Fort Lewis College announced the resignation of head football coach Ed Rifilato on Friday morning. Rifilato will remain on the staff as a linebackers coach, and defensive coordinator Joe Morris will serve as interim head coach for the 2017 season.
In a news release, Rifilato cited health concerns as the reason for stepping down. The upcoming season will be Rifilato’s 12th in the program, and he served as head coach during a 4-7 season in 2016 after John L. Smith left for Kentucky State after the 2015 campaign.
“It is time for me to begin the process of taking better care of myself,” Rifilato said in the news release. “I love Fort Lewis College, and I would like to thank President Dene Thomas and Director of Athletics Gary Hunter for allowing me to stay on staff and coach linebackers in the fall.”
Hunter said Rifilato does not have serious health problems but thinks he needs to slow down and hand over more administrative responsibilities to the new head coach.
Morris is an FLC alum who played linebacker for the Skyhawks from 2002-05. After graduating in 2005, Morris joined the FLC coaching staff as a defensive line coach. He was promoted to defensive coordinator in 2007 and stayed on until 2009. He served as head coach of New Mexico Highlands in 2010 before joining the coaching staff at Colorado State University as an assistant defensive line coach. He returned to FLC in 2013 when Smith gave him an opportunity to join the staff as the defensive line coach once more. He returned to his role as the defensive coordinator when Rifilato took over as head coach after the 2015 season.
Morris’ wife, Kelsey, also is an FLC alumna, and she works in Durango at Coldwell Banker.
“We are as excited as we possibly could be,” Morris said in an interview with The Durango Herald. “We’ve been members of this community for a long time. We love it to death here, and we’re looking forward to continuing to be part of this community for a long time.”
Morris has a strong relationship with the players, as he recruited many of them to Durango. He is from Lafayette and has spent the majority of his life in Colorado and plans on recruiting heavily in his home state.
“I will work day and night at getting guys here,” he said. “I will do whatever we can to recruit as many Colorado players as we can. We play D2 football. We may not have the nicest stuff in America, but we have a great institution, coaching staff, community and faculty up here at FLC. It’s the most beautiful area you could live in. If we work hard enough, we will build interest in our program.”
Hunter, who will leave his post as athletic director Sept. 1, said Morris has learned from great coaches and is ready to lead his alma mater.
Hunter said Morris began preparation to be the head coach during spring practices.
“We are very excited about Joe’s maturity and commitment,” Hunter said in a phone interview with The Durango Herald. “He is a comer, and he will be a star in the RMAC in the next few years. I predict a very good season under him.”
Morris joins a long list of FLC alumni promoted to be head coach along with golf coach Guy Begay, track and cross country coach Joshua Coon, women’s soccer coach Jimmy Hall, men’s soccer coach David Oberholtzer and men’s basketball coach Bob Pietrack.
“In Division II in general and FLC in particular, it helps if you understand the culture and understand that community challenges and positives,” Hunter said. “We have a wonderful school, town and location, but it’s also in the boondocks in the some peoples’ minds. When a coach knows our campus and culture, it’s helpful. Look at Pietrack as an alumni coach, he’s been great.”
Rifilato’s resignation ended his second stint as head coach of the Skyhawks. He joined the staff in 2002 as the team’s defensive coordinator and was head coach from 2004-09. The team went 26-48 under Rifilato’s leadership, including an 18-32 mark in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference. Rifilato also previously spent time as head coach of New Mexico Highlands. He also spent time on Smith’s staff at Louisville and was the defensive coordinator at the University of Idaho from 2000-01. Rifilato played at Idaho under Smith and was named the team’s Defensive Player of the Year during the 1983-84 season.
He rejoined the FLC coaching staff in 2012 as Smith’s defensive coordinator. Rifilato’s wife, Kelley, is the head volleyball coach at FLC.
“We can’t thank Ed enough for his commitment and contributions to FLC and the football program,” Hunter said. “Our improvement in the classroom and on the field has earned the respect of his student-athletes and his peers in the RMAC. We are delighted he has decided to stay on staff.”
Morris will be the team’s third head coach in the last three years as the program looks to build an identity in the RMAC. The Skyhawks went 7-4 in 2015 under Smith. It was the team’s first winning season since 2006, when Rifilato led the team to a 7-4 record. FLC took a step back in 2016 but lost four games by seven points or less. Behind the play of junior quarterback Bo Coleman, senior running back PJ Hall and a potent defense that ranked third in scoring defense and second in total defense in the RMAC a year ago, the Skyhawks have high hopes for 2017.
“We return some really good players on the defensive side of the football,” Morris said. “We also have really good players offensively with Bo coming back, and we’re excited about our young quarterback behind Bo in Jake Lowry, too. We’ve got really good players coming down the road, and we will absolutely be compete in the RMAC.”
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