Louisiana College athletics photo
2016 Western New England athletics photo
2017 Washington & Lee athletics file photo
2017 Thomas More athletics file photo
By Adam Turer
For some young D-III head coaches, their program is all they know.
There is a special sense of pride and commitment and responsibility that comes with coaching your alma mater.
Rookie head coaches at Washington and Lee, Western New England, and Thomas More are learning what still-young head coaches at Louisiana College and Maryville have recently discovered: There are benefits and challenges that come with leading the only college program you’ve ever been a part of.
“There’s familiarity, just being here. I never went anywhere else,” said Golden Bears head coach Jason Lebeau. “Being part of the rise of this program from my senior year when we won six games to being here for all of the ups and downs, I have an understanding of everything we’ve had to do to get where we are now.”
These coaches come from different playing backgrounds. Lebeau was an offensive lineman. W&L’s Garrett LeRose was a hybrid offensive player, mostly at H-back. Louisiana’s Justin Charles was an All-America defensive back. Thomas More’s Trevor Stellman was a record-setting quarterback. Mount St. Joseph's Tyler Hopperton was an all-conference linebacker. Maryville’s Shaun Hayes was a running back. It is their experience beyond the football field that gives them an edge in coaching and recruiting to the same campus where they once lived.
“As soon I took the job, the kids were backing me because they know that I’ve walked in their same shoes, lived in the same dorms as them, and had the same challenges that they’ve faced on campus,” said Charles.
That experience helps the current players in the classroom. Not every D-III player can ask their head coach for first-hand recommendations regarding a professor’s syllabus.
“I’ve been there, so I can relate to the guys,” said Lebeau. “I think they get really comfortable talking to me. I still have great relationships with faculty here.”
These coaches also understand what life after college football is like for a graduate of their institution. They have former teammates and classmates in a variety of industries and which gives them an advantage in helping their players secure employment.
“As an alum, having a better appreciation of what way our players are being pulled when they’re not with us gives me a better understanding of what they’re going through at each time of the year,” said LeRose. “We’re looking long-term for players now after football, reaching out to alumni in the industry they’re interested in. I can be that resource for our players. We want to win on Saturdays, but there’s a much bigger picture that we’re a part of here.”
Charles is Louisiana College football. He was part of the initial recruiting class that restarted football at the school in 2000. After excelling as a player, he anticipated heading home to Texas to coach, likely starting at the high school level. But the opportunity to stay at LC presented itself and he now has the opportunity to build as head coach what he and his teammates started as a team full of freshmen 18 years ago.
“I really enjoy the aspect of knowing all of the alumni. That’s been a big-time motivation for me, to represent all of the alumni who have come through here,” said Charles. “All of those guys laid the foundation for what we’re trying to build on now.”
Even when you’ve been around the traditions for your entire adult life, it feels different as a head coach. Stellman experienced his first Saints championship walk, leading his team through the parents, alumni, and fans tailgating prior to Thomas More’s home opener in Week 3.
“Getting to see all the fans, it was incredible. I’ve always heard the other coaches talk about it,” he said. “We have such a great support system here at Thomas More. It’s a special place. Obviously for me being alum, it has a lot more meaning to me.”
Former teammates of these coaches are now more invested in their programs than if an outsider was brought in to take the reins. The domino effect of hiring a former player who knows the ins and outs extends to recruiting, fundraising, and overall support.
“Guys have been really positive that there’s an alum and someone who really understands this place,” said Lebeau. “Guys I played with are excited to have an even closer connection to the program.”
When a recruit whose parent attended the school visits, or when alums come back to watch a game, these coaches can avoid typical coach-speak. They can talk about not just the intricacies of the football team or the university, but they can share a deeper understanding of the region and its popular restaurants and landmarks because they’ve been there.
“We know what kind of a special place this is. Everybody understands the culture and history and what this university, program, and community is all about,” said LeRose. “You can talk about the region without sounding like you’re reading from Wikipedia.”
