Trine's from-the-ground-up strategy pays off

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Quarterback Eric Watt is also Trine's leading rusher, with 54.7 yards per game.
Trine athletics photo

By Keith McMillan

The foundation for Trine's attention-grabbing upset of then-No. 14 Franklin had been laid long before Saturday's kickoff.

Before the week of practice leading up to the clash with the Grizzlies. Before preseason camp. Even before coach Matt Land's team went 5-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less to finish 6-4 last season.

It was laid at every restaurant and Rotary club near Angola, Ind., and in every high school within a 2½-hour radius.

Land and his staff were hired before the 2006 season, after the program had two wins in its first two seasons following a move to Division III from the NAIA.

"I can remember back in my first practice in the spring when we had 29 kids," Land said as his team prepared for its MIAA opener against Hope this weekend. "We've done it the right way. There's an easy way to do things, and there's a right way. We have a plan and we stuck to it."

The plan didn't include any quick fixes after an 0-10 season in 2005. At a university then known as Tri-State, the program had hit rock bottom after its revival in 1995. Playing for the first time since the early 1900s, the Thunder were the NAIA's third-ranked team in 1998 and appeared in four playoff games through 2003.

With hardly enough players to field a team and with crowds of about 700-800, Land and staff dug in with a motto and a program-building philosophy.

Players, Land said, should live by one rule, whether on the field, in the classroom or in the community: "Do everything right all the time."

Growing the program, he figured, would take more than a few coaches and a handful of dedicated kids.

"Basically my philosophy is 'it takes a village to build a football program,' " Land said.

That meant everyone from administration to alumni to those beyond campus limits had to be involved, and it was on the coaching staff to create that interest."It was on [us] to go out and make it happen," Land said. "We ate lunch at a different restaurant every day for a year and a half, with our team gear on. We weren't just there eating, we were talking to people. We went into classes, we went to the local Rotary club."

With each person they talked to about Thunder football, they figured the message would be passed on to others.
"It's an Amway effect," Land said. "Like a pyramid scheme."

If anyone with a blue-and-white shirt was to extol the virtues of the program, there had to be a virtuous bunch worth talking about to back that up. So Land's staff set out to recruit "the right type" of student-athlete, and instilled his basic philosophy.

"It's pretty simple," he said. "We're going to try to work harder than everybody in the nation, period."

A believer that there's "no magic potion" for fixing a program and that lucky breaks are made, Land had an on-field theory too.

"My philosophy has been take care of the defense first," he said, "so you're not getting your [butts] blown out by 40."

In the transition year, Land said, the idea is to keep the games interesting, so fans aren't leaving at halftime. And the best way to do that was by putting his most talented players on the defensive side of the ball.

This season, Land says the biggest change, now that 172 players started camp, including 20 returning starters and 13 seniors, is that the offense has finally caught up.

"We've got more athletes on offense," Land said. "We're scoring 37 points a game and giving up 18. When I got here, they gave up 48 and scored 10."

Some teams have found out about Trine's improved offense the hard way, but against Franklin, the Thunder scored off of four turnovers, never having to drive more than 39 yards for a score. Freshman Aaron Shoemaker set up the winning score with an interception with 8:40 to go in the fourth quarter, and Mario Brown scored on a 4-yard run with 7:27 left.

Now 3-0 with wins in its past five games dating from last season, the players are starting to see the results of the plan they bought into.

"You can talk and talk and talk and say all the right things, and the kids can say it back," Land said, "but you know as well as I do that winning [validates] everything."

Saturday's opponent is Hope, 0-4 but also the last team to beat Trine, 45-35 on Oct. 27. Like all of Trine's losses last season, it came on the road. Hope is also the last Thunder opponent to win at Shive Field, 21-7 on Oct. 28, 2006.

"It's kind of a trap game," Land said, acknowledging that Hope's losses have come against three CCIW teams and another from the WIAC who are a combined 11-1, including No. 6 Wheaton and No. 9 UW-Eau Claire.

