Gus Ragland has Miami (Ohio) on brink of history

Chuck Martin had just inherited a winless team at Miami of Ohio, in December 2013. He had, by his expressive measure, “10,000 things to do.” He sat in his office on Night 1 wondering how he would even begin to attack the task at hand the next day. The dead period loomed.

“So my boss is like: ‘What are you going to do? You’ve got to hire 10 guys, the semester is ending, you’ve got to meet with your players,’” Martin recalled. “I said, 'I’m going recruiting.'

“He said, ‘Why are you doing that?’ I said, 'My whole life in coaching, whenever I didn’t know what I should do, I just recruited.'”

Martin drove 40 miles south to Cincinnati. Somebody had to be left there who could change the RedHawks, he reasoned. Just one. He met with a number of rival prep coaches about uncommitted players, and the same name kept coming up each time: Gus Ragland of Moeller High.

Three years later, and Ragland has been the catalyst for a push toward college football history: If Miami beats Ball State on Tuesday, the RedHawks will become the first team to finish a regular season 6-6 after an 0-6 start.

“I said I feel like we’re that young golfer that everyone knows has talent to win and on Thursday, Friday, Saturday we keep putting ourselves in position to win and then on Sunday we keep shooting an 82, because it’s just hard to play golf on Sunday when you don’t have titles,” Martin said of his team’s early struggles. “No one wants to hear that analogy because we’re 0-6 and our fans are miserable, but I’m telling you that’s who we are — we are capable of doing it right now, not next year, not the year after.”

A tight win over Kent State here, a convincing romp of Bowling Green there and down came the dominoes.

“Now we’re the young golfer that has a win, and now we play on Sunday like we’re not scared to lose,” Martin said.

The turnaround started with Ragland, who suffered a spring ACL tear in his right knee but recovered in time to start Oct. 15 against Kent State. He engineered an 11-point second-half comeback, capped by a game-winning 55-yard touchdown pass with less than two minutes remaining.

The redshirt sophomore has completed 58.8 percent of his passes for 894 yards with 12 touchdowns and as many interceptions (zero) as he has losses (zero), in addition to being a reliable threat with his legs (182 rushing yards, 2 TDs).

“In every sport you’re looking for the guy that makes those around him better,” Martin said. “Everybody talks about the Michael Jordans, and that’s Gus. His confidence breeds [success] through the whole team. ... His belief is that things are going to go right all the time. He’s that kid, and they’re hard to find.”

To know Martin is to know how little he has changed through a season that has featured peaks and valleys like this one. The affable 48-year-old suburban Chicago native reportedly took a $200,000 pay cut from his post as Notre Dame’s offensive coordinator in 2013 to lead a Miami program that was coming off an 0-12 season.

Predictable campaigns of 2-10 and 3-9 followed. But when the calendar turned to Year 3 and six straight losses piled up, outside concern grew.

Martin had won two national titles at Division II Grand Valley State. He had reached the BCS title game in his first year as the Irish’s coordinator. He knew what he signed up for, and he’ll be the first to note that he’s no smarter today than he was after a 22-point loss at Akron last month, Miami’s last defeat.

“The best thing we did is we stayed the course,” Martin said. “The Thursday before Kent State, we’re 0-6, a lot of people think we shouldn’t have jobs anymore, and I’ve got 60 coaches and players go to a walk down in Cincinnati for a kid that we adopted that’s got leukemia [6-year-old Liam Kaufman].

“That’s the proudest moment of the year. We weren’t going to change who we are because we’re 0-6, which is hard to do. Trust me, I lived it for 2 1/2 years. It’s easier said than done. We said we’re going stick with our beliefs, we’re going to stick with doing things the right way.”

Enter Ragland, a 6-foot-1, 211-pounder who won a state title and was state co-player of the year in 2013. But he had garnered little FBS interest before Martin offered, telling Ragland he wanted him to be the program’s first commitment.

Ragland redshirted in 2014 and split time as a quarterback and running back last season before eyeing the starting quarterback job this season. The spring knee tear seemingly ended that pursuit, but an upper-body injury to Billy Bahl left freshman Noah Wezensky as the lone available QB for the Akron game. Ragland, who had eyed an October return, made it back the following week, and the tenor around Oxford, Ohio, has changed ever since, with a bowl bid on the line this week against the visiting Cardinals.

“When he says something there’s a sense of meaning and sincerity in his voice,” Ragland said of Martin. “He said it for a long time: ‘This team’s good, and we’ve just got to believe it.’ We just kept working. It wasn’t easy. Obviously it was pretty crappy sometimes, but just coming to work every day [with] a lot of dudes on the team willing to get better.

"You talk about a resilient group of kids and obviously a group of kids you want in your foxhole, I’d take any one of them.”