Morgan State head coach Tyrone Wheatley talks with his assistants during the first half of an NCAA college football game against James Madison in Harrisonburg, Va., Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019.
Morgan State head coach Tyrone Wheatley talks with his assistants during the first half of an NCAA college football game against James Madison in Harrisonburg, Va., Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019. (Daniel Lin/AP)

In one of his first meetings with the Morgan State football team, Tyrone Wheatley told the players that a top priority this season is winning the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference title. That might seem like a bold declaration considering the program has not won the league championship since 2014, but the rookie head coach’s candor energized the players.

“We love that kind of talk,” senior wide receiver Manasseh Bailey said Wednesday. “It makes us think that he believes in us, that he trusts us to go out there and win it. Of course it would be disappointing [to fall short], but we want that level to be set high. We want our coaches to believe in us and to know that they trust us to go out there and fight for everything that we want.”

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As Wheatley tries to change the mindset and culture at Morgan State, the Bears (0-3) open their conference and home schedules Saturday against North Carolina Central at Hughes Stadium.

After beginning the season with losses at Bowling Green, James Madison and Army West Point, returning to Baltimore might sound appealing. But Wheatley’s greater concern is finding a way to defeat the Eagles (1-3).

“It does feel good, but right now, in my first year here, we’re not worried about home games, we’re not worried about road games,” he said Tuesday during a conference call organized by the league. “We’re just worried about games, just winning games, getting the team from one place to the next. And what that progression looks like for me is to continue to build the toughness, continue building discipline and just get the win. [We are] looking for our first win. That’s all that matters.”

If Wheatley, a former Michigan standout running back who played for the New York Giants and Oakland Raiders, is frustrated by the team’s slow start, he has not shown it with the players, several of whom said the coach has remained encouraging during practices and film sessions.

That, however, has not diminished his insistence on perfection. Junior center Stefan Touani said unlike his predecessors, Wheatley has had players repeat certain plays in practice if even the slightest nuance is amiss.

“It could be something small like the line missed a block or the quarterback’s handoff wasn’t in the right direction or the handoff wasn’t at the right depth for the running back to keep his shoulders square,” he said. “He wants every detail perfect.”

Sophomore kicker/punter Nicholas O’Shea described one interaction he had in which Wheatley gave him a pointer after a poor punt during a preseason practice. Admitting he “respectfully ignored” Wheatley’s advice, O’Shea launched a better punt, but got an icy reception from Wheatley.

“Coach Wheatley looked at me and said, ‘You didn’t listen to me.’ I was surprised that he noticed because a lot of coaches wouldn’t have,” O’Shea said. “It was nice to know that I had a head coach who understands kicking to a certain degree and punting as well. He was critical because I have a critical position. A missed kick is a missed kick, and that’s a loss for me and the team some days.”

Wheatley has also sought to refine the players’ behavior away from the field. He has banned profanity, racial epithets and earrings, required players to open doors for female classmates and university staff members, ordered players to maintain a clean locker room and required players to pull up their pants.

While some teams might have chafed at such restrictions, Bailey, who caught six passes for 121 yards and two touchdowns in Saturday’s 52-21 loss at Army, said he and his teammates have welcomed them.

“When you do things like that off the field, it transfers to the field,” Bailey said. “Pulling your pants up may seem small, but it’s a big thing to us because it gets your demeanor right, it keeps your head right. Small things like that will show on the field.”

Wheatley acknowledged that when he succeeded Ernest T. Jones in February, he inherited a team “laden with bad habits.”

“The entire culture of ‘woe is me,’ the culture of ‘what have you done for me,’ a lot of guys expecting things when they haven’t done anything or put anything in,” he described. “So you have to break those things.”

O’Shea said the changes made by Wheatley have already had a positive impact on the team.

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“It’s a culture. It’s being there for your brother, being there for your family and making a culture that everyone feels comfortable in,” he said. “In the past before I got here, [the older players] talked about how the culture wasn’t as good and how they lost faith and how that contributed to a lack of success. So they’ve kept our heads in it, and Coach Wheatley as well. That was one of the first things he said, just to trust him and believe in him and his staff.”

Another encouraging sign was that Morgan State owned a 14-7 lead in the first quarter against Army before the latter discovered its groove. But that development did little to satisfy Wheatley.

“I guess you have to find a silver lining in something, but I expected to be there, and I want the guys to expect to be there [and] not to come back and say we had a moral victory and, ‘Oh wow, we had a 14-7 lead,’ ” he said. “That really does us nothing. But once we get to the point where now we can sustain it, sustainability is what we’re after now.”

Time will tell if Wheatley will return the Bears to prominence. But his players are confident the program is moving in the right direction.

“We never lost faith,” Touani said. “The candle is still lit. We’re still buying in, we’re working hard and we have a lot of faith in Coach Wheatley. We’re ready to rally around him just like we know he’s ready to rally around us. We know he’s got our backs, and we’ve got his back.”

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