By Keith McMillan
MILTON, Mass. – After an energy-draining game on a Saturday, coaches will frequently say that they’ll look at the film Sunday and get back to work on Monday.
When Skip Bandini says that, he really means he has to go to work on Monday.
Though he’s in his fourth season as Curry’s head coach, where he’s got a 33-6 record that includes the only two playoff wins in NEFC history, Bandini makes his living as Director of Facilities for the Waltham, Mass., public school system. “I’m an engineer,” he says.
And while having a part-timer as head coach might seem odd, it’s actually not all that uncommon in the 16-team NEFC, which partially explains the conference’s 2-11 record in the playoffs since automatic bids were introduced in 1999.
D3sports.com file photo
Add in that the six New England states are home to 34 Division III football programs, plus several D-I FCS programs and D-II's, which dilutes recruiting, and that a ready-made schedule leaves few opportunities for non-conference competition, and the challenges in putting together a top-notch NEFC program become evident.
“Every school has its challenges and its benefits,” says Paul Castonia, the seventh-year head coach at Plymouth State. “Every coach tries to minimize the negatives and maximize the positives.”
In Division III, differences in enrollment, cost and academic mission are understood. What’s not so evident to the football-watching fans is that not every school can or wants to devote the same amount of resources to maintaining its football program.
“I think the conference has gotten better about hiring full-time coaches,” says Bandini, who works alongside Todd Nestor, his full-time defensive coordinator and director of football operations. Bandini said that position was a requirement for him to take the job, and he also has two full-time coaching interns, Trenton Blythe, a 2008 Central graduate, and Ed Borden, who finished school in May.
Castonia says he’s always been fortunate to have one or two student assistants – guys who have an extra semester on campus or one who ends his career early but wants to coach – to help join the six part-time assistants on his staff.
Full-time staffs are virtually non-existent in the conference. And as best Bandini and Castonia can tell, the head coaches at Mass-Dartmouth, Westfield State and Worcester State are part-time. Other head coaches, like Castonia himself, are the only full-timers on the coaching staff.
How can a coach run a football program when he’s got a full-time job and a family to worry about?
“Our time management skills have to be at the peak of operation,” Bandini says. “We have to make every minute in every day productive.”
Especially since Bandini believes in getting his coaches home in time to see their wives and children. “A happy coach is a better coach,” he says.
The biggest difference, when Bandini compares his role with that of his friends at St. John Fisher, is that when he’s at work late in the season, they can be on the road recruiting. And Bandini absolutely believes bringing in good student-athletes is the key to winning.
“There are a lot of good football coaches out there,” he said. “The difference between the ones that win and the ones that lose is players.”
Bandini says any coach can be taught X's and O's, so when he hires, he looks for the ability to relate to kids, and a general respectfulness.
Castonia agrees that recruiting the right assistant coaches is up there with recruiting the right players.
“There are a lot of guys out there who want to stand on the sideline on Saturdays and look important,” Castonia said. “But there aren’t that many who want to do the grunt work when nobody’s behind you cheering.”
Especially when the title and pay are part-time only.
And even that’s not a completely level playing field. While Curry is near Boston, a major metropolitan area, Plymouth State is smack in the middle of New Hampshire, with about 2,000 residents in town. Castonia must choose his part-time assistants from a smaller pool than Bandini.
Having been at Plymouth State when it was a member of the old Freedom Football Conference, then while it was independent before joining the NEFC in the 2006 season, Castonia has few complaints.
“It’s a great fit for us,” he says of the NEFC. “I think it’s where we belong.”
Gone are the days of road trips to places as far away as William Paterson in Northern New Jersey. Almost all of the Panthers’ games are within a 3-hour drive, which is a big improvement over the days of being independent and scheduling almost anyone who would take you.
“Once you get this far north in New Hampshire,” he says of Plymouth, situated along the north-south I-93, “there’s no easy way to go east and west. We were taking back roads through Vermont to get to games.”
Besides less time spent on the road, being in the NEFC is also less time spent making a schedule. Conference members play the seven teams in their division, plus one crossover game against a Boyd or Bogan team. That leaves just two non-conference dates and not much chance to line up a top 25-caliber opponent. Especially when some of the dates, like Coast Guard’s rivalry game against Merchant Marine or Worcester State’s annual “road trip” to Worcester Polytech of the Liberty League, are logically filled. Springfield and RPI are the only historically tough Division III programs to regularly show up on NEFC schedules.
