HAMPTON—Fred Kaiss, the man charged with revitalizing Hampton University's offense and its fortunes, may be considered something of a miracle worker now. Early in his coaching career, though, it was a different story.
In 1990, Kaiss became the head football coach at Southwestern High School in Baltimore, a school that hadn't won a game in three seasons. The team went 5-4 in Kaiss' first year and 7-3 the next, but Kaiss' players didn't readily accept an outsider who'd coached at two other Maryland schools but had no previous experience at Southwestern.
"But they got the message, and we were pretty daggone good."
That began a steady, successful ascension in historically black schools for Kaiss, who went on to become an offensive assistant at Morgan State and then at Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., where he was part of the Jaguars' SWAC and black-college national championships in 1993 and 1995.
Kaiss then coached wide receivers at Tennessee State for the Ohio Valley Conference's top-rated passing offense for three seasons before coming to Hampton for the first time in 2001.
In 2004, his Pirates offense scored 43.6 points per game, second-best in the country, and produced its first 1,000-yard rusher in Alonzo Coleman. Kaiss also oversaw HU's kick-return game, and his returners, paced by All-American Jerome Mathis, led the nation with more than 30 yards per return in 2004, when the Pirates earned the first of two straight SBN black-college national champion titles.
Kaiss left HU in 2006, and then-coach Joe Taylor hired former Landstown High coach Chris Beatty as offensive coordinator.
"I didn't want to leave when I left," Kaiss said. "... Did I ever think I was coming back? No."
That changed with a phone call from longtime Pirates assistant Donovan Rose, now in his second year as head coach.
"I really enjoyed (working with Rose)," Kaiss said. "We sat next to one another in the booth."
The success Kaiss had on game days, coordinating HU's offense while Rose coached the defensive backs, explains the very warm welcome he's gotten in his return — and the pressure that brings.
"So many people from this university have just treated me like a god, (saying), 'Oh, Coach, thank goodness you're back,' " Kaiss said. "I'm just a football coach. That's all I am. But if I don't get it done, I'm going to be letting too many people down.
"It's going to kill me if I don't do it. It's going to kill me."
The Pirates have fallen a long ways from the heights Kaiss remembers, when they won three straight Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference championships from 2004-2006 and were a I-AA playoff fixture. Taylor left for Florida A&M after a 6-5 season in 2007. Jerry Holmes took over for one season, producing another 6-5 record before abruptly leaving the program, and Rose went 5-6 in 2009 — HU's first losing record since 1996.
Hampton averaged 19.5 points per game last year, fourth in the nine-team MEAC, and was also fourth with 338.5 yards per game. Not awful statistics, but not acceptable at a program used to being the class of a conference.
"You had two or three different guys in a row, which means a bunch of different assistant coaches," Kaiss said. "I don't know if it's as much philosophy on X's and O's as it was recruiting. It's not the same. Our strength coach was out here today, and he was saying, 'Where's your Marquay (McDaniel)? Where's your (Jerome) Mathis?' That's just recruiting."
Kaiss is pleased with the players HU landed for its 2010 class after Rose took over last January, but still sees challenges among the talent.
"They want to do well. They've got bad habits," Kaiss said. "We're trying to teach them something new, and at the same time, we've got to change their habits they've done their whole life. We take two steps forward and one back. … But we're moving forward. We are."