September 8, 2011

Taking the field is just part of the battle

Stevenson got to just one milestone in its program-building process. But playing the first game is not the endpoint, by any stretch.
Stevenson athletics photo 

Coach Ed Hottle and everyone surrounding the Stevenson Mustangs geared up two years to win their opening game.

Twenty-nine minutes and six Shenandoah touchdowns later, those hopes were unceremoniously dashed.

While Hornets coach Paul Barnes and just about anyone else who got a look at linebacker Donnell Brown and quarterback C.J. Hopson figures the Mustangs will be formidable sooner rather than later, it didn’t make Saturday’s 49-21 defeat easier for Stevenson to digest. But if anyone should know that persevering through growing pains pays off, it’s Barnes. He helped start the Shenandoah program in 2000 and coached it into the playoffs by 2004.

“The hardest thing is after the first game, now you’ve got to come back and play another game,” Barnes said. “Everybody’s excited about the first. And you’ve got to teach ‘em everything. … you’re always teaching, that first year, you’re always a teacher.”

In a program of 100 or more underclassmen and zero senior leaders, teaching everything really means everything.

“That first year, you’re just teaching ‘em ‘don’t stuff [yourselves] in the cafeteria during pregame’ or whatever,” Barnes said. “How to do things the right way. You’re always coaching. He brought ’em up the first night in the hotel. ... You know, ‘you gotta go to bed.’ We’re on the bus, you know, ‘clean up the bus when you’re done.’ ”

“We had to show them everything, from how we want to practice, to how to lift in the weight room,” says Birmingham-Southern coach Eddie Garfinkle, who was the defensive coordinator and head recruiter under Joey Jones when the Panther program launched in 2007. “Looking back, you kind of forget, because we’ve come so far.”

Hottle realizes Stevenson is just starting the journey that B-SC is five years into and Shenandoah is 12 seasons into.

“Everything we do is a teaching opportunity,” Hottle said. “Every rep, every play, is an opportunity to teach these guys the expectations of a college football player. Some of these guys have been college football players for what, 18, 19 days? I don’t even know what the actual day count is, but I know it’s 25 practices.

“We actually did the math earlier this year. An incoming freshman the first day of practice compared to a senior the first day of his senior year is a difference of, on average, about 300 practices. When you start breaking that down, you can really see the significant differences between a regular team and a first-year program. So that’s something we’re fighting.”

Garfinkle remembers fighting against a lack of maturity, and the time it cost the coaching staff. Players were late to practice, which meant they spent time running afterwards as punishment. In early seasons, some practices had to be stopped so coaches could remind the players to pick up the intensity; to practice consistently with maximum effort.

In Year 5, “not constantly having to deal with things off the field,” Garfinkle said. “means we can spend more time coaching football.”

That’s also a reason coaches love having their senior leaders in the program. When players lead by example, so much can go unsaid. Coaches don’t spend time policing teams that police themselves.

Rico Wallace
Rico Wallace torched the young Mustangs defense for five receiving touchdowns among his seven catches.
Shenandoah athletics photo 

Shenandoah wide receiver Rico Wallace, who took five of his seven catches against Stevenson in for touchdowns, remembers looking up to seniors when arrived four seasons ago.

“They had a certain attitude about ’em,” Wallace said. “ ‘We go out on the field and we get it done. It ain’t about showboating or nothing like that.’ I guess somebody just to show you how to act in a certain way. They just expect more out of you. That’s how our senior class is, we expect more out of [the younger players].

“That senior leadership, you hear guys talk about it all the time,” Hottle said. “Well, that’s what we don’t have.”

“The first year or two or three,” recalls Garfinkle, “we didn’t have leaders. And the guys we were asking to lead, no one had showed them how.”

The difference in maturity between 18-year-old boys and 22-year-old men is evident. So is the difference in football experience, as Hottle’s 300 practices stat shows. But another aspect is purely physical.

Barnes praised Hopson and Stevenson wide receiver Jae DeShields, who connected on a 75-yard touchdown pass while Saturday’s opener was still close. He called the Mustangs the most athletic start-up program he’s seen, estimating he’s gone against five or six. But Shenandoah’s offensive and defensive lines, he said, dominated.

“When you have a start-up program, that’s where it’s going to show up the most, in those two areas, the o-line and the d-line,” Barnes said. “You can get some big [recruits], but we’ve got guys who’ve been lifting three or four years in the weight room at a college level, and most of [their players] are just coming out of high school. That’s a major difference.”

Barnes points to his senior right tackle, Bryan Vickers, as an example of a player who made himself physically imposing through work, not God’s gifts.

“When he came in from Millbrook [High School], he was 6-3, 6-4, 225,” Barnes recalls.  “Now he’s 280. Well if he was 6-5, 280 coming out of Millbrook, we couldn’t touch him.”