Still, on the heels of consecutive playoff victories against the Empire 8, considered one of Division III’s sixth-strongest conference of 27, Curry has helped bring the 23rd-ranked NEFC the respectability that eluded it when previous playoff participants came up a few points short.
“I don’t know if it bugged us,” said Bandini of the lack of respect. “Our conference has gotten better. When we beat Hartwick [in the 2007 playoffs], it showed what we’d felt, that our conference feels they can play with anyone. But we hadn’t had the playoff wins, and if people are speaking the truth, you can’t really get mad at them.”
Last season, Castonia’s Plymouth State team beat Curry in the regular season for the right to win the NEFC’s automatic bid in the conference title game. The Panthers did, and the Colonels became the first at-large NEFC team to make the expanded field. Plymouth State lost at Cortland State of the NJAC, and Curry defeated Ithaca before losing to Cortland the following week.
Though Castonia says Plymouth State’s goal “is to compete in our division and see what happens from there,” what happens is no long easy to predict.
And if NEFC teams are winning playoff games with a different set of resources than their competitors, it makes the feat all the more impressive.
“My hope is that people understand we’re working with the parameters we’re given,” Bandini said.
Castonia, who was an assistant at several schools from Ferrum to Division I FCS Rhode Island along the way, sometimes having to line fields or do players’ laundry, isn’t complaining about life at Plymouth State. He’s happy and enjoys the guys he’s coaching with, even if they’re all technically part-timers.
“Like any other job, you take the good with the bad,” he says. “I’m sure Urban Meyer (the coach of Division I BCS champion Florida) has got some things he’s unhappy with, so it’s all relative.”
The NEFC in the automatic bid-era playoffs:
1999 – Ursinus 43, Bridgewater State 38. Ursinus lost in the second round at Rowan 55-0.
2000 – Hobart 25, Bridgewater State 0. Hobart lost in the second round at Widener 40-14.
2001 – Western Connecticut State 8, Westfield State 7. Western Connecticut lost in the second round at Rowan 43-14.
2002 – Muhlenberg 55, Mass.-Dartmouth 6. Muhlenberg lost in the second round at home to John Carroll 21-10.
2003 – RPI 34, Curry 20. RPI advanced to the national semifinals.
2004 – Hobart 35, Curry 16. Hobart lost in the second round at Rowan 45-14.
2005 – Delaware Valley 37, Curry 22. Delaware Valley lost in the regional finals.
2006 – Springfield 42, Curry 14. Springfield lost in the second round at home to St. John Fisher 27-21.
2007 – Curry 42, Hartwick 21; St. John Fisher 38, Curry 7
2008 – Cortland State 31, Plymouth State (NEFC champ) 14; Curry (at-large) 26, Ithaca 21; Cortland State 42, Curry 0.
Situated down Blue Hill Ave. from Dorchester and Mattapan, two of the grittiest parts of Boston, is a tree-lined campus you could drive right past if you didn’t know it were hidden behind the leaves.
Curry this week hosted a rare game where I could see a player from my South Jersey high school take on players from my childhood stomping grounds in Beantown.
And while the weather might have been rotten, spirits were not. A crowd dressed in Division III’s color of success, purple, turned out despite a drizzle for a chance to see the Colonels play their first game against non-scholarship competition. And I counted at least 75 Widener fans who made the six-hour drive, including some who set up a tailgate.
A white steeple and trees overlook Curry’s athletic complex, on which the football field is set back behind other fields but visible from the parking lot. The Colonels come down past the baseball field for pregame warm-ups with a building diesel-like hum that crescendos at a full-throated “Whoooot!”
As the team walks by, I had to investigate that smell I picked up right after I got out of the car. It was coming from the Sausage King stand. While ordering a really legitimate Italian Sausage with peppers and onions, I got to talk with the man on the grill, Sean, who claimed he was the cousin of Abe Froman, the character in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
I could’ve done without the “there you go. Nine inches of pure pleasure” as it was handed to me, but it lived up to the hype. And as it turned out, so did the Curry-Widener game.
I got to spend a few minutes talking to Dick Leavitt, a parent and former player who asked that I not make a spectacle of him. But I stood out in the rain talking to a man who’d taken great pains to come down from Maine to see his son play his final season, and it reminded me of this: As helpful and insightful as fans find D3football.com to be, we feel the same way when we drop into town for one game then head right home. Sometimes you point out to us things we’d never thought to examine, and other times you confirm that we know what we’re talking about. But it’s always good to touch base with fans when we travel, so don’t hesitate to drop us an e-mail or stop and say hi when we’re in your town.
