September 9, 2010

Breaking the seal on a new regime

Puget Sound had plenty to celebrate in Jeff Thomas' coaching debut.
Puget Sound had plenty to celebrate in Jeff Thomas' coaching debut.
Puget Sound athletics photo

The first week of the season, by its very definition, is about new beginnings. And when a fresh season also comes with a brand new coaching staff, it’s often understood that things haven’t been going too well. All but the most optimistic supporters of such programs expect success in the long term, while accepting that there might be struggles initially.

But for a fortunate few first-time head coaches, the stars and Week 1 schedules align to deliver a message more powerful than any phrase bellowed in a pre-game pep talk: Follow the plan, and we’ll win.

“It’s great because it gives legitimacy across so many levels,” said Jeff Thomas, who guided Puget Sound to a 36-19 victory – the school’s first since 2008 -- over Pacific in his first game as Loggers coach. “Players get to walk across campus with their heads held high. … And it also legitimizes all the little things we’re talking about in practice, following the drill, running hard through the cones. When I got here, they had to take us on blind faith. Now they see that we know what we’re talking about.”

Winning “certainly gives the stamp of approval, gives credence to what you’re talking about,” agrees Bob Chesney, who, clear across the country, coached Salve Regina to a 6-3 win against Worcester Polytech in his debut.

If a head coach is a man of many trades, one of them is salesman. He’s pitching a message, often of discipline and attention to detail, not just to his players, but to a campus and everyone involved on it.

“After I got hired, I spoke at every local service group and alumni association, I tried to talk to every community group that I could,” said Thomas, formerly the offensive coordinator at Redlands. “And until we win, it’s just talk.”

The victory -- even if it came against the Boxers, whose coach, Keith Buckley, was also making his debut as well as reviving Pacific football after 19 years -- was satisfying.

“I think you’re going to see a groundswell of support now that people see [all the talk] will produce results,” Thomas said, “rather than just a guy being excited all the time.”

Thomas delivered his message of change on the heels of UPS’s third 0-9 season of the decade. Salve Regina, on the other hand, had risen from 1-8 in 2006 to consecutive four-win seasons under Chris Robertson, who left abruptly in the spring to return to WPI, where he replaced the retiring Ed Zaloom. Chesney, a 2000 Dickinson graduate, was hired from Johns Hopkins in April and didn’t arrive in Rhode Island until mid-May. The Seahawks’ recruiting class was virtually complete, and brought in to play in Robertson’s systems.

The circumstances added a layer of intrigue to the Salve-WPI opener, one Chesney thought presented a problem for a debut game.

“Here I am walking into my first job, being a defensive guy,” he said. “I thought it was a recipe for disaster.” WPI, Chesney points out, runs a spread-option offense featuring elements of the veer, traps and triple option. It was nothing he hadn’t seen before as the Blue Jays’ defensive coordinator, preparing for Gettysburg and Dickinson on a regular basis. But “it’s a tough situation in Week 1, having to prepare for that type of offense.”

The Salve defense, though, got the coaches’ message fine. WPI gained just 168 yards, including 39 passing, and had five first downs. Ernie Mello had a 56-yard run for the Engineers, and WPI’s other 32 rushes totaled 73 yards (2.3 per carry).

What made the game so interesting is that WPI held the Seahawks to 180 yards. In an odd way, the fact that the win didn’t come easily makes the message from Chesney, who praised Salve’s special teams as the unit that really played well, more powerful. On one hand, if players buy into the program, victories are the reward. On the other, there’s a lot of work yet to do, and it doesn’t take a detailed review of game video to realize it.

Thomas hasn’t had to worry about his players resting on their laurels with a road trip to SCIAC power Occidental in Week 2, but even their reaction to the long-awaited victory was a surprise.

“It was interesting, I had kind of pictured [what the first win would be like],” Thomas said. “I had imagined in my head guys celebrating like we won a Super Bowl, and it wasn’t like that at all. They kind of treated it like a business deal. A bunch of our senior leaders were so disappointed in 2nd, 3rd, 4th quarter effort, they apologized to me after the game. They understood that we should have put that team away in the first quarter.”

The Loggers did build a 29-3 lead prior to halftime before Pacific closed the gap. And the teams, whose season-opening meeting was a nonconference game, meet again in NWC play in Week 9 (Oct. 30). Thomas expects Buckley’s Boxers to be much tougher the second time around; as a new coach and staff repeats their message, young players catch on and improve rapidly.

In the Loggers’ case, the catching on has been evident in this week’s practices, likely at least partially attributable to the lingering feeling from winning.

“The amount of talking that took place between plays [at practice] … defensive players calling out crossing routes, talking to each other between plays, was legitimately 10 times better than its ever been since I’ve been here,” said Thomas, a 2003 Redlands grad. “It’s not where we need to get to by the time conference play starts, but they can see why we do those things, and that it pays off.”

