As hard as is it is for some to fathom — University of Puget Sound football is relevant again.
Not long ago, the Loggers lost 20 consecutive games. They were nothing more than a doormat for other Northwest Conference contenders to stomp their cleats on.
But in coach Jeff Thomas’ sixth season, UPS is on the verge of its first winning season since 2006. The Loggers host crosstown rival Pacific Lutheran University on Saturday at Baker Stadium.
Even more mind-blowing, the Loggers are decided favorites over the Lutes in search of the first rivalry victory since 2005. PLU has beaten UPS in 28 of the past 30 meetings.
If UPS (4-2) gets by the Lutes on Saturday, then things get pretty serious. The Loggers, and their 24 seniors on the roster, will go into November with a legitimate chance to contend for the NWC title with games remaining against Pacific and Linfield.
“He has been very committed,” UPS athletic director Amy Hackett said. “He has interesting strategies for recruiting. He’s been very aggressive in recruiting, and aggressive with the style of play he has. And he has stabilized his staff, and I think that has helped quite a bit.”
Progress is obvious. Thomas knows the program is on much firmer ground than it did when he was hired away as an assistant coach at Redlands (Calif.) University in 2010.
“Over the last two years, our ability to complete play-in and play-out with everyone other than Linfield has been a stepping stone. No longer are we being driven off the ball 10 yards at the line of scrimmage. We are staying in games late,” Thomas said.
When it comes to building a successful program, Thomas likes to borrow a line of the late, great Paul “Bear” Bryant, who had just one losing season in 38 years at Alabama.
“He looked at it as you first lose big. Then you lose small,” Thomas said. “And then you win small. And you finally win big. It is very true.”
There are very few people in the world whom Thomas trusts more than UPS athletic trainer Craig Bennett. The two were friends at Redlands.
When it came to choosing to become a head coach for the first time and taking the UPS job, Thomas consulted with Bennett, who said it was very possible for the Loggers to become a winning football program.
“He said the infrastructure was in place for it to be successful,” Thomas said, “but that it would take some work.”
It took more work than anybody could have foreseen.
By the end of Thomas’ second season, player numbers became dangerously low.
Half of former coach Phil Willenbrock’s last recruiting class of 2009 had departed. Because Thomas was hired late in 2010, the Loggers only brought in 15 recruits that year. And by the end of 2011, half of Thomas’ first full recruiting class also left the team.
Then the lopsided losses began piling up.
“The losing did not impact me,” Thomas said. “But I was worried that it would, that it would change me and make super aggressive and yell at the guys, or that I would just give up and not care.”
Strangely enough, Thomas began taking solace in the small victories. Many of them came from his seniors in 2012 who won just two games their entire careers.
When those seniors left, many stayed connected to the program. Often, Thomas hears from them, reassuring him that their experience in the rebuilding effort was worth every minute.
“Jeff is an incredibly hard-working person,” said former quarterback Duncan White, who set the school’s single-season passing mark with 2,722 yards in 2010. “There are people who say they are competitive, or talk about it. He is so competitive right through his core with everything he does. It is contagious.”
Jeff Halstead, a former all-conference wide receiver for UPS, served as Thomas’ offensive coordinator for the first five seasons. He is now the full-time baseball coach.
“He is one of the most stubborn people I’ve met — in a good way,” Halstead said. “Once he has his mind set to something, he is going to work as long as humanly possible to make it happen.
“Yes, this all took a little longer than we all thought it would. But it was going to happen. He makes you believe it.”
UPS ended the losing streak in 2013 with a victory at Whittier. When the team returned to campus around midnight, there were hundreds of students waiting in the parking lot to greet it.
“We didn’t win the rest of the year,” Thomas said. “But the players understood we were getting better. And they knew the community wanted football to be good here.”
Last season, UPS won at Willamette in the season finale to finish 4-5. That result didn’t sway conference coaches too much — before this season they picked the Loggers to finish in last place in their annual poll.
Since Thomas’ arrival, the team has set the same three goals every season: No. 1 was to win the first game. No. 2 was to have a winning season. And No. 3 was becoming a conference championship contender.
“Saturday is a huge deal for us,” Thomas said. “And it has nothing to do with it being homecoming, or playing our cross-town rival. It is because we have the opportunity to take another step forward.”
Todd Milles: 253-597-8442
SATURDAY: PLU (1-5, 1-3 NWC) at UPS (4-2, 3-1), 1 p.m., Baker Stadium