Plus, Land notes, whether Tri-State or Trine, he's never beaten Hope.

After spending time canvassing high schools in Indiana, Michigan and Ohio spreading the Tri-State name, the switch to Trine was a welcome one, Land said. Beyond a 50-mile radius, very few people were familiar with the college, which could easily be confused with one of the 17 TSUs in the country or the 36 places known as tri-state areas. Having ‘state' in the name was also misleading for a small, private school.

"It was a marketing problem, a branding problem," Land said.

The new brand of football his Thunder play has caught on. Those crowds of 800? Trine drew 3,468 for its opener against Manchester and 4,379 on homecoming day against Franklin.

Land isn't sure his team is there yet – he says the six MIAA games will determine that, and reminds his team that football has a way of humbling you as soon as you start feeling good.

Maybe it's not in a coach's nature to stop and appreciate anything midseason, not even a "do it the right way" plan in full swing.

"Everything we did there was a reason behind it," Land said. "We stuck to it."

Re-ranking the conferences

It's Kickoff tradition for editor Pat Coleman and I to take last season's non-conference and playoff performances, mix them with a dash of ‘quality of play,' and ‘historical performance' and come out with a fresh set of conference rankings.

Four weeks into this season, with non-conference games mostly given way to league play, Around the Nation takes the update one step further, with a look at the spots where teams have improved … or just moved.

Kickoff '08 ranking: 1st of 27
Non-conference record so far: 14-7
Verdict: Still at the top of the heap, given the depth (La Crosse and River Falls have accounted for five of the seven non-conference losses) and caliber of play and players. Whatever Northwestern (Minn.)'s win over River Falls took away in respect, UW-Whitewater and UW-Oshkosh's wins over top 10 NAIA programs St. Xavier and Ohio Dominican restored.

Kickoff '08 ranking: 2nd
Non-conference record so far: 7-3
Verdict: Heidelberg, Otterbein adding weight to OAC's usually tough top half, but conference still can't match the WIAC's strength from top to bottom.

Kickoff '08 ranking: 3rd
Non-conference record so far: 8-8
Verdict: Hardin-Simmons' early resurgence keeps ASC up high, though Mississippi College's loss to Millsaps was a bad one.

Kickoff '08 ranking: 5th
Non-conference record so far: 19-5
Verdict: Wheaton, North Central, Elmhurst and Illinois Wesleyan are a combined 12-0 and only 1-2 North Park has a losing record. The Thunder beat Bethel and the Cardinals beat Ohio Northern in the most significant non-conference games.

5. EMPIRE 8 (E8)
Kickoff '08 ranking: 4th
Non-conference record so far: 10-8
Verdict: St. John Fisher's 33-3 loss to Mount Union of the OAC is the only significant non-conference result, but this is the same conference that sent three teams to the playoffs last season, so it holds its ground for the most part.

Kickoff '08 ranking: 7th
Non-conference record so far: 13-2
Verdict: Only non-conference losses have been to now-ranked teams (Concordia-Moorhead to Willamette, Bethel to Wheaton). Depth, as seven of nine teams are off to winning starts.

Kickoff '08 ranking: 6th
Non-conference record so far: 11-10
Verdict: Championship days of 2004 and 1999 looking more distant, but first automatic playoff bid should keep conference play spirited. In key non-conference matchups, NWC went 1-1 vs. MIAC, 0-2 vs. WIAC and 0-1 vs. ASC. Redlands of the SCIAC also dealt Whitworth a convincing defeat.

Kickoff '08 ranking: 8th
Non-conference record so far: 3-4
Verdict: Top team no longer an automatic Stagg Bowl contender, but conference is stronger top to bottom, even with new additions.

Kickoff '08 ranking: 15th
Non-conference record so far: 13-11
Verdict: Big move up the rankings is a bit deceiving, since middle group of conferences are very evenly matched. MAC gets the edge by virtue of its record so far, including a 4-2 record vs. the ACFC, including Delaware Valley's two big wins over then-top-10 Wesley and Salisbury. Six 2-1 teams have helped MAC go 2-2 vs. Centennial. Against the ODAC, USAC and NJAC, the MAC is 2-1 vs. each, plus 1-0 vs. the Liberty League but 0-3 vs. the Empire 8.