Chesney, who says he’s been so invested as an assistant at Norwich, Delaware Valley, King’s and JHU that his first win felt “like another day at the office,” has a handful of help delivering his message. On the Seahawks’ staff are Bob Chesney, Sr., longtime coach of Mount Carmel (Pa.) High, and the younger Bob’s brother, Nick, a former player at Dickinson and Susquehanna. The family connections come in handy since Chesney’s wife gave birth to a baby girl, Lyla Rae, at the start of preseason camp. While the coach occasionally runs home to steal a few moments with his new daughter, the Seahawks are in good hands. In addition to Chesney’s father and brother, Colin Wixted, last season’s Centennial Conference player of the year as a Johns Hopkins strong safety, and David Hanna, a 1999 Kalamazoo grad who’s also coached at Washington & Lee and Johns Hopkins, are on staff.

Yet with all that wisdom on the sidelines, nothing speaks louder than Saturday’s 6-3 victory.

“Any time a new coaching staff comes in, players are going to have questions and concerns,” Chesney said. “They’ll always have concerns about what you’re doing – is it right or wrong or just different? Winning cures a lot of ills.”

Other coaching debut winners in Week 1:
Jack Hatem, Denison, 21-6 against Ohio Wesleyan
Jeff Pedersen, Grinnell, 45-35 against Macalester
Loren Dawson, Austin, 28-6 against Southwestern Assemblies of God.

First and Ten

Ten things that stand out after Week 1’s games:
1. I’ve never met a coach who liked losing, but there’s got to be some good in Castleton State pushing a Plymouth State team NEFC coaches in Kickoff ’10 all thought was a conference title contender to the fourth quarter in a 16-14 loss. Same for St. Vincent giving Bridgewater (Va.) a scare in a 19-14 loss. The Bearcats, whose lone win in three seasons has come against Gallaudet, have a unique connection with the Eagles, since coach Bob Colbert was Bridgewater’s longtime offensive coordinator and associate head coach. Castleton, on the other hand, went 3-6 last season, its first as a program, but two of the wins came against fellow first-year Anna Maria, and the other against winless Becker. Beating the Panthers would have been a win to really build on. Beating the Eagles would have felt similar for St. Vincent.

2. The line between ‘Oh, they’re off a sharp start’ and ‘Okay, that’s completely unnecessary ’ is somewhere between the mid-50s/low 60s (Huntingdon and Randolph-Macon, 54 points in Week 1; St. John Fisher and Trine 55; St. John’s 56; Augsburg, 62) and 78 (Utica, in a 59-point win against Becker).

3. Here’s why the WIAC gets so much respect in the conference rankings: Its last place team from last season, UW-River Falls (3-7, 1-6) opens up in Week 1 at No. 11 Ohio Northern, and is tied at 21 midway through the third quarter before losing, 35-21. ONU is a top-tier team in the No. 2 most-respected conference in D-III. And then in Week 2, UW-RF travels to fifth-ranked St. Thomas, while UW-Oshkosh (4-6, 2-5 last year) schedules No. 1 Mount Union, UW-La Crosse (5-5, 2-5) hosts No. 6 Mary Hardin-Baylor and UW-Eau Claire (6-4, 4-3) hosts No. 9 St. John’s.

4. As noted in the podcast and Around the East, the Empire 6, er, 8, is the big winner in Week 1, going 6-0 in non-conference play. On the other end of the spectrum: the MAC (1-5) and MIAA (1-6).

5. If it keeps giving us games like Willamette at Hardin-Simmons (each coming off victories on long Week 1 road trips) and Redlands at East Texas Baptist, we might wish all of D-III were stuck on geographic islands with limited scheduling options.

6. The Lycoming-Rowan series started years after ATN really wanted to see it, but it still delivered. The Profs took a 24-point lead only to need a fourth-down stop with 3:01 left to preserve a 24-17 victory.

7. A little love for Norwich, whose 0-3 start last season included a 28-27 loss to Western New England. The Cadets rebounded to reel off eight consecutive wins, and a ninth Saturday: a 35-7 home thumping of WNEC.

8. Alfred’s 37-0 win against Widener was one of Week 1’s most eye-opening finals, while Hanover’s 28-27 comeback against Centre seemed like the best finish.

9. The new video play of the week is going to be Hidden-Video fun. With the amount of ground we cover and the number of teams using YouTube and other advances in game video, no reason we shouldn’t be able to share a bunch we haven’t seen before with each other and the rest of the football world. The next Miracle in Missisisippi is out there.

10. Five games of note in Week 2: No. 4 Linfield at No. 25 Cal Lutheran, No. 20 Washington & Jefferson at No. 10 Delaware Valley, No. 13 Willamette at No. 14 Hardin-Simmons, Cortland State at Kean, Johns Hopkins at Randolph-Macon. As always on Friday morning, the Triple Take on the Daily Dose will provide perspective on the weekend’s slate.

