Northeastern State alum is trying to rebuild former power
TAHLEQUAH — J.J. Eckert grew up idolizing Northeastern State football players. Then he became one.
Our series on state-college football continues with a look at the RiverHawks. Eckert’s father, Tom, was the 16year head coach at Northeastern, and in 1994, J.J.’s freshman season, Northeastern won the NAIA championship.
But when J.J. Eckert returned to Tahlequah as head coach for the 2019 season, he found a different situation. The RiverHawks have floundered in the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association. From 2014-19, Northeastern went 6-60.
“One of those things, the good Lord always puts you where he needs you,” Eckert said. “I’ve never been one of those people out there, trying to find jobs. Being where you’re wanted. I think it was a great opportunity to come back here.”
Eckert’s first NSU team went 0-11, then Covid wiped out the 2020 season. The RiverHawks got in three spring scrimmages, plus a 38-0 loss at Division I-AA Tarleton State.
So this is a rebuilding job of the highest order.
Eckert called it a “daunting task” but said, “It’s an honor to be back at Tahlequah, an honor to be back at NSU.”
Eckert has been a successful coach. In 14 junior-college seasons as a head coach, two at Garden City (Kansas) and 12 at Kilgore (Texas), Eckert’s teams went a combined 85-61.
“Obviously, we are trying to do some things to change the culture, change the expectations,” Eckert said. “I think we’re better. The big thing still is all the little things it takes to be a winning program.”
Eckert is rebuilding around his captains: offensive tackle Madison Wrather of Yukon; wide receiver Mark Wheeland of Haskell, who had 34 catches for 520 yards in 2019; defensive end Damani Carter, a transfer from Arkansas; and cornerback Bryce Brown, a transfer from OSU.
Quarterback Jacob Medrano of Muskogee made seven starts in 2019 for the RiverHawks and completed 55.7% of his passes, for 1,027 yards.
“Obviously, we’ve gotta make sure we’re better on the offensive lines and defensive lines,” Eckert said. “It’s a physical league. Very competitive, tough conference. Gotta make sure you pack your lunch every week.”
Sept. 4: Emporia State Sept. 11: at Missouri Southern Sept. 18: Pittsburg State Sept. 25: at Lincoln
Oct. 2: Central Missouri Oct. 7: Central Oklahoma Oct. 16: at Missouri Western Oct. 23: Northwest Missouri Oct. 30: at Washburn Nov. 6: Fort Hays State Nov. 13: at Nebraska-Kearney