Toughest job in D-III: Following the legend

More news about: Pacific Lutheran
Brant McAdams addresses his Lutes after an early-season game. (Pacific Lutheran athletics photo)
Brant McAdams has had to step into a program which was identified with the Westering family for more than four decades.
Pacific Lutheran athletics photo

By Adam Turer

Following in the footsteps of a giant is no easy task. Following in the footsteps of that giant and his son, well, that just makes the challenge even more daunting.

Brant McAdams is not a disciple of Frosty Westering. He never played alongside or coached for Scott Westering. He is the first head coach in Pacific Lutheran history to not possess Westering DNA since 1971.

So far, McAdams has walked that tightrope between respecting the program’s traditions and bringing it into a new era with finesse. The first-year head coach has led the Lutes to a 2-2 start. He could not have done it without the brotherhood of the 21 seniors on the roster.

“It’s one of those things that every now and then, really fortunate circumstances fall on your plate. I knew everything I was getting myself into, but I didn’t realize how strong of a senior class I was getting myself into,” said McAdams.

Brant McAdams on the sideline with his team. (PLU athletics photo)
Pacific Lutheran athletics photo

In his second week on campus, he met with each player individually and asked him direct questions about his teammates. The honest answers he received were refreshing and encouraging.

“When you hear someone talk about their teammates, you learn a lot about them. Everyone spoke very highly of our senior class,” he said. “The success we’ve had so far has been a direct result of them rising to the challenges we put in front of them.”

It began with Breakaway. The Lutes’ long-standing tradition under the Westerings was a staple and something the returning players look forward to each year. There was some consternation that a new coaching staff may try to instill its own traditions. But the players communicated with one another during the hiring process, and with McAdams once he was selected.

“Breakaway is part of the PLU culture. It’s about trust and developing relationships among the players,” said senior Anthony Louthan. “When you get incoming first-years thrown onto a bus, here you go with your new team and new family, you develop that trust between coaches and players. It really shows what servant leadership is and how importantly trust and care for your teammates can develop a team and bring out the best success.”

“When you get incoming first-years thrown onto a bus, here you go with your new team and new family, you develop that trust between coaches and players. It really shows what servant leadership is and how importantly trust and care for your teammates can develop a team and bring out the best success.”

— Pacific Lutheran senior Anthony Louthan

The first two-and-a-half days of August camp are spent without a football in sight. The Lutes head to the beach for a bible camp, non-football competitions such as “dizzy-dizzy” and “hustle ball” and swimming. The players and coaches eat every meal together, forming their brotherly bonds before they form their memorization of the playbook.

“I told the alumni, players, and administrators that if I had to put one word on the program it is relationships. For this to be built on relationships, I had to get out this summer and meet with as many alumni as I could, meet with every single player on the roster and find out their experience and what brought them to PLU,” said McAdams. “That’s where I learned how valuable Breakaway was to them.”

McAdams had another idea that was implemented this season. He invited alumni back to campus to mentor every first year player. They met at an introductory dinner and now those freshmen can rely on a former Lutes player for school, football, career, and life advice.

“It’s more than just football here. We don’t let what happens on the football field define who we are as people,” said senior Hajriz Aliu. “It’s more than champions here, it’s more than football here. [Coach Westering] always told our parents that if you only get a better football player back as a son, ask for your money back.”

Building unique relationships and focusing on people has been McAdams’ primary objective since taking the reins in February. If it was any other way, it may not have worked.

“Our previous coaching staffs were developing us as people, as better men. I am very, very thankful for that,” said Louthan. “The relationships carried onto the field and off the field as well. Our new coaching staff is doing all of those things, just in a different way in a different system. They’re building trust, keeping trust between players and developing all of the players, not just the players that are going to be here longer.”

Louthan is doing all he can from a variety of positions. He is the team’s leading rusher and its second leading receiver. He is a running back, H-back, and tight end. He is also one of the nation’s top punters.

The biggest changes have been schematic, not foundational. The Lutes now run a 4-2-5 defense and a true spread offense that allows multiple personnel and positional versatility. The important constants remained.

“You want to be somewhere where expectations are high. I knew a program that had that type of continuity and success for 46 years was going to have high expectations,” said McAdams. “For a lot of people it would be discomfort, but for me, it was an opportunity for growth. It really comes down to regardless of where you’re at, it’s about the people.”

McAdams came to Tacoma from Trinity, Texas. He was the defensive coordinator for a program that went through a similar transition to PLU. Steve Mohr coached the Tigers for 24 seasons before stepping down. He was succeeded by Jerheme Urban, an All-American player under Mohr. McAdams witnessed the challenges that a new coach faces when replacing a legend.

“I coached at three universities under four different head coaches. I tried to gather experience from their organizational leadership and character development. I saw an opportunity to build partnerships and relationships that revitalize a program,” said McAdams. “I saw Jerheme Urban step into the shoes of a Hall of Fame coach at Trinity and usher a program into a new era. I saw him hold onto some of the things from the past while still putting his own stamp on the future. That ‘own stamp’ is really just staying true to yourself. That’s really empowered me to step into this role and do the same thing for my staff and my players.”

When Scott Westering and Pacific Lutheran mutually parted ways following last year’s 4-4 season, it was a shock to many in the community. Relationships with alumni who only ever knew a program run by a Westering were strained. McAdams, and the returning players, faced an uphill battle.

Pacific Lutheran H-back Anthony Louthan goes up for a catch against Claremont-Mudd-Scripps. (Pacific Lutheran athletics photo)
Pacific Lutheran H-back Anthony Louthan goes up for a catch against Claremont-Mudd-Scripps.
Pacific Lutheran athletics photo

“Carrying over the relationships and development of character was something that was questioned. There was uncertainty that the development of family culture and brotherhood would continue to sustain through PLU football,” said Louthan. “We believed in constant communication. It was a troubling time for a lot of people, alumni included. We had an openness to the new, the change, the uncertainty that was coming. It was an important time for us seniors to come together.”

The togetherness has translated to the field, especially in the first two weeks of Northwest Conference play. In the opener at Puget Sound, the Lutes twice rallied from deficits to force overtime, eventually falling 28-21. This past Saturday, Pacific Lutheran stormed back from a 17-6 deficit to defeat Pacific, 30-23.

“We don’t let the score determine our efforts. We were down 17-6 and everyone was excited for the challenge,” said Aliu. “We want to win the sideline every game, having total belief on the sideline, having everyone bought in and cheering each other on, no matter what the score is. You can feel it. It’s an awesome feeling knowing that no matter what the score is, we are supporting each other.”

The building blocks of the 2018 Lutes are familiar to those who came before them. Frosty Westering did not concern himself with final scores, and his teams still delivered results including the 1999 Stagg Bowl championship.

“We had two great coaches before, but we also have great players in the program. When all that happened, we made sure that it’s the people and players who are important to the program,” said Aliu. “As long as the players stick together and it’s still a family-type environment, no matter who leads, we’ll all stick together.”

McAdams has embraced his team and has been embraced by his players in return. He understands that he cannot write the future without acknowledging the past. The Westering name will always be synonymous with PLU football, even if the head coach now has a different surname.

“We’re in a world where a lot of information flies across your face fast on a screen. If people take time to sit down face to face and talk one on one, we’re going to find some common ground and that will make it easier for us to move forward in the right direction. That’s why it was important to get out and get that foundation this summer,” said McAdams. “Change is inevitable and change is always hard and change takes time. It’s one of the those things that’s just always going to take time. I truly believe that the way to build is to do it person to person.”

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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 adam.turer@d3sports.com. Thanks for reading!

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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 third 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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