Kickoff '08 ranking: 9th
Non-conference record so far: 6-6
Verdict: ACFC goes as Wesley and Salisbury go, and each has a key MAC win (Widener, Albright) and loss (Del Val).

Kickoff '08 ranking: 11th
Non-conference record so far: 10-8
Verdict: Four of the eight losses are by the bottom two teams, Gettysburg and Juniata. Illustrating the parity among middle conferences, CC is 8-8 combined against the MAC, ODAC and Liberty League.

Kickoff '08 ranking: 12th
Non-conference record so far: 14-9
Verdict: Success came early in non-conference schedule, with five wins against the USAC in Week 1. ODAC is 3-2 vs. Centennial, but the CC took the even matchups (Franklin & Marshall 24, Washington & Lee 0; Johns Hopkins 39, Randolph-Macon 31, 3OT).

Kickoff '08 ranking: 13th
Non-conference record so far: 10-10
Verdict: In the middle of the 27 ranked conferences, LL is .500 against modest competition so far. Hobart's win over Carnegie Mellon kept the LL in front of the UAA.

Kickoff '08 ranking: 14th
Non-conference record so far: 8-5
Verdict: Four-team UAA is 5-2 in the first season of its scheduling agreement with the NCAC, with Chicago accounting for both defeats. Washington U.'s 30-27 win against Wittenberg of the NCAC is a significant non-conference win.

Kickoff '08 ranking: 18th
Non-conference record so far: 9-6
Verdict: Trinity and Millsaps account for three of the wins in a 4-1 mark vs. the ASC, and the ASC teams beaten have a combined 2-10 record. The rest of the SCAC's non-conference wins have come against teams from the HCAC, SLIAC and outside Division III.

Kickoff '08 ranking: 10th
Non-conference record so far: 6-8
Verdict: Slow start and lack of a dominant top 25 team hurt the IIAC more than any other conference in our re-ranking, but there's still not much difference in strength among the middle third of Division III conferences. The IIAC could get credit for much of its damage coming against the MIAC (0-4) and CCIW (1-1), but it was only 1-2 against the MWC. The other four wins were against the Northern Athletics Conference, the UMAC and a non-division team.

Kickoff '08 ranking: 17th
Non-conference record so far: 8-10
Verdict: For a nine-team conference, the depth isn't there in terms of power teams. It's Washington & Jefferson and the occasional challenge. PAC teams are 0-4 vs. the OAC, 0-2 vs. the CC and 1-1 vs. the ACFC. The wins are against teams from the NCAC, HCAC, UAA plus an independent and a non-Division III.

Kickoff '08 ranking: 16th
Non-conference record so far: 10-12
Verdict: Bulk of where they're placed is the result of a 5-7 record against ODAC teams. Three wins came against independents or non-Division III teams, while the USAC is 1-2 vs. the MAC and 0-2 vs. the SLIAC.

Kickoff '08 ranking: 21st
Non-conference record so far: 8-6
Verdict: A 5-6 mark vs. the NWC is decent, and Redlands has bowled a couple non-conference strikes, against Dubuque of the IIAC (46-9) and Whitworth of the NWC (38-7). But three of the SCIAC's non-conference wins have come against Lewis & Clark and Principia, who haven't beaten a Division III team other than each other since 2004.

Kickoff '08 ranking: 19th
Non-conference record so far: 7-11
Verdict: Beyond the top teams, the strength is questionable, and even the numbers back it up: 2-5 vs. the UAA, 1-3 vs. the PAC. The two wins against the MIAA were Wittenberg beating defending champ Olivet and Denison beating Kalamazoo.

Kickoff '08 ranking: 22nd
Non-conference record so far: 11-16
Verdict: It wasn't just Trine's win against HCAC champ Franklin that moved the conference up a spot. MIAA teams are 6-2 against the HCAC this season. They are also 0-7 against the CCIW and winless against the PAC, IIAC, OAC and WIAC.

