/columns/around-the-nation/2016/out-of-darkness-light

Out of the darkness, light

UW-River Falls nearly announced its comeback in a big way, as the Falcons took UW-Whitewater to overtime on the road before losing this past Saturday.
Photo by Daryl Tessmann, d3photography.com 

Sometimes, things don’t go your way. Sometimes, your highest expectations are crushed by unanticipated disappointment. Some teams start at the bottom. Some teams bottom out.

For all, there is hope. Five coaches currently leading teams that were very recently winless give advice and comfort for those programs on the verge of going 0-for-2016.

A turnaround can happen, and it can happen quickly. It just takes the right people buying into the right message, together.

Around the Nation talked to five coaches who have been part of the transformation of their respective programs. They explained the lowest point, the turning point, and everything it takes in between to restore a program’s respectability.

The coaches and programs:

  • Southwestern: Joe Austin, fourth year (0-10 in 2013, program’s first season). 2016 record: 6-3 (5-0)
  • UW-River Falls: Matt Walker, sixth year (0-10 in 2013). 2016 record: 3-6 (2-4)
  • St. Lawrence: Dan Puckhaber, first year as head coach (0-10 in 2012). 2016 record: 8-1 (5-1) 2015 playoff participant, possible 2016 playoff participant
  • St. Vincent: Dr. Ron Dolciato, third year (0-10 in both 2012 and 2013). 2016 record: 5-4 (3-4)
  • Olivet: Dan Pifer, fifth year (0-10 in 2012). 2016 record: 8-1 (5-0). 2016 playoff berth clinched

Some of these coaches were just getting started in their current position when the program reached its floor. Others were brought in after to raise the program from rock bottom. Austin started his Southwestern program from scratch. All agreed that in order to win, you have to have the right recruits.

“To turn a program around, you’ve got to get really good players. Football is a people sport,” said Puckhaber, who was an assistant under Mark Raymond before being promoted this year when Raymond left for another program rebuild at Williams. “Not just get them here, but keep them around, which is hard to do at our level because we’re non-scholarship.”

The Saints brought in a class of 40 freshmen following the winless 2012 season. This past weekend they honored the 26 seniors who stuck it out.

“Any good football team comes down to recruiting,” said Dolciato. “It was a necessity to start recruiting and getting people to come out and see St. Vincent’s campus.”

Different programs and institutions require different recruiting pitches. Playing time, restoring tradition, creating new traditions, or academics could all be the focal points. It depends on the state of the program and the kind of recruits the staff wants to bring in.

“Trying to recruit a program that hasn’t won a game in two and a half years, people don’t really want to talk to you. We had to persuade recruits to come on campus and take a look at what we have to offer. Once we got them here, I think then everything kind of takes care of itself,” said Dolciato, whose Bearcats program was dormant from 1962 until its restart in 2007. “You can go to an established program and be a part of their football traditions and legacies, or you can come here and be a part of creating a football tradition and legacy. Players can do things here for the very first time.”

UW-River Falls was at or near the top of the WIAC for three decades, before falling off over the past 18 years. The Falcons have a chance to finish fourth in the conference this year with a win against UW-Stevens Point on Saturday, behind only three nationally ranked teams.

“We sold our prior history here really hard,” said Walker. “It’s happened here before, it’s going to happen again. We need a group that’s committed to what our mission here is. We never sold early playing time. A lot of kids and families were excited to be a part of this project and this mission.”

Olivet took a different approach, and it paid off. The Comets graduated 32 seniors last year and earned a playoff berth this season.

Linebacker Tyler Frisby and the rest of the Southwestern senior class has seen the program double its win total: three wins the first three seasons, six wins this season alone.
Southwestern athletics photo 

“You’ve got to sell playing time. A lot of guys that came in that first class stayed,” said Pifer. “They saw something and believed in something to stick around. I think that’s a tribute to the assistant coaches who care more about the players as a person.”

Other coaches shifted the focus away from football. Southwestern had no tradition to invoke, and knew that it would take some time to earn respectability starting from scratch with all freshmen.