Lastly, one of the joys of football is that no matter how long I’ve been doing this, I always see something I’ve never seen before. Usually it’s on the field, but this time, somewhere in the game-ending goal-line-stand celebration, Widener coach David Wood apparently tore his Achilles’ tendon. So he graciously did an interview with me while laying prone on a trainers’ table outdoors in the mist. At least he had a win to make it feel a little better.
Last week’s column on longtime coaches featured a list of the longest-tenured coaches, down to those on the job 23 seasons or more. It was an arbitrary stopping point, and I have since updated the list to coaches in their 10th season and beyond. (I’ll be blogging this as a separate item on the Daily Dose as well)
Viewed to this depth, this is where we see what a destination Division III jobs are.
Eighty-one of the more than 220 coaches we had data for are at least in their 10th season.
Twenty-seven are in their 20th season or beyond. Twenty-four more have between 15 and 20 years’ experience, including Hal Mumme, a 19-year head coaching vet who’s in his first year in Division III.
Lest you think winning doesn’t factor into longevity, all but a handful of the 81 have career winning records as of the start of this season.
Speaking of longtime coaches, I by chance was seated in the Curry press box next to Pete Mazzaferro, a former Centre player who coached at Bridgewater State from 1966 to 2004. Mazzaferro, who also coached at Waynesburg, Curry and Division II Stonehill, spent a total of 45 seasons as a head coach, and penned a memoir, Dropkick me Through the Goal Post.
Though he wasn’t as sharp as he must have once been, Mazzaferro was still an encyclopedia of small-college football knowledge. (He called himself “a trivia junkie.”) Having played and coached through different eras and in different parts of the country, Mazzaferro was stumping me with questions about Division III history. He could remember details about his coaching contemporaries in the 1960s and upon learning my alma mater, recalled once coaching in a basketball tournament featuring Mount Union, Randolph-Macon, Bridgewater State and Hiram.
Mazzaferro, who worked as an assistant coach after he left Bridgewater State in 2004, is still fond of the game. I know because he planned to catch another New England Football Conference game later on Saturday night.
Knowing the topic of last week’s column, I couldn’t help but ask what kept him coaching so long.
“I love football,” he said.
Last week’s Ten Best touched on the changes in the game over the D3football.com era. Brian Hunsicker, who you might know from his yeoman’s work on the Centennial, MAC and NCAC for Kickoff ’09, had this to tweet in response:
“Dude, neck rolls NEVER go out of style. Two weeks ago, I found my sweet amber visor from HS before they got outlawed. I was badass.”
While we’re on topic, remember when players other than the center were allowed to drape a towel from their waist? And do they still call football gloves Neumanns?
The first ATN of the season, It’s okay to play for No. 3, got a decent amount of feedback. The intent was never to say give up on shooting for the championship, but rather to emphasize how much there is to accomplish and enjoy before the Stagg Bowl.
That said, perhaps the most interesting bit of feedback came from a prominent player on a Texas team. In part, he wrote of Mount Union:
“If they were to play Hardin-Simmons or UMHB to start off the season it would a different story as you can tell HSU and UMHB aren't afraid of opening up going up North to play football because we realize that no other team gives us a good look until we play against each other.”
As Around the Nation celebrates 10 years of D3football.com, it will feature a special 10 list in each column this season. As ATN presents this week’s list, there’s an opportunity for you to agree, disagree or add to it.
This week’s list isn’t meant to embarrass anyone or revisit anything that was better forgotten. In fact, it’s sort of an empathetic list, a reminder that for all the joys football brings us, it at times has its cruel aspects, or at least thankless ones.
People put in the ten least-enviable positions in the D3football.com era
10. Admissions & financial aid offices: Division III schools and their football teams come in many different shapes and sizes. The available resources at 11,002-student UW-Oshkosh and 656-student Menlo vary. So do the academic aims of Oberlin, known for its conservatory of music, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, famous for engineering and the invention of e-mail. For $50,439 you could attend Union, which is about $46,000 more than in-state tuition at Christopher Newport. With such varying collegiate missions, it’s silly to expect everyone to recruit the same type of student-athlete to play football. Although it says right in the Division III Philosophy Statement that athletes are to be treated no differently than the student body, you can bet that right now there’s a football coach enamored with a player he hopes his admissions and financial aid peers will help finagle into his institution, on the hope he makes good on his potential. That puts the personnel in those offices in a position ATN doesn’t exactly envy.
