CSU, Citadel coaches share common historySeptember 7, 2006
by Jeff Hartsell, Post & Courier
Eighteen years ago, Hank Small hired an eager young linebackers coach named Kevin Higgins to be his assistant at Lehigh.
Four years ago, Small hired Jay Mills from Harvard as the second football coach in Charleston Southern's history.
As Higgins' Citadel team prepares to play Mills and the Buccaneers on Saturday at Johnson Hagood Stadium, Small's reputation for hiring coaches is glowing.
"They've made me look good, haven't they?" said Small, CSU's athletic director since 2001. "I guess they overcame the hurdle of being hired by me."
After six years as assistant head coach to Small at Lehigh, Higgins succeeded Small as the Mountain Hawks' head coach in 1994 and posted a record of 56-25-1 in seven years, good enough to earn him an NFL job. Now in his second season at The Citadel, Higgins has brought some stability to a program roiled by coaching changes and seems to be laying a solid foundation for the future.
And at Charleston Southern, Mills has demonstrated the wisdom of Small's choice by taking the Bucs from a 1-11 record in 2003 to a 7-4 mark and a share of the Big South Conference title a year ago.
The Small connection between Higgins and Mills is just one of the ties that bind the coaching staffs at The Citadel and Charleston Southern. The Bulldogs' new offensive coordinator, Dave Cecchini, played receiver for Small at Lehigh and succeeded Mills as offensive coordinator at Harvard when Mills got the CSU job. And Bulldogs defensive line coach Eric Westerfield was on the staff with Mills at Harvard.
"The coaching profession can be a small fraternity," Mills said this week.
Higgins credits Small, who had a 47-40-1 record at Lehigh, with masterminding a brand of the spread option offense that is popular throughout Division I-AA football. The Citadel, Villanova, Penn, Richmond and Delaware all have coaches who worked with Small or Higgins at Lehigh and use some of Small's offensive ideas.
"One reason I went to Lehigh was that I wanted to be a head coach," said Higgins, who was a linebacker coach at Richmond when Small hired him. "I felt like to be a head coach, I needed some expertise on offense, and when Hank offered me a chance to work with him, I knew I had to take it. His offenses at Princeton, Brown and Lehigh had been at the top of I-AA for 10 years.
"I learned a lot from him, and there are so many coaches that have taken his offensive system to various places. He is just an outstanding offensive mind."
Said Small, "I knew before I hired him that Kevin would be a great head coach some day. When I left Lehigh, I recommended that they hire him, and that's what they did."
Cecchini, who was a Kodak All-American at receiver for Small at Lehigh, has been hired by Higgins at Lehigh and at The Citadel.
"He'll say he was faster, but Dave ran about a 4.8 for 40 yards," Small said. "But he had great hands and mechanically was just an outstanding receiver on the break and in getting open. He caught punts for us, and I don't ever remember him dropping a punt."
As the coaching carousel would have it, Cecchini followed Mills as offensive coordinator at Harvard when Mills was hired at CSU. So when Higgins hired Cecchini at The Citadel last spring, it got Mills' attention.
"We've had to change a great deal of things," Mills said. "Dave sat at my desk at Harvard, he's got all my information, my playbook, he's seen me on tape explaining our offense, just things that naturally come along in our profession when one coach follows another. But we've had to change a lot of what we call in terminology, signals, communication and things like that."
Small, who was among many to recommend Higgins to Citadel athletic director Les Robinson, said his two hires have a lot in common.
"They are both outstanding football coaches," he said. "Kevin has more of a defensive mentality. That's what I knew him best as, as a leader of defense for me at Lehigh, a hard-nosed, strong presence. Jay is a lot more like I was as a head coach, much more working with the offense and quarterbacks and not so much from a defensive background.
"But they are both outstanding communicators and very bright people.
"When you are very bright and can communicate with young people in a recruiting setting and a teaching setting, you are going to have success."