats finished the year ranked in the top 20 of the final NCAA Division II statistical report in completion percentage, scoring offense and third-down conversion percentage (.480).
The offense explosion in 2015 was led by senior quarterback Isaac Fisher, who capped his final season in a McKendree uniform by being named the GLVC Offensive Player of the Year. Fisher registered school records with 3,595 yards of total offense, 2,792 passing yards with 21 touchdowns through the air. On the ground, Fisher rushed for a team-leading 803 yards with nine more scores. He closed his playing days for the Bearcats as the program’s career leader with 10,257 yards of total offense, 780 pass completions, 8,508 passing yards and 64 passing TDs.
Senior wide receiver Cameron James put the final stamp on his four-year McKendree career by taking over the team’s career lead in nearly every receiving category. James ended his playing days with 150 catches for 1,614 yards and 16 touchdowns. Equally as dangerous in the return game, James set a new McKendree career standard with 62 kick returns. He also took over the program’s lead in all-purpose yards with 4,583.
McKendree was just as impressive on the defensive side of the ball in 2015. The Bearcats paced the league in scoring defense, allowing its opponents just 19.8 points per contest. After finishing at the bottom of the conference in pass defense in 2014, McKendree improved dramatically just a year later, closing the 2015 campaign by ranking second overall in the category. The team was fourth in the nation in quarterback sacks per game, averaging 3.5 per outing.
For the second consecutive year, junior linebacker A.J. Wentland set a new program mark for tackles in a season. After ending the 2014 season with 132 tackles in 11 games, Wentland bettered the mark last season with 135 total stops in the Bearcats’ 10-game schedule. Wentland, who was a first-team All-GLVC honoree, picked up second-team All-Super Region 4 accolades from the Division II Conference Commissioner’s Association (D2CCA).
The 2014 season turned into a memorable one on many fronts for Babcock and the Bearcat football program. McKendree closed the year as one of the hottest teams in the Great Lakes Valley Conference, winning its final five games to post a 5-6 overall record. The late-season run also gave the Bearcats a 5-3 mark in GLVC play, which enabled the squad to finish in a tie for second place in the league standings. That is McKendree’s highest GLVC finish in the conference’s brief football history.
Sophomore defensive lineman Lucky Baar rewrote the McKendree record book by leading NCAA Division II with 26 1/2 tackles for loss and 18 quarterback sacks. Both statistics also set new program records as Baar earned GLVC Defensive Player of the Year honors along with first-team Little All-America accolades from the Associated Press. Baar became the first Bearcat player to earn either honor. In all, 10 McKendree players received All-GLVC awards, including first-team selections in Baar, junior offensive lineman Derrik Starrett and sophomore linebacker A.J. Wentland. In his first year as a starter at middle linebacker, Wentland registered a school-record 132 tackles.
During his first season at McKendree in 2013, Babcock led the Bearcats to four victories, including a thrilling 32-28 come-from-behind win in the 2013 season opener against Tiffin University. A total of 11 McKendree players earned All-Conference honors from the GLVC during Babcock’s rookie season as a head coach, including first-team selections in senior Richie Rebmann and sophomore Brett Pearman.
Babcock came to McKendree after spending five years as an assistant coach at Colorado State University-Pueblo, one of the top NCAA Division II programs in the country. In his last four years at CSU-Pueblo, Babcock served as the ThunderWolves’ quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator. Under his leadership, CSU-Pueblo registered back-to-back undefeated regular seasons and claimed Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference (RMAC) championships. The ThunderWolves were the top-ranked team in the final American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) regular-season poll in both 2011 and 2012.
With Babcock at the offensive controls, CSU-Pueblo set 13 team and 15 individual offensive records as the ThunderWolves advanced to the national quarterfinals of the NCAA Division II playoffs in 2012. CSU-Pueblo set new team season standards in every major passing category, including attempts, completions, yards, touchdowns and completion percentage. The ThunderWolves also established new records for total offensive yards, plays and points scored.
During the 2012 season, CSU-Pueblo averaged 35.8 points and 442.6 yards of total offense per game this season. The ThunderWolves were ranked first in the RMAC and 11th in NCAA Division II in passing efficiency. In addition, CSU-Pueblo ranked among the top 30 in the nation in scoring offense.
Babcock arrived at CSU-Pueblo after spending the 2007 season as the tight ends coach and director of football operations at the University of San Diego, where he helped the Toreros to a Pioneer Conference championship. Prior to that, Babcock served as the quality control intern for offense for two seasons at the University of Colorado. He served as an assistant in coaching the Buffaloes’ offensive line, tight end and special teams.
Babcock began his coaching career at his alma mater, the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). He was an undergraduate and graduate assistant with the Bruins from 2000-04. After spending the 2000-02 season coaching the UCLA linebackers, Babcock shifted to defensive line coach in 2003. He wrapped up his stay at UCLA by guiding the Bruins’ offensive line in 2004.
During his stay at UCLA, Babcock helped coach the Bruins to four bowl appearances, and also helped guide the top-ranked defensive unit in the Pac-10 in 2001.
As an undergraduate at UCLA, Babcock was a linebacker and played on the Bruins’ 1997 and 1998 Pac-10 championship squads, and played in both the Cotton Bowl (1998) and Rose Bowl (1999). UCLA put together a 20-game win streak during Babcock’s playing days. Babcock earned both of his degrees from UCLA – an undergraduate degree in 2002 along with his master’s degree in 2005.
Babcock and his wife Kimberly have two children: Tyler and Emily.