Lenoir-Rhyne football: 100 years and counting

(Left to right): Offensive coordinator Bob Bodine, head coach Drew Cronic, associate head coach / special teams coach David A. Cole and defensive coordinator Joel Taylor. These football coaches discussed Lenoir-Rhyne's upcoming season in a press conference on Monday, July 29. (O-N-E photo by Marcus Smith)
Marcus Smith
Sports Editor

Another season is set to commence for the Lenoir-Rhyne Bears’ football team in 2019, but it won’t be just any ordinary year.

Like the 2018 season, the Bears are staring in the face of history as it celebrates 100 years of football.

In 100 seasons of action, the Bears have shared great memories and moments including winning its first National Collegiate Athletic Association Division II National Championship in 1960 led by LR Hall of Fame quarterback Mike Pope, as well as had a runner-up finish in 2013.

The Bears returned to national prominence in 2018 after finishing its campaign ranked No. 8 in the nation including a perfect 7-0 record at home, as well as capturing its eighth South Atlantic Conference title in program history (undefeated in conference play).

Lenoir-Rhyne completed the biggest turnaround in its history jumping from a three-win team in 2017 to a 12-win team last season. This would include a 12-game winning streak in which the Bears outscored its opponents 521-228.

The Bears hosted two rounds during the 2018 NCAA Division II playoffs, defeating Florida Tech and Wingate in the process. Against Wingate, eventual SAC Regional and National Coach of the Year Drew Cronic drew up one of the biggest plays of the season to secure the victory. Down by three with 45 seconds remaining, a double-reverse flea flicker was set up that saw quarterback Grayson Willingham connect to Riley McGee -- who made the bobbled catch to secure a spot in the Regional Final against undefeated Valdosta State.

Unfortunately, that is where its historic season would end, losing to Valdosta State in a whopping fashion, 61-21, on Dec. 1.

A press conference was held on Monday, July 29 at the new Neil McGeachy Sports Performance Center in which Cronic, defensive coordinator Joel Taylor, offensive coordinator Bob Bodine and associate head coach / special teams coach David A. Cole discussed the upcoming season and player progression.

“Offensively, I think that going into last year there were so many questions. I think the only real position I think that we (thought) had a chance to be special was probably Grayson (Willingham) (at quarterback), but even then we didn’t understand just what he could be,” said Bodine. “The offensive line was a huge question mark, you know, how well they would come together. This year, we know a lot better of what our personnel is...The offensive line is probably the one position that had the greatest transition.

“For this coming year, we had some people that we moved around a little bit, but I really do feel that we still have that chemistry so far going into camp. Knowing the limitations and skill set of all our offensive players, we’ll know exactly where we can take it."

Bodine would go to talk about second team All-American offensive lineman, Jason Poe.

“Jason Poe is great. I get to collect a paycheck and clap (because) he does some things that really there is no coaching involved,” he said. “He’s a special athlete. He’s undersized a little bit, but he makes sure that he makes up for it (with) great strength and explosiveness. He understands what we’re doing and (really) dedicated to being a good football player, so I wish I could say it was coaching.”

Cole and Taylor would discuss returning players, as well, and the cohesiveness the team has and will have going into the season. Cronic would also relay this message, but add his thoughts on how the 2019 Signing Class has worked with the returnees this summer.

“I think we have 17 starters returning. Having guys that have played at a high level and played in big games and found a way to win games -- that’s something you can’t just get from a freshman when he walks in,” he said about the continuity of his returning players. “That takes time. That takes experience...To have those guys back is great, but I do think that we’ve been able to have a great signing class and bring in some players.
“I think our depth, especially defensively, is much improved...I’m excited about watching us play defense this year…(I’m excited) to see about what freshmen are going to come in and add immediately to what we already (have).”

Cronic went on to say that there’s always a couple of freshmen that come in that show what they’re made of right out of the gate, even when one isn’t sure of who that will be.

There will be a few guys looking to make a claim from the Catawba County area including Bandys’ star running back, Ethan Howard after breaking the Trojans single-season rushing yards record in 2018.

In terms of the 100th season and what it means to him specifically, Cronic said that when you’ve got alumni present from an 80-something year-old down to alumni from the 2013 runner-up team on the staff like defensive line coach Jimmy Long, it makes it that much more special.

“For something to have a 100 years of something, that’s pretty significant,” he said. “We want to ride that wave. We want to use that to stir up interest. That’s a long time, and that’s something we should be proud of. The university is something we should celebrate and what we want to do is give them (the alumni) something they can be proud of.”