When the 2019 Kentucky Wesleyan College football season opens, the Panthers will have a new leader on the sidelines. Coach Craig Yeast, who rose to fame in the Commonwealth as a star receiver for UK in the mid-90s, is the newly-introduced leader of the program. Yeast, who replaces interim head coach Taurean Smith (3-7), believes he can create a championship-caliber program at Wesleyan. “There is tremendous opportunity to build an excellent football program at Kentucky Wesleyan,” Yeast said in a press release announcing his hire. As a former NCAA Division I and professional football player, as well as a coaching veteran of 10 years, Yeast brings to Owensboro a wealth of knowledge and experience.
After graduating from Harrodsburg High School in 1995, Yeast enrolled at the University of Kentucky. Yeast’s college football career began under Head Coach Bill Curry. Curry’s tenure ended at UK in 1996, however, when he was replaced by Hal Mumme. Mumme, a relatively young and unknown coach in ‘96, brought with him to Lexington his offensive coordinator from his time at Division II Valdosta State, Coach Mike Leach. Coaches Mumme and Leach ushered in the “Air-Raid” era at Kentucky, an innovative style of offense that broke with Southeastern Conference tradition, and one in which Yeast flourished. “I came from a run-heavy system at Harrodsburg and in my first two years at UK with Coach Curry. Coach Mumme and Coach Leach opened my eyes and the eyes of everyone in the country to what throwing the ball effectively looked like, and did it in the SEC,” says Yeast of his introduction to Leach’s “spread” offensive style. At the conclusion of the 1998 season, Yeast was the all-time leader in career receptions in the SEC, a consensus All-Conference Selection, and was named a College Football News All-American.
Yeast was drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals in the 4th round of the 1999 NFL Draft. Yeast’s pro football career spanned nine seasons. His most productive professional seasons came during a 5-year stint with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League. In 2004, while with the Tiger-Cats, he hauled in 59 catches for 1,184 yards and 8 touchdowns. In 2008, following a brief stint with the Saskatchewan Roughriders, Yeast retired from pro football.
When Yeast returned home to Danville in 2008, he went to work completing his undergraduate degree at nearby Midway College, while running camps for local high school football players. It was at one of those camps that Yeast was offered his first coaching opportunity. “Coach Mike Settles of Lincoln County High School was at one of my camps. He approached me at the end of a session and offered me an opportunity to join his staff at Lincoln County,” says Yeast of his chance meeting with Settles. Yeast accepted Settles’ offer and began his coaching career that fall. He has quickly made his way through the coaching ranks since that season.
Coach Yeast comes to Wesleyan from Division III Franklin College (Franklin, IN), where he spent the last three seasons as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. In his time in Franklin, Yeast’s offensive units were among the most prolific in the country. In 2017, his offense finished 5th in Division III in total offense, and no Yeast-led Franklin offense ever finished outside the Top 25 in total offense. “I believe that in order to be successful, an offense must be a balanced attack,” says Coach Yeast of his offensive philosophy. Prior to his time at Franklin, Yeast was wide receivers coach at Division II Tiffin University in Ohio. While coaching at Tiffin, he also received a Master’s Degree in Education from the university. Yeast’s time at Tiffin was bookended by two stints as a high school head coach: one at Bryan Station High School in Lexington, and one at Freemont-Ross High in Ohio. “I’ve had the opportunity to work with really talented coaches at every level, and I have taken a little bit from each experience along the way. I feel that I am very well-prepared for this opportunity,” says Yeast of his first foray into college-level head coaching.
Although Yeast’s career has afforded him the opportunity to travel across two countries and work with countless individuals, the one constant throughout the last two decades has been the love and support of his wife, Tori, and their children, Russ and Kiyah. Back in 1995, when Yeast was making a name for himself as a football star at Harrodsburg, Tori was excelling as a standout basketball player and track athlete at nearby Danville High School. “I’ve known her since my uncles were playing softball with her dad, back when we were kids. We’d all be running around the ball fields, I was faster than all the boys and she was faster than all the girls.”
Craig and Tori will celebrate their 20th anniversary later this year. Throughout his career as a professional athlete and as a coach, Tori has been his most important supporter. “Being a coach’s wife is hard. I’ll come home and tell her I’ve taken another job in another state, and she’ll say, ok, let’s get ready to move.” Yeast is quick to attribute his success to Tori’s support. “She’s my rock,” the coach says of his wife’s consummate help.
Yeast’s son, Russ, 19, is a sophomore defensive back for the University of Louisville. On coaching his son in high school, Yeast says “Coaching Russ taught me as much as anything else in my coaching experience. I had to learn how to adapt and learned that what worked for one young man might not work for everyone. It has really shaped how I coach and interact with young men.” Their daughter, Kiyah, 16, is a junior track standout at Center Grove High School in Greenwood, Indiana. “Last year, as a sophomore, she finished 4th in The State of Indiana in the 100 meter. This year she is starting to be recruited heavily,” says Coach Yeast of Kiyah’s track career. Yeast specified that his daughter would be remaining at Center Grove for the remainder of high school. “When our children were young, Tori and I decided that no matter where coaching moved us, our kids were going to graduate from the same high school. Russ graduated from Center Grove, and so will Kiyah.”
Yeast plans to build a championship caliber program at Kentucky Wesleyan. He emphasizes, though, that his biggest priority is not wins and losses on the field. “We will be men of our word, we will be accountable to one another, we will be enthusiastic to attack each day with an attitude of gratitude. We will aspire to develop leaders that do what is right on campus and in the community.”