Kickoff '08 ranking: 20th
Non-conference record so far: 10-12
Verdict: The rise of Franklin to give Mount St. Joseph a consistent challenger and top 25 threat helped last season, but re-ranking was not as kind. The 2-6 MIAA mark was offset by a 2-1 mark against the OAC, but the overall win total is less impressive than it looks. Its three wins against the NCAC were all against struggling Earlham.

Kickoff '08 ranking: 23rd
Non-conference record so far: 5-4
Verdict: Monmouth's win against Loras of the IIAC was intriguing, but the MWC is judged by its most successful team, St. Norbert. Wartburg defeated the Green Knights 44-20 in the MWC's most significant chance to make a move upward.

Kickoff '08 ranking: 24th
Non-conference record so far: 0-6
Verdict: The good vibes from Curry's playoff win against the Empire 8 champion last season can only go so far; One of the other 15 teams must win a non-conference game at some point, although chances are few.

Kickoff '08 ranking: 27th
Non-conference record so far: 7-6
Verdict: Down to five teams, including brand new St. Scholastica, Northwestern (Minn.)'s defeat of UW-River Falls of the WIAC is alone enough for a bump up a couple notches.

Kickoff '08 ranking: 26th
Non-conference record so far: 8-13
Verdict: The addition of former independents LaGrange and Huntingdon give conference travel budgets a boost, but it's done the same for the SLIAC's profile in its first season back on the football field since 1999. The other six teams, however, are just 4-12 in non-conference action.

Kickoff '08 ranking: 25th
Non-conference record so far: 4-20
Verdict: With five teams at 0-3 and only 2-1 Aurora with a winning record, this new mix of former Illini-Badger Football Conference, UMAC and MIAA teams has a long way to climb.

The NESCAC, which does not participate in non-conference games, is not ranked, nor are independents. The North Atlantic Conference (NAC) begins play in 2009.

Poll positions

Insight on the ballot of a D3football.com top 25 voter, and the teams who are on the fringe:

As discussed in this week's podcast, with about a month of results in the bag now is a good time for a voter to tear down and rebuild the entire top 25, rather than just move teams up and down a couple spots based on who lost. Everyone has their own system and beliefs about polling, but on my ballot, I find it hard to stick to a hierarchy I set up in the preseason, which much has since been proven and disproven now that games have been played.

For instance, I have no problem ranking St. John Fisher in the top 10 after dismantling Ithaca 37-6, or putting Delaware Valley nearly as high after wins against Wesley and Salisbury, despite not having either team ranked at all a few weeks ago. It's early enough for one win to have that dramatic an effect on the perception of a team's strength.

Personally, I can't get down with ranking Wesley or Salisbury ahead of Delaware Valley because I had the Aggies starting out so low. Wins on the field have to count for more than preseason positioning. So I can't very well keep St. John's my top 25 unless I do the same for Concordia-Moorhead, and also Willamette, who beat the Cobbers. I don't think the two ACFC teams are suddenly no longer top 25 material either. So Del Val surges from No. 22 to 10 on my ballot this week, while Concordia-Moorhead and Augsburg are the current MIAC representatives in my top 25. Absurd as it is to not consider St. John's one of the nation's top 25 teams, it's what I have to go with based on what I know so far. It of course, is subject to change and likely will. I'm wrong a lot, as I wrote on Post Patterns this week, and if I can't handle being wrong sometimes, this probably isn't the role for me.

So while at some point down the road results will overlap and be confusing enough that you might have to rank a team ahead of one it lost to, at this point, what's making us put Wartburg ahead of Augsburg except preseason expectations? Now that we have in-season results, shouldn't we trust those rather than be married to what we thought in August?

The flipside of the argument might be that if a really good team loses to a pretty good team, is the really good team no longer what we thought they were, or did the just play a forgivable stinker against a decent challenger?

Aren't you glad Division III polls are just polls?