“We’ve always pushed the academic quality of the school and I think that’s helped us with retention through the building years. Our recruits knew that they were coming here for the benefits of the education, not just the football part of it,” said Austin. “Once we had a recruiting class here, we relied on those guys heavily to sell the vision. Our players were big recruiters for us.”

Sometimes, getting away from X’s and O’s can benefit a program in the long run.

“It’s a sales type of job when you’re recruiting. When you go 0-10, you can’t really talk about football. We spent more time talking about the school and how great St. Lawrence University is and what it means to graduate from here,” said Puckhaber, whose team reached the playoffs in 2015 and still has a chance to return at 8-1 heading into the regular season finale. “All of a sudden, you started to see us gain an advantage with those really good players that everybody’s recruiting. It’s no surprise that with our win totals going up, we also started to see more and more of our all-academic team going up, just because we started recruiting some better student-athletes. For me, when we started recruiting better for football was when we started talking less about football.”

Now you’ve got the recruits on campus. Most of them are committed to see the rebuild through for four years. But how do you get them to stay committed, especially when the wins aren’t there right away?

“The hardest thing was probably getting the kids to believe that we could do it. You keep selling that ‘hey good things will happen, just keep working and grinding away and it will turn.’ You keep fighting that doubt. You’ve got to stick with it and keep fighting every week,” said Pifer. “I never said when we were going to start winning, I just said we would at some point in time if we kept doing things right. That’s the most frustrating thing—you know that you can do some things, you think you can win a game here or there, and you don’t get it. The kids get frustrated but you can’t show your frustration as a coach.”

“It’s so hard for people to turn football programs around, because it takes so many people. This is a group that through tough times and good times, they stayed completely bought in with what we were trying to do,” said Walker. “We spent little time having to talk about effort and attitude and dedication. This core group that has remained with us has remained completely committed to our vision, our goals, and our process. My heart breaks for them that we haven’t had more success for them.”

Even when success didn’t materialize quickly, the players stuck it out. Southwestern has 36 seniors from its initial recruiting class. Some of them waited until this season for their turn to make contributions on the field.

“They took a big risk on the school, on our coaching staff, on me, on each other. I’m happy to see them be rewarded for their hard work, determination, and their diligence,” said Austin. “I’m really thankful for those 36 seniors who are an amazing part of the story of this program.”

The next step in the evolution from winless to successful is a turning point. A breakthrough game that gets the players to believe that everything they’ve been told since they were high school recruits is within reach. That point may not even come in a victory. UW-River Falls took No. 2 UW-Whitewater to overtime on Saturday, losing 27-20 despite turning the ball over seven times. The Falcons know they let the major turning point slip away, but the game was still an encouraging sign.

“This was a possible program-changing day to reconfirm to everybody, not just the players, that this is working. We’re accomplishing what we set out to do. The process is coming to fruition a little bit here,” said Walker. “I think we proved Saturday that we can play with anybody in the country. The scoreboard part hasn’t always gone our way. We’re getting tired of moral victories.”

When wide receiver Damon Black came to St. Vincent, the program was coming off back-to-back 0-10 seasons. 
St. Vincent athletics photo 

St. Vincent had its encouraging game in 2015 in a loss to PAC champion Thomas More. That game gave the players a much-needed boost of confidence.

“After that game, I think even in a loss, our kids realized they can be competitive and play with the schools that are really good in the PAC,” said Dolciato. “We know we’re a few pieces away from being a really good football team, but we’re trying to get there.”

St. Lawrence shook off its 0-10 season almost instantly. On the first defensive snap of the 2013 season, freshman Jayson Leigh intercepted a pass and returned it for a touchdown. Transfer Mike Lefflbine made his first start at quarterback. Freshman James Holley-Grisham finished the game with 16 tackles. The Saints won the game, 21-17, scoring the go-ahead touchdown with 1:21 to play. They went on to win seven games that year, and have won eight games each of the past three seasons.

“You started to see the guys believing in what we were doing,” said Puckhaber. “If that victory doesn’t come when they doing everything you’re telling them to do, then you start questioning it. That game gave us that opportunity to see that what we were preaching worked.”

