|Junior running back Jacob Earl takes a handoff from junior quarterback Braden Smith. They're teammates, and friends.
Franklin College Athletics photo
By Adam Turer
Not many programs hold a cookout with their opponent following a conference game. Not many programs employ a GM and Inspirational Coach like Emry Himes. Not many programs break the huddle on “Best Friends!”
Mike Leonard has cultivated something special at Franklin College. Many programs preach family, but the Grizzlies take that concept to heart. In his 15th season, Leonard has become the all-time winningest coach in Franklin history, surpassing Stewart “Red” Faught.
The milestone was achieved in the Grizzlies’ biggest win of the season, a 42-34 victory at Mount St. Joseph on October 13. The Grizzlies followed that up with a 62-20 romp at Earlham in which they set a program record with 789 yards of offense. More importantly, the Grizzlies followed the victory by sharing a meal with the Quakers, a program on the opposite end of the win column experiencing adversity on and off of the field.
Leonard’s 122 victories and counting are a direct result of the type of young men he recruits and molds.
|Mike Leonard with the Grizzlies' GM and Inspirational Coach, Emry Himes.
Franklin College Athletics photo
“It’s about who you attract to the program. That’s nothing against any other program, it’s just we’ve got something good going on that from day one when the player steps on campus, whether it’s on a visit or on the first day of college training camp, they’re accepted as family,” he said. “It’s not just lip service. When things are going bad, we’re still family. We’ve had our share of being behind and losing games, but we stick together somehow, someway, so I couldn’t be more proud of that.”
Franklin finished 2-8 in Leonard’s inaugural season in 2003. The Grizzlies have not suffered through a losing season since. They have made nine playoff appearances in the past 11 years and are on track to again represent the HCAC in the postseason this year.
“We have the best coaches I think in the conference and I think in Division III. Our head coach, Mike Leonard, cares about every single player,” said senior defensive back Chaz Hill. “He’s the same person to you as he is at practice. He’s the same guy all the time. You can just tell he cares and that means a lot when you come out to work every single day. You’ve got class, you’ve got homework every day, but you know you’ve got a coach who cares about you and puts you first above everything else, it really makes a huge difference.”
Junior linebacker Brayton Shannon coined the “Best Friends” chant that the team breaks on following post-practice and post-game huddles.
“That has grown to be one of our biggest mottoes,” said Hill. “In my four years, this is the closest team we’ve had. We all love each other and I truly think this is a team of best friends and that shows on Saturdays. We play like a group of best friends.”
The players have fun. They listen to music during practice. They know their coaches care about them and that the lines of communication are always open. Leonard and his staff motivate their players by showing them how much they care about each individual’s success, on and off the field.
“Being able to have fun while you’re working makes a huge difference. Our guys can see that and feel that every day when we come out to practice,” said Hill. “We get to play a game, and we don’t take that for granted. We have fun with it because we know, for a lot of us, this is our last time to be able to do this. All of us seniors and every single player on the team really do everything we can to make every day fun, and that goes back to the best friends thing.”
There are plenty of X’s and O’s that contribute to a decade-plus long run of excellence in any conference in Division III. The Grizzlies have had their share of All-Americans over the years, especially at the quarterback position. But there are also intangibles that go into cultivating a culture of sustained success. This year’s team has it.
“I love every team. I’ve told this team multiple times that we don’t have a ton of superstars if any superstars. There is no drama. There is no bad things going on. We don’t have any troublemakers or idiots or jerks,” said Leonard. “Everybody is best friends and it’s something that I’m just so proud of.”
The upsets we saw in Week 8 have a ripple effect going back to the first few weeks of the season, when teams were engaged in non-conference play.
Westminster (Pa.)’s upset of previously unbeaten Washington and Jefferson bodes well for still unbeaten Wittenberg, which beat the Titans 34-21 in the season opener.
Wartburg’s victory over previously unbeaten Central is a feather in Monmouth’s cap. The Scots beat the Knights back in Week 2, 24-18.
UW-Eau Claire shocked UW-Platteville for its first WIAC win of the season in a convincing 40-16 win. In Week 4, St. Thomas defeated the Blugolds, 49-0.
Here's what to watch for on D3football.com this week.
Later today-- New Top 25 poll released
Monday--Around the Nation podcast with Pat Coleman and Keith McMillan and Team of the Week weekly honors.
Thursday--Around the Nation column.
Friday--Quick Hits, and another edition of the Around the Nation podcast.
Saturday--You know what Saturdays are for.
We've got great content coming at you all week, every week. Follow along and get to know D-III football beyond just your favorite team, and don’t forget to use the #d3fb hashtag on social media.
If you have ideas for an upcoming column or just want to talk some D-III football, get at me at @adamturer on Twitter or firstname.lastname@example.org.