When Bob Chesney was hired as the head football coach at Holy Cross in December of 2017, the first-time Division 1 boss offered an honest assessment of the program at the time, labeling Holy Cross as an “average” program that lacked passion and a love for the game.
Chesney promised during his introductory press conference that he would turn the Crusader program around in baby steps, envisioning a rise from average, to great, to elite over the course of his tenure.
Almost four years to the date, Holy Cross is in uncharted territory and Chesney finds his initial remarks to have had a pretty prescient ring to them. Last Saturday, the Crusaders earned the program’s first ever FCS playoff win, a 13-10 triumph over Sacred Heart, on a game-winning 35-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Matthew Sluka to Jalen Coker with 14 seconds remaining.
The win propelled Holy Cross to a Round of 16 matchup at fifth-seeded Villanova Friday at 7 p.m. with a berth in the FCS quarterfinals on the line.
“It definitely wasn’t easy from Day One when we stood there and said we want to be good, eventually great, and then someday we want to be elite,” said Chesney, who arrived at Holy Cross from Assumption College after posting a 67-25 record.
“We talked about how we were going to do it and it’s pretty neat to see where we’re actually at.”
Junior linebacker Jacob Dobbs said early in Chesney’s tenure, the 44-year old coach told his players he simply wanted everyone to enjoy playing football again. Prior to Chesney’s arrival, Holy Cross had just one winning season from 2012-2017 and some players looked forward to the season coming to an end.
Chesney set a new tone from the outset, building a program that relies on brotherhood, trust, and stability.
“I think it’s a program where everyone loves being around each other,” said Dobbs, the Patriot League Defensive Player of the Year. “Coach told us when he got here guys just weren’t excited to be playing football. Once he got here he’s brought everyone’s love for football back.”
Chesney knew it wasn’t going to be easy as the Crusaders went through early trials and tribulations. Holy Cross started 1-6 in Chesney’s first season in 2018, but rallied to win the final four games of the regular season and finish 5-6.
In 2019, they shook off a tough nonconference slate to win the Patriot League at 5-1 and advance to the FCS Playoffs. Then COVID-19 happened and the Crusaders played just four games last spring, going 3-1 with a loss to South Dakota State in the first round of the FCS Playoffs.
With a full fall-camp in store this season, Holy Cross had high expectations and followed through with a 9-2 regular-season record capped by a third straight Patriot League title. It was a sign the program was turning the corner to greatness, as Chesney had projected.
“We knew the target we had on our back, but we turned it into ‘Let’s go hunting’ [because] we have a lot to prove,” Dobbs said.
Winning in the postseason was the next step for Holy Cross and Saturday’s win over Sacred Heart, the first home playoff game in 38 years, was a monumental step. It gave the Crusaders’ the elusive first FCS playoff win in program history and also cemented the first 10-win season since 1991.
“This is a program steeped in tradition and to think that we’ve accomplished a few firsts in the short period of time we’ve been here is pretty exciting,” said Chesney. “Winning the first playoff game, there’s some gravity and weight to that. It was a big moment for our program, us as coaches, and for the guys on the team.”
Dobbs hopes the victory showed Holy Cross can compete at the national level.
“We wanted to make a statement that we weren’t just a team that could win the Patriot League but can compete on the national stage,” said Dobbs.
Next up for Holy Cross is a showdown against Colonial Athletic Association champion Villanova. The Wildcats finished 9-2. One of Villanova’s losses was to Penn State, and one of its marquee victories was over FCS power James Madison.
Villanova relies on a potent offense that averages over 31 points per game and is loaded with high-impact skill position players. But the Crusaders believe the strength of their team is defense, which led the Patriot League in sacks, interceptions, and points allowed.
With the first postseason win in program history in the books, Holy Cross is ready to play spoiler.
“Right now there’s just nothing to lose,” said Chesney. “We’re going to go in there and just swing as hard as we can, play as hard as we can, and do it together.”