9. Chris Sulages. ATN has always loved that Lewis & Clark didn’t abandon its program when it fell on hard times, especially since the Northwest Conference school has such an athletic history. But just because the Pios didn’t fold the tent after canceling its NWC slate in a four-game 2005 doesn’t mean it’s been easy going. In the three seasons since, L&C is 1-27, 0-18 in the conference. A 22-7 loss to Claremont-Mudd-Scripps in the opener looks like a sign of improvement – the Pios gave up at least 40 in all eight losses last season. It takes great patience to see the light at the end of the tunnel in the midst of all that losing.
8. Scott Westering. Normally, a guy who’s had a successful playing career, including an NFL stint, then goes on to dial up the plays for a national champion is someone we would envy. But the son of legend Frosty Westering – he of 305 wins in 39 seasons, ‘Make the Big Time Where You Are’ and the magical 1999 championship run – hasn’t been able to duplicate his father’s success. The Lutes have had only one winning season, a 7-2 year in 2007, since Frosty retired in 2004, and lost their opener at home to St. Olaf, 46-7. No one following a highly successful coach should really be expected to duplicate his success, but when you’ve got the family name, it probably goes with the territory. I’m sure PLU is having successes beyond wins and losses – they’re definitely having fun -- but it doesn’t mean ATN envies the succeeding-a-legend-who’s-also-my-Dad situation.
7. Tyler Matthews. After checking out ADvantage Catdome’s interview with Matthews, he doesn’t sound like he left the game with any regrets. But it never seemed right that Matthews quarterbacked two championship-caliber Linfield teams that lost by a touchdown to St. John’s deep in the 2002 and ’03 playoffs, and then Brett Elliott swoops in from Utah and leads the ’04 Wildcats to a national championship.
6. Zac Bruney. Which of these kids doesn’t belong? Jim Ballard, Bill Borchert, Gary Smeck, Rob Adamson, Zac Bruney, Mike Jorris, Greg Micheli? All of the other Mount Union quarterbacks started a Stagg Bowl and won. Bruney split time with Jesse Burghardt, who was technically the starter, in the 2003 loss in Salem to St. John’s. Bruney, now Mount Union’s offensive coordinator, held the reins himself in 2004. It wasn’t a lack of talent that kept him from joining the string of Stagg Bowl winning QBs at Mount Union – he was Division III’s top-rated passer in 2003 and 2004. And yet, he never got to work with talents like Chuck Moore, Dan Pugh, Pierre Garcon or Nate Kmic.
5. Hunter Hamrick. An all-American and winner of the Gilburg Award as the nation’s top punter in 2005, Hamrick was a steady presence for Mary Hardin-Baylor, and even represented the Cru in the Texas vs. the Nation game. Memorable moments for punters are few though, and we remember Hamrick for the wrong reasons. In a Stagg Bowl tied 21-all, Linfield’s Zach Fleming disrupted a fourth-quarter Hamrick punt and forced him to fall on the ball on the 10-yard line. The Wildcats scored the game-winning touchdown on the next play.
4. Roy Hampton. Trinity’s quarterback had passed for more than 4,000 yards and 43 touchdowns in leading the Tigers to 14 wins and a Stagg Bowl date with Mount Union. That’s plenty to celebrate. But when Hampton was arrested on public intoxication charges on San Antonio’s Riverwalk the Sunday morning before the Stagg Bowl, the course of Division III history changed. Hampton was suspended for his final college game, Trinity lost, 48-7, and hasn’t won a playoff game since. Nobody knows what would have happened had Hampton played. What made Hampton’s ordeal so unenviable is that he made his mistake – one plenty of college students his age have made over time – when the light shone brightest on his career. So instead of getting on ESPN for his passing prowess, it was for a misstep, which, to his credit, he publicly and humbly took his lumps for.
3. Coaches in general. What a thankless job. You practically abandon your own family to make a bunch of strange 18-to-22-year-olds your family for the fall. You give them everything you have, hours beyond measure. And come game day, your reward is criticism and second-guessing, sometimes even when you win. Here’s a perfect example: Curry’s Skip Bandini has the ball on the 2-yard line with 24 seconds left, no timeouts and needing a touchdown to beat Widener. The Colonels’ quarterback ducks behind the fullback’s lead block, but doesn’t quite cross the goal line. The kids are coached well enough to scramble and spike the ball. Your final play goes to your stud running back right up the gut. He doesn’t get in, and suddenly every parent in the stands on up to the freshman video operator knows more about play-calling than you. Another few inches and you’re brilliant. A whiz. Like many coaches, Bandini accepts this reality, which is one reason why he encourages his coaching staff not to use the word “I” except when saying “I’ll take the blame for that.” And so it goes.
