UNC assistant coach draws on experience as national champ as his 1996 team celebrates 20-year reunion
By Anne Cumming Rice
A few months after graduating from UNC and coaching high school football in the Denver
area, Keith Grable (’99) called his former UNC football coaches and asked them if
he could be a volunteer coach.
In part, he wanted to return to pursue a graduate degree. But a bigger part of it was that he felt he had to get back to UNC, where his experience on the football team changed his life.
Grable was a wide receiver on the 1996 and 1997 Division II National Championship teams, which celebrated their 20-year reunion in September at the UNC home opener against Rocky Mountain College. From 1996 to 1999, Grable had 119 career receptions, 1,965 receiving yards and 26 touchdowns.
“Looking back on those championship teams, what I remember most is the people,” Grable says. “We were a close team. Everyone just did their jobs with one common purpose — to be the best they could be.”
The lessons Grable learned then have guided him as an assistant coach at UNC for the past 16 years. Currently the wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator, Grable was
part of the transition UNC made from Division II to FCS (Division I-AA) in 2003.
“It was a tough transition,” Grable says. “But we just kept plugging away, and we made it.”
Persistence was also part of what made the 1996 and 1997 teams successful. The first three playoff wins in 1996 came by a total of five points, all in the final seconds of the game. In 1997, the Bears won each of their four playoff games away from Nottingham Field.
Grable looks back on those championship seasons and sees the same opportunity in the future for the UNC football team, which finished 6-5 in 2015 as a member of the Big Sky Conference. It was UNC’s first winning season in 12 years, and Grable says last year’s winning season was a sign of good times to come.
“It means a lot to not only myself, but the entire school and all the former Bears out there,” he says. “Coach Collins and our staff are doing great things, not only on the field, but off the field in developing these young men into great people. All the hard work is going to pay off.”
Earnest Collins Jr. (’96), played for the Bears from 1991 to 1994 and became the team’s head coach in 2010.
Grable says he has a good feeling about this year’s team, which was 6-4 at press time.
“The way I felt about our team (in 1996) is how I feel about it now,” he says. “Our players are leaders.”
As a coach hoping for a run at a conference championship, Grable draws from his experience during those national championship seasons.
“I think about those years a lot and all the people involved,” Grable says. “Do things right, treat people right and great things will happen. We had the support and belief from everyone involved, and that’s what it takes.”