There’s a knowledge that these coaches have because they have been around their programs since they were 18 years old. There were some things they and their teammates wished were different when they were players. Now, they can incorporate those changes. There are traditions and values that they are committed to uphold, which made their transitions seamless.
“The program has changed a lot, but it still has the foundation of a family atmosphere,” said Charles. “I set expectations for the program because of what I know everybody wants it to be.”
Lebeau and LeRose each inherited programs coming off of playoff seasons. Their familiarity with the system, schemes, and personnel that led to that success was a strong selling point in their interviews. Stellman was announced as the next head coach before Regis Scafe’s final season concluded in 2017. Scafe led the Saints to the playoffs in 2015 and 2016, with Stellman as offensive coordinator. Taking over already-successful programs, especially programs that mean so much to them personally, raised the stakes even higher.
Around the Nation Podcast
W&L coach Garrett LeRose appeared as a guest on the March 2018 D3football.com Around the Nation Podcast, shortly after he was promoted. Listen in.
“I wouldn’t qualify it as pressure, but as an alum you have a certain pride for where you went and you have an appreciation for all those other people who have been in the program before you whether they were your teammates or other alumni,” said LeRose. “You put a bigger emphasis week in and week out into representing the university and the brand.”
“I definitely feel the pressure; I want to keep the program growing in the right direction,” said Lebeau. “When you take over a program doing as well as this program has been, you don’t want to have a dip at all. We want to continue to rise. I think that’s a positive, to have the pressure of taking over a program that’s been successful.
“I had a real positive experience here, but I want our guys to even have a much better experience than I had.”
This season, Around the Nation wants to spotlight players who have faced adversity while playing Division III football. As mentioned in the first column of this season, we all face challenges just to play D-III football. Some face more than others.
Western New England senior outside linebacker Kevin McLaughlin has remained on the field while battling a medical condition that nearly ended his football career.
The biggest moment of adversity I have faced as a Division III football player was having to adapt to a medical condition that was impacting my performance on the field. While training for my second season as a Golden Bear, I found that I frequently had dizzy spells, temporarily would lose my vision, sometimes faint, and I was having trouble with my memory. Eventually I ended up having a couple grand mal seizures and a week before preseason camp started I was diagnosed as epileptic, put on medication, and was encouraged not to play football by medical experts. After some discussion I was cleared to play and determined to overcome the challenges that would occur over the coming season and the rest of my football career.
The adversity only began with the diagnosis; it elevated during camp. My physical conditioning was hindered by the medication I was taking. I often battled shortness of breath during conditioning sessions. I was overly tired at all hours of the day. All of those ailments were things I could push through, but as the season wore on I ended up frequently cramping in my lower half. In our home playoff game against Husson, I was completely immobilized late in the second half with painful double leg cramps and had to sit on the bench with my legs covered in ice packs. To cope with the cramping I have to stay on top of my diet and physical preparation. I have to closely monitor my salt intake and make sure I was properly fueled for practice and on game day. I spend hours every day preparing my body to play. Foam rolling, ice-bathing, stretching, and a number of other techniques have become routine.
Fortunately, I have been able to continually adjust and re-adjust my strategy to overcome the adversity imposed on me by my condition. I wouldn't have been able to do so without my teammates, coaches, and the athletic training staff at WNE. The coaching staff has always looked out for my well-being. Rather than tossing me aside as damaged goods, the coaching staff attacked the issue head-on and made adjustments to my routine that made a huge difference in my ability to make an impact in practice and on game day. My teammates stood by me and were understanding to my limitations and encouraging when my spirit was low. The athletic training staff put in countless hours to prepare my body to perform on a daily basis. They continue to go above and beyond to help me and my teammates play the game we love.
If you or someone you know has a story of overcoming and would like to be featured in Players’ Corner this year, please reach out to me at any time.
What do you know? Do you know things? Let's find out!
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 Division III football. If you have suggestions for next week's column, please reach out to me on Twitter at @adamturer or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for reading!