What do you think? Discuss the Top 25 on Post Patterns.

Five games to watch

No. 21 Hardin-Simmons (4-0, 0-0 ASC) at No. 3 Mary Hardin-Baylor (3-0, 0-0): This rivalry is back as a nationally significant game since the Cowboys are playing defense again and are off to an unbeaten start. But they'll be lining up against the nation's No. 1 scoring defense (14 points in three games) and a typically powerful rushing offense.

Hartwick (1-1, 0-1 E8) at No. 10 St. John Fisher (3-1, 1-0): This clash looked a lot better before the Cardinals' convincing win last weekend against Ithaca, which beat Hartwick 69-42. There is hope for a good game, as the Hawks are the national leaders in scoring offense at 52.5 points per, and might be able to hang with St. John Fisher on that alone.

DePauw (2-0, 3-0 SCAC) at No. 13 Millsaps (4-0, 2-0 SCAC): The Majors host the Tigers as the No. 7 scoring defense and No. 11 offense in the nation. DePauw will make or break its season on the road; they travel to Trinity in two weeks and are at Wabash for the season-ending Monon Bell game.

No. 23 Willamette (4-0, 0-0 NWC) at Whitworth (2-1, 0-0): The Bearcats fly back into action against the team that won the conference title last year and just happens to be celebrating homecoming. It's also Willamette's third road game in four weeks. We'll find out of if the Bearcats are really back among the elite or if the Pirates plan to keep their 13-game conference run going.

UW-Oshkosh (2-0, 0-0 WIAC) at No. 9 UW-Eau Claire (2-1, 0-1): We know that UW-La Crosse plays at UW-Whitewater this week, but given the Eagles' start, the more significant WIAC game might be a couple hours to the north.

Also keep an eye on: No. 1 Mount Union at Baldwin-Wallace, Johns Hopkins at No. 5 Muhlenberg, Carthage at Illinois Wesleyan, Lycoming at Widener, Washington & Jefferson at Geneva.

Check Friday morning's Daily Dose for Pat, Keith and Gordon Mann's ‘Triple Take' primer on Week 5 games.

Who are those guys?

Tracking Division III's performance against teams from other classifications:

We've come quite a way, from 19 non-Division III opponents a couple weeks ago to just one this week. Guilford hosts NAIA independent Southern Virginia, a team it beat 70-26 in its opener last year when Josh Vogelbach threw eight TD passes.

vs. Division I, FCS (0-1 in Week 4, 3-5 in 2008)

vs. Division II (1-1 in Week 4, 2-4 in 2008)

vs. NAIA (2-0 in Week 4, 21-10 in 2008)
Southern Virginia at Guilford

The Press Box

Around the Nation thrives on reader feedback, and keeps a running board on Post Patterns (under general football) to discuss issues raised in the column, and we'll share feedback and answer questions there. E-mail correspondence can be directed to Keith@D3football.com or submitted with our feedback form.

Keith McMillan is available to discuss Division III football with print, radio and Internet journalists. To set up an appointment, e-mail Keith.

Sports Information Directors: As always, Around the Nation appreciates help in covering your school or conference this season. For more information, contact Keith McMillan at Keith@D3football.com, or snail mail to D3football.com, 13055 Carolyn Forest Dr., Woodbridge, Va., 22192.

Links to online media guides are preferred over mail. In addition, please do not add my e-mail address to your regular release lists, but instead use our news release capabilities to have your information posted on D3football.com's front page and your team's page. For more information on how that works and how we can help each other, contact publisher Pat Coleman at info@d3football.com. Thank you.

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Adam Turer

Adam Turer graduated in 2006 from Washington and Lee University, where he was a two-year starter at free safety. He lives in Cincinnati and covers area high school sports in addition to his full-time job as an attorney. Adam has contributed to D3football.com since 2007 and is in his third season writing Around the Nation after spending four seasons writing Around the Mid-Atlantic.

2014-2015 columnist: Ryan Tipps.
2001-2013 columnist: Keith McMillan.

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