WEST LONG BRANCH, N.J. — Monmouth's Kevin Callahan is the only head coach the football program has ever known and he's coached the likes of Miles Austin and Chris Hogan, who both made their marks as wide receivers in the NFL.
Callahan has guided the Hawks to an NCAA Division I FCS playoff appearance and helped the program transition from a nonscholarship to one that is nearing the FCS limit of 63 scholarships.
Last weekend, Callahan and the Hawks scored one of the bigger victories in program history with a 45-21 road victory against then No. 4-ranked Kennesaw State, which has won the previous two Big South Conference championships. The Owls were the highest-ranked team the Hawks have ever defeated.
"That's certainly up there," said Callahan, who began coaching the Hawks in 1993 and is in his 27th season. "Winning that one is going to have positive dividends for us down the line.”
No. 19-ranked Monmouth (7-2, 4-0 Big South) joined the Big South Conference in 2014. That is the highest national ranking in program history. The Hawks were in the Northeast Conference from 1996 to 2012 and an independent in 2013 as they transitioned to the Big South. Callahan said the program had about 34 scholarships in 2013 as it moved into a new football conference.
"Joining the Big South has allowed us to go all in in terms of scholarships," Callahan said.
Senior quarterback Kenji Bahar played a key role in Monmouth's victory against Kennesaw State last Saturday, completing 20 of 27 passes for 332 yards and a touchdown in a game played at Fifth Third Bank Stadium in Kennesaw, Ga. The 6-foot-3, 190-pound Bahar also rushed for 92 yards and a touchdown on six attempts.
“It was a big win," said Bahar, in his third season a the full-time starter. “You could tell the energy on the sidelines it was a different energy. We were just clicking on all sides of the ball.”
Monmouth earned its first victory against Kennesaw State, which won the first four games in the series.
"Personally, I think it was one of my biggest wins," Bahar said. "Especially since they are defending conference champs."
The victory put the Hawks in position to win their first Big South Conference title with three games to play in the regular season. Monmouth has North Alabama, Campbell and Hampton on the schedule.
Campbell is tied for second place with Kennesaw State in the Big South standings with 3-1 league marks, one game behind Monmouth.
“It’s a big step," Callahan said of the road win at Kennesaw State. “But it’s still one of several steps that we have to take.”
Monmouth's lone FCS playoff appearance came in 2017 when Northern Iowa cruised to a 46-17 victory in a first-round game. Bahar, then a sophomore, started that game in Cedar Falls, Iowa, and completed 15 of 28 passes for 141 yards and a touchdown with four interceptions.
“You get a taste of what it’s like to play against the best teams in the country," Bahar said.
Monmouth has won five consecutive games after losing two of its first four games. The Hawks started the season with a 48-13 loss at Western Michigan, an FBS opponent. Monmouth's other loss was a 47-27 setback at Montana, which is ranked No. 6 in the latest STATS FCS poll.
Callahan said playing an FBS opponent and at Washington-Grizzly Stadium in Missoula, Mont., were important games for his program. There were more than 23,000 fans at Montana, a game in which Monmouth trailed 21-14 at halftime.
“Playing in that environment (at Western Michigan) was a good thing for our program. Just like playing out at Montana was a good thing for us," Callahan said. “I think you gain something from those experiences. I think those experiences indirectly helped us Saturday down at Kennesaw.”
Monmouth junior running back Pete Guerriero has rushed for 1,099 yards and nine touchdowns on 190 attempts through nine games. He is on the watch list for the Walter Payton Award, which goes to the best player in FCS. Bahar has completed 194 of 298 passes for 2,374 yards and 17 touchdowns with six interceptions this season.
“We’re maturing as a team," Callahan said. "Even though we have some new players at new positions, I think this team is coming together.”
Monmouth hosts North Alabama at noon (EST) Saturday, Nov. 9, at Kessler Stadium, which underwent a significant renovation prior to the 2017 season. The seating capacity expanded to more than 4,200 seats.
"We have a great home atmosphere here," Callahan said.
“It’s just having fun out there, just competing," Bahar said. "That big win against Kennesaw has given us some momentum.”
Monmouth is a private university located along New Jersey's northern coastline, about an hour south of New York City and an hour east of Philadelphia. The school's enrollment is about 6,300.
While Callahan said the team is focused on North Alabama, the next step for the program would be to earn another playoff berth and get its first FCS playoff victory.
“I think it would be very important. It would be huge," Callahan said. “To win in the playoffs and actually be in the hunt for a national championship is significant.”