2. Officials. Here’s an even more thankless job. While more or less volunteering to serve as a part of football so important no game would be played without it, it’s also quite in vogue to disrespect your efforts verbally, and occasionally physically. Officials, especially in Division III, can spend hours on the road, driving by themselves to game sites. You must learn the rule book inside out, work enough high school games to prove you can move up to college, and spend hours reviewing tape of your work, giving or receiving grades and discussing situations that come up. And still, because of your influence on the game, something you try to minimize, you end up not thanked, but yelled at. Worse, people tell you how to do your job too, despite not knowing details like football rules are applied differently in the NFL and in high school than they are in college games.
1. The playoff selection committee. Often criticized as though it’s some bumbling entity from the NCAA’s evil headquarters, the committee is actually comprised of those closest to the Division III game. This year’s committee -- chair Joy Solomen, the athletic director at Rowan, Springfield coach Mike DeLong, Illinois Wesleyan coach/AD Norm Eash, OAC commissioner Tim Gleason, Grove City coach Chris Smith, ODAC commissioner Brad Bankston, Redlands coach Mike Maynard and Knox AD Chad Eisele – will put in hours crunching numbers and following criteria determined by Division III member schools. And in the end, even though they’re all going above and beyond their regular jobs, they’ll likely be criticized, if not vilified, for their efforts, even though they may want to do the right thing and get overruled by the NCAA headquarters because of budgetary concerns. As NJAC commissioner Terry Small, who just took on the role for basketball, said to me a couple weeks ago, “no matter what you do, somebody’s going to be unhappy.” Small himself remembers second-guessing some of the committee’s decisions when he thought playoff-worthy teams from his conference didn’t get in or weren’t seeded right. ATN certainly isn’t saying that the committee gets everything right. They are, however, in the least-enviable position of the past 10 years.
React to this week’s list, make submissions for the coming week’s list or come up with new categories for future use by using our message board, Post Patterns, on the Around the Nation thread under general football. You can also send e-mail to Keith@D3football.com or use our feedback form.
Next week: Ten best places to play in Division III
Since it’s hard enough to keep track of the 238 teams and 27 conferences we follow, leave it to ATN to keep a watchful eye on Division III’s record in out-of-classification competition.
In Week 2, there were 15 games pitting Division III against NAIA teams, including six involving a ranked team from one side or the other. Division III turned in a staggering 12-3 mark, with all three losses coming against ranked NAIA teams. UW-Stout logged a win over No. 24 Jamestown in one of what looked like few even matchups, though Buena Vista, Howard Payne and Minnesota-Morris all won by less than a touchdown. (check here for a more detailed breakdown.)
In Week 3, there are eight non-division games, compared with last week’s 21. Butler is back to take its third crack at a Division III team before actually playing some opponents on its level. The Bulldogs have outscored Albion and Franklin 91-22.
Here are this week’s games involving unfamiliar names:
vs. Division I, FCS (1-3 in Week 2; 1-5 in 2009)
Hanover at Butler (non-scholarship Pioneer League)
vs. Division II (1-1 in Week 2; 2-5 in 2009)
No. 17 UW-Stevens Point at Missouri S&T (Great Lakes Football Conference)
Humboldt State (Great Northwest Athletic Conference) at Menlo
vs. NAIA (12-3 in Week 2; 16-5 in 2009)
Bacone (Mid-South Conference) at Howard Payne
Haskell Indian Nations (independent) at MacMurray
Willamette at Southern Oregon (independent)
Also: George Mason (club team) at Newport News Apprentice
Trinity Bible (N.D.) at Crown
Correction: In Week 1, ATN listed the wrong state for Trinity Bible. It is in North Dakota.
Readers: Around the Nation encourages your opinions on the column, the top 25, moments to remember for the year-in-review (yes, already) and whatever else crosses your mind. Readers can best get a response by posting on Around the Nation's running thread on Post Patterns (under general football). Send e-mail to Keith@D3football.com or use our feedback form.
Already this season, we’re seeking your feedback on Ten Best (top 10 of the past 10 seasons), best road trip suggestions for October and November (ATN especially likes non-Saturday afternoon kickoffs that can be paired with a game at a traditional time) and suggestions for Division III T-shirt designs.
Five Ways to Saturday
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