It’s not everyday that you see a football coach get sentimental when talking about the game. But sentiment was part of a range of emotions St. Xavier University football coach Mike Feminis and his assistants felt watching the Cougars take home their first NAIA national title on Dec. 17.
The head coach, who was named NAIA Coach of the Year, wasn’t shy, nor was he selling himself short when he said his team would bring back a national championship.
“Before we left for Rome, Georgia, a lot of people told me I was crazy, because I guaranteed a win,” he told the crowd.
“I’m going to make one more guarantee. We’re going to be back right here, next year at the same time. So gentlemen, the pressure’s on!”
The nearly four-foot tall NAIA championship trophy sat on a table in front of the Cougars' championship team as they lined the basketball court and heard praises from local and not-so-local supporters.
Steven Murphy, vice president of university advancement, said the road to creating a football team at the university nearly 20 years ago was long, but worth it.
“We had this vision back in 1993, and it proved to be a good one. Football was good for St. Xavier, but building a competitive program did take time,” Murphy said. “From day one, 'Fem' talked about a national title. And every move he and his staff made since then has been pointed in that direction.”
Studded with political bigwigs, the crowd heard congratulations from State Sen. Ed Maloney (D-18th) and State Reps. Kelly Burke (D-36th) and Bill Cunningham (D-35th), and U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-3rd), who changed his travel plans to attend the rally.
Lipinski joked about placing a friendly wager on the team against another congressman who’s area includes Carroll College and said he had “two six-packs from the finest microbrewery in Montana waiting for me in Washington.”
After the team presented St. Xavier University president Christine Weisman with an autographed helmet, she read a letter from President Barack Obama, who wrote that the school’s student athletes’ “commitment to excellence sets a powerful example for all Americans.”
Maloney, praising the St. Xavier athletic department for producing the championship team, said, “Success speaks not only to the team, but the entire athletic program in the university. This is something that you will talk about to your kids, your grandkids.”
Feminis thanked his family, St. Xavier's administration, the athletes and their supporters, but said his assistant coaches are “the No. 1 reason why we are here.”
“There’s a lot of great coaches," Feminis said. "A lot of guys can 'X' and 'O.' We can do that forever. If you don’t have the pieces, I don’t care how smart you are, you’re not going to win."
After Feminis shot the puck during the second intermission of the game, announcer Gene Honda read a congratulatory message to the team while the Jumbotron displayed highlights from the national championship game. Following the tribute, the Cougars were applauded by more than 20,000 fans as they were showed on the Jumbotron.
“It was a special night for our guys,” Feminis said. “My sincere thanks goes out to the entire Chicago Blackhawks organization and everything they did to honor our team.
"I am a die-hard Blackhawks fan, so this night will always hold a special place in my heart,” he said.
The Cougars join a very elite group. Out of more than 700 college football teams that play in the United States, only five of them claim a national championship each year.
“There’s only four other teams that have the feeling that we had that night,” Feminis said. “And it was the greatest feeling in the world."