LEBANON — McKendree University looked west to find its new football coach.
The Bearcats on Wednesday hired Mike Babcock, 33, who has been an assistant coach at Division II power Colorado State University-Pueblo for the last five years. Babcock succeeds Carl Poelker, who announced his retirement Oct. 22.
Babcock, a graduate of UCLA, has been the ThunderWolves quarterbacks coach and pass-game coordinator the last four seasons. CSU-Pueblo averaged nearly 36 points and 443 yards of total offense per game this season in finishing 12-1.
Babcock said he wasn't necessarily looking for a head-coaching position, but was open to any possible career changes.
"I don't think I saw myself as being at CSU-Pueblo for 30 years as the offensive coordinator," Babcock said. "Don't get me wrong; I loved it. I had great players and I worked for a great head coach (John Wristen). But I felt it was time to move on and take on a challenge of becoming a head coach.
"The possibility of going back to being a Division I (assistant) coach or to be a head coach has always been in the back of my mind. (McKendree) is not an institution that's used to being a bottom-dweller. They want to be successful. And that's in every sport; that's not just football. That's another big, big thing I liked about it."
The ThunderWolves, who have posted two straight undefeated regular seasons, advanced to the quarterfinals of the Division II playoffs, defeating Indianapolis 28-7 on Nov. 24 before losing to West Texas A&M 34-13 on Saturday. Indianapolis is one of McKendree's rivals in the Great Lakes Valley Conference.
For the last two years, CSU-Pueblo was ranked No. 1 in the Division II at the end of the regular season. This season, the ThunderWolves set 13 team and 15 individual offensive records.
McKendree Athletic Director Chuck Brueggemann interviewed Babcock for about four hours Nov. 12-13 in Pueblo. Babcock visited the Lebanon campus Nov. 16-17, meeting with Brueggemann, McKendree President Dr. James Dennis and other administrators.
"It went very quick," Brueggemann said. "He rose to the top very early. He was our clear-cut favorite."
Babcock liked everything about his visit to Lebanon.
"It took less than 24 hours to figure it out," he said. "It's the people that made this move very easy --the family-like atmosphere. ... This is an exciting time for the program, me included."
Babcock listed three requirements of players: a strong work ethic; the ability to play fast and physical; and the ability to have fun.
During his opening remarks at the Hettenhausen Center for the Arts, Babcock asked a large contingent of McKendree employees, players and media how to spell "fun." When no one responded, Babcock answered the question himself: "W-I-N."
Brueggemann, who received 300 applications for the job, said he was looking for a coach that possessed: Division II familiarity; experience in building a program; an offensive mind; an ability to win; and a track record of putting players' academic needs ahead of their athletic aspirations.
"We knew we were looking for somebody with offensive experience," Brueggemann said. "We knew Mike was from California, and we're certainly looking to expand our recruiting horizons in the California direction. We would love to get into Texas and California and Florida. We had our eyes set on somebody that had some California exposure."
Babcock credited the work turned in by Poelker, 68, who was 117-61 with nine playoff appearances and seven Mid-States Football Association championships in 17 seasons at McKendree. The Bearcats were 3-7 last season, Poelker's 31st overall as a head coach.
"Carl Poelker and his staff have laid the foundation," Babcock said. "We're going to build on it."
Babcock also has been an assistant coach at the University of San Diego (2007), the University of Colorado (2005-06) and UCLA (2000-04). He earned his bachelor's degree from UCLA in 2002 and his master's degree, also from UCLA, in 2005.
Offensively, Babcock is like every coach: He wants to get the ball into the hands of his playmakers. This season, CSU-Pueblo quarterback Ross Dausin passed for 3,011 yards and 25 touchdowns and running back J.B. Mathews rushed for 1,176 yards and 13 TDs. Five CSU-Pueblo players had at least 28 receptions.
"This last year, I had really good running backs at CSU-Pueblo," Babcock said. "We were able to do a lot of different things with getting them out of the backfield, whether they're going out for passes, screens or swings, anything to get them involved, because they were very good football players.
"You find ways to get those playmakers the ball. ... It's (about) finding who you have to work with and getting them into position to be successful. That's both in the run and in the pass."
Defensively, Babcock wants his players to be in perpetual attack mode.
"I want guys to play physical and fast," he said. "That's the biggest thing on defense. On offense, you kind of have to have all 11 guys on the same page working together toward a goal. On defense, sometimes it's a little bit easier. As long as you're running full-speed wherever you're going, good things will happen. That's where your fumbles and interceptions come from."
On the recruiting front Babcock said he wants to "control the state."
"I want this to be the place where guys from Illinois can come," he said. "For right now, (we want) the guys that may not be at the Northwestern, U of I levels, maybe even a hair below Eastern Illinois and Western Illinois. (But) at some point, I would like to be able to compete against the (Division) I-AA's for those guys.
"I also want to control St. Louis. That's our backyard. We've got to be able to control those two places, and then find out ... (whether) we can get guys nationally, whether that be Texas, California."
Babcock jokes about his playing days at UCLA.
"I was extremely not good," he said, laughing. "I'll be honest. I was a walk-on linebacker. I'm 6-foot. I've lost a lot of weight. I was about 235, 240 when I played. I was the smallest guy there."
Babcock and his wife, Kimberly, have a son Tyler, 2 1/2, and a daughter, Emily, 7 months. They will be moving to the metro-east after the holidays.
Contact reporter David Wilhelm at email@example.com or 239-2665.