Rivalry spotlight

Because of conference obligations, or perhaps just out of a desire to start the season with a bang, some teams don’t wait at all – much less until Week 11 – to play their rivals.

In Week 1, the Backyard Brawl delivered again, the third season in four that the Choctaws have won by four points or fewer. The Gate City Soup Bowl was tasty as well, with Greensboro defeating Guilford, 17-15, in the name of a good cause. There’s photo and video here. And on the very first night of the season, last Thursday, a thrilling 15-12 Chowder Bowl win by SUNY-Maritime over Mass. Maritime, was the Privateers’ fourth straight.

In Week 2, I’ll be checking out Coast Guard and Merchant Marine in the Secretaries’ Cup in person in New London, Conn.

The rivalries ATN can pretty well keep track of, but with new trophy games popping up every season(scroll to Ten Best), ATN always appreciates insight and a heads-up on upcoming matchups. If you’re kind enough to point ATN in the right direction, there will be an effort made to highlight the game in this spot.

Who are those guys?

Here’s where ATN helps you sort out Olivet from Olivet Nazarene, Pacific from Azusa Pacific, and the familiar from any other unfamiliar names you see on the national schedule. Throughout the season, ATN will analyze and keep track of how Division III does against Division I-FCS (still better known as I-AA), Division II and NAIA.

This week, Sul Ross State gets a visit from Division II Western New Mexico, which is about the same distance (320 miles) from the Alpine, Tex. campus as ASC rival Hardin-Simmons. Geography seems to be behind some of this week’s other schedule pairings. Valley City State in North Dakota is actually much closer to Concordia-Moorhead (about an hour’s drive) than all of its Minnesota rivals.

In Week 1, ATN didn’t mention former Division III member Menlo on the list, and it pulled a 42-25 upset against Occidental, which is starting its season with longtime coach Dale Widolff on a four-game suspension. Counting the Oaks as NAIA now, that tipped the scales away from D-III in Week 1, though the matchups involving ranked teams went as expected. Coe, ranked 12th last week in D-III, beat Iowa Wesleyan, 48-21, while Dickinson State (18th in NAIA) and Taylor (No. 22) beat Concordia-Moorhead and Anderson, respectively. UW-Stout’s missed extra point in overtime was costly in a 14-13 loss to Black Hills State.

vs. Division I, FCS (0-1 in Week 1)
Valparaiso (non-scholarship Pioneer League) at Franklin

vs. Division II (0-1 in Week 1)
Western New Mexico (Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference) at Sul Ross State

vs. NAIA (4-5 in Week 1)
Olivet Nazarene (Mid-States Football Association) at No. 12 Coe
Birmingham-Southern at Faulkner (Mid-South Conference, West)
Buena Vista at Peru State (independent)
Chapman at Menlo (independent)
Valley City State (Dakota Athletic Conference) at Concordia-Moorhead
Southwest Assemblies of God (Central States Football League) at Howard Payne
LaVerne at Azusa Pacific (independent)
Texas College (Central States Football League) at McMurry
Jamestown (Dakota Athletic Conference) at UW-Stout

(NAIA rankings from NAIA.org coaches poll)

ALSO:
Gallaudet at Williamson Trade School

Five Ways to Saturday

Follow Around the Nation …
When the column publishes on Thursdays
When ATN travels on Saturdays, trip highlights are blogged on The Daily Dose. ATN will be in Connecticut in Week 2.
Mondays, Pat Coleman and I wrap up the week that was in our podcast. Download from iTunes or listen to it in the Daily Dose’s media player.
Throughout the week on Twitter. Follow @D3Keith.
Further discussions raised here on Around the Nation’s Post Patterns thread, at the top of the General Football board.

The press box

Correction: An early version of this column listed the wrong head coach in Grinnell's winning debut. Jeff Pedersen coached the Pioneers to their 45-35 win against Macalester.

Readers: Around the Nation encourages your opinions on the column, the top 25, moments to remember for the year-in-review, insight on rivalry and trophy games, 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.mcmillan@d3sports.com or use our feedback form.

Already this season, ATN is seeking suggestions for road trips in October and November (ATN especially likes non-Saturday afternoon kickoffs that can be paired with a game at a traditional time).

Sports Information Directors: Both the e-mail address and street address are new this season. To contact Keith McMillan, use keith.mcmillan@D3sports.com, or mail to D3football.com, 3836 Appaloosa Dr., Woodbridge, Va., 22192.

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Keith McMillan

Keith McMilllan, who has been a columnist for D3football.com since 2000, has provided color commentary on D3football.com's national broadcasts of the Stagg Bowls. He played at Randolph-Macon in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference for four years and covered it for two more.

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