Any football coach will preach the importance of buying in to the culture of a program. But these coaches, for the most part, had to define or redefine what that culture was going to be. That requires a heightened level of trust between players, coaches, parents, and administrators. To go from 0-10 to winning football games in the span of one recruiting class takes a lot of different things and it’s hard to distill it into one or two catchphrases.

“It’s all about the discipline and accountability. When I got here, there was a problem being disciplined on the field. We really hurt ourselves by being undisciplined on the field,” said Dolciato. “We still have our issues, but we’ve gotten a lot better. Our kids have taken ownership of that. The leadership on the team has really increased.”

“It’s not just the football part. This is a group that has completely changed the culture, the image, the recruiting, and what high school coaches think of us,” said Walker. “It’s a lot deeper than just what’s happened on the field. We’ve had such great buy-in from our players. It’s not just the players that have stayed committed and dedicated, but there’s a lot of credit that goes to the staff. There’s a lot of people that would want to leave a program that’s struggling in the win-loss column.

Several of Walker’s assistant coaches are former Falcons players who have returned to their alma mater to help with the rebuild. The coaching staff has to have faith in the turnaround and be committed to seeing it through. Coaching retention is almost as important as player retention.

“You’ve got to have a consistent message,” said Puckhaber. “We’ve had a staff that believed in it. We’ve had a consistent message and the guys believed in us.”

Being up front and setting attainable goals is also important.

“If you’re starting from scratch, you’ve got to be very realistic and lay those realistic expectations out for everyone — recruits, administration, and parents,” said Austin. “I’ve just got to give credit to our players for being really resilient.”

Finally, building relationships that go beyond the football field is crucial. Winning cannot be the primary goal or focus. If players and coaches work together and bond outside of football, the wins will happen organically.

“There’s a lot of things, but if you have to narrow it down to one or two, culture is huge. The second part of that is getting the guys that believe in it to stay with it, to stick around and see it through and help establish that culture,” said Pifer. “If you have so much turnover because you can’t get it going, you never get the culture to stay there. A lot of why they stayed is because we got to know them as people and helped them get through things.”

These aren’t the only impressive turnaround stories. MacMurray won just five games from 2007 through 2013. The Highlanders endured four winless seasons during that seven-year stretch. Just three years removed from their last 0-10 campaign, the Highlanders closed out the 2016 season with an 8-2 record, finishing in a three-way tie for second place in the UMAC. MacMurray isn't even the only team in its conference with an impressive turnaround. Minnesota-Morris went 0-10 in 2014, then hired Rob Cushman in the offseason. The Cougars won four games in Cushman's first season and enter the 2016 finale with a 5-4 record.

There is not one clear road map back to success and respectability, but the programs and coaches above demonstrate that it can be achieved, and how. For the 16 teams that finished or are in danger of finishing the 2016 season without a win, hold on to that hope.

A special Senior Day

With teams playing their final home game of the season over the past couple weeks, we’ve seen a lot of memorable Senior Day moments.

A special one that stands out happened at Elmhurst on Saturday, as the Bluejays recognized team videographer Dustin Bollnow. Dustin does not play for the Bluejays, but he is a constant presence at games and practices, serving four years as the team’s student videographer.

Dustin has Asperger Syndrome. The Bluejays have embraced him as another teammate and the Elmhurst crowd cheered loudly as Dustin and his parents walked onto the field during the Senior Day ceremony. One of the many unsung people and moments that make D-III football special for so many.

What do you know? Do you know things? Let's find out!

I’d like to include a mini-mailbag in Sunday’s final Snap Judgments column of the season. If you have any questions you’d like answered — your team’s prospects for 2017, 2016 playoff questions, etc. — you know how to reach me.

There are so many worthy stories to be told and I can’t find them all on my own. Please share with me those stories that make you passionate about D-III football. If you have suggestions for next week's column, please reach out to me on Twitter at @adamturer or via email at adam.turer@d3sports.com. Thanks for reading!

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 second 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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