Sitting in his office in the North End Zone Facility with a view overlooking the football field in Fred G. Hughes Stadium, Coach Atiba Bradley takes a moment to reflect on how much has changed since his days playing football here in the early 2000s.

“I want our guys to know it wasn’t always like this,” he says. “They didn’t have this nice North End Zone complex. I remember as a player having to walk across the street on game days, and walking across the street every day for practice. We didn’t think about it, we just did it.

“I tell them not to take it for granted … appreciate it.”

That sense of gratitude and appreciation is heartfelt as Bradley speaks of his homecoming this year – returning to Missouri Southern as the university’s 14th head football coach, and the first MSSU graduate to lead the program.

As you’ve settled in to your first head coach position, what does it mean to you that it’s here, where you got your start?

It’s important to me just from the standpoint that I can make an impact where I was impacted. I had a lot of really positive experiences here. Obviously, I didn’t know the exact route or how I was going to get here, but (as a player) I knew that I wanted to be a head coach someday. More importantly, I wanted to see Missouri Southern win. All those things have come together, and it was an opportunity to knock out two goals on my bucket list.

Since your days playing for Missouri Southern (2002-05), you served as a graduate assistant here and at the University of Missouri, defensive coordinator at NCAA Division II Quincy University (Illinois) and most recently as defensive coordinator for Division II McKendree University in Lebanon, Ill. How did these experiences prepare you for your first head coaching position?

Like any other profession or task, you learn a little bit through trial by fire. I was able to be a coordinator at 28 years old. Was I ready? No, but I started learning immediately different ways of handling a staff. I learned a lot about the game, building a program and interacting with different players. I was able to learn at every stop.

You’re building out your coaching staff and getting to know your players. How is that going?

It’s a process. The players are learning about us as a new staff, and as a new staff we’re learning about the players. Honestly, everything up to right now has been a first. We just had our first padded practice. August will be the first time we go through a fall camp together. We’re just trying to get through all these firsts.

Right now, the team is super excited and working hard. These guys wouldn’t be here if they couldn’t play (at this level). There’s a ton of potential out there.

Do you have a message for fans excited about the upcoming season, and what’s your long-term vision for the program?

We always talk about the dynamic of the chicken or the egg – which one came first? If we put a winning team on the field, we’re going to have the stands packed. It’s more fun to play in front of a full stadium. I would tell fans to come out and support us. Give us some time, and we’re going to give you a product you can be proud of.

Honestly, the biggest thing we look at (long term) … and I know it sounds cliché, but it’s getting better every day. Getting better every season. My No. 1 goal as a football coach at a public institution is to graduate student-athletes. As long as we’re improving every year in every aspect of our program, the wins will come.