Hottle looks at Shenandoah and this Saturday’s opponent, 2001 start-up Christopher Newport, and recognizes their advantage.

“You see the physically developed kids,” Hottle said. “You can take the kids you’re seeing as spindly freshmen and put them [as that] guy that really should be wearing the Under Armour bicep band. Whereas our guys wear them, and maybe they shouldn’t.

You can see those guys develop and grow, and envision that we’re going to be there in a very short amount of time.”

Birmingham-Southern learned the hard way that there are no shortcuts to building a sustainable program. Jones left for another job after one season, elevating Garfinkle to head coach, and the Panthers retained only 40 of their first 100 players.

“We recruited good athletes,” Garfinkle said. “But we didn’t really recruit players who fit the academic profile of Birmingham-Southern. We had a lot of guys who didn’t make it.”

So when the new staff came on board in Feb. 2008, after B-SC had gone 1-7 with a win over Sewanee in their first year, it decided it would recruit for the long haul.

“We kind of self-imposed a certain GPA, a certain SAT and ACT test score that we were looking for,” Garfinkle said. “We weren’t able to get the same kind of athletes. The quality of play definitely stepped back.”

But the upshot was the team was made up of players who were going to stay at Birmingham-Southern. It improved to 3-7 in 2008, with another win over SCAC foe Sewanee, 4-6 in 2009 with wins against Austin, Rhodes and Sewanee, and 6-4 last season with losses to Trinity (Texas), Centre, DePauw and Millsaps, none by more than 11 points. This season marks the first the Panthers are eligible for the conference title.

“We figured it would take four of five years to play at the level we want to play at,” Garfinkle said. And while he can’t guarantee this is the season, he says B-SC is “definitely past that stage” where being new is an excuse for not being successful.

“That’s not even a word that’s been used around here for a few years now,” he said.

Hottle’s Mustangs prepared for two years, practice included, before playing their first game. It won’t be easy to wait a “few” more years to see the fruits of that labor. Barnes, for one, doesn’t think it’ll take that long.

“They’re gonna win some games,” he said. “I’ll be surprised if they don’t win a game. I think they can win two or three, at least. I really do.”

Says Hottle, “We expect to win every week, but we know there’s going to be adversity along the way.”

And so a coach must go back to his team, make sure their confidence is not shot from Saturday’s loss, and teach, teach, teach.

Starting from scratch

Will Vealy led Presentation in rushing and receiving in the Saints' program-opening defeat by Trinity Bible.
Presentation athletics photo 

Presentation also kicked off its initial season on Saturday, losing 39-13 to non D-III Trinity Bible. It was the Lions’ second game, and it went in a fashion similar to Shenandoah-Stevenson, with TBC throwing four TD passes in the first quarter and a half to build a 27-6 lead. Through a quarter and a half, the Hornets led the Mustangs, 35-7.

Quite a bit goes on behind the scenes before a team kicks off its first game. It tends to start with just a couple of coaches, administrative support and a vision. Pat Coleman wrote a feature in 2005 on adding football, and a lot of that insight is still relevant.

Garfinkle says he and Jones were more or less given a credit card and encouraged to go recruit players. Hottle, who had been at Gallaudet previously, made sure he did his research, starting with the D-III programs who had recently gotten off the ground.

“I called every one of ’em,” Hottle said. “I spoke with [CNU’s] Coach Kelchner, I spoke with [then-North Carolina Wesleyan coach] Jack Ginn. A lot of good advice, a lot I still carry with me today.”

Garfinkle did something similar, tapping his coaching connections around the south for advice. He’d worked with former Millsaps coach David Saunders at Jacksonville State, and asked him about the intricacies of D-III.

Then Garfinkle, who’d also coached at D-I FCS Georgia Southern, took a shot in the dark.

“I called the recruiting coordinator at Mount Union,” he said. “We talked for an hour. He didn’t know me, but he was as nice as could be. I figured I’d ask the best program in the country what the deal is in Division III.”

• Here’s one other good outtake that didn’t have a place in the natural flow of the column, but was too good to keep to myself: I asked Rico Wallace how being recruited by a program with a short history compared to others who might have tried to lure him.

“They didn’t really tell me much about the history,” said Wallace. “The things that got me to come here were class size, student-teacher ratio, they had my major. And the coaches made it clear that if you come in here and work, they don’t discriminate between seniors to freshmen, whoever is the best person will get on the field.”

Wallace, Shenandoah’s career receptions leader, has done that. Barnes called him “as good as we’re ever going to get around here.”

• Okay, one more. This, an observation. Stevenson seemed to have all of its standouts on offense. Not sure if this is by chance (Hopson made six starts for FCS Bucknell, and was on the roster at D-II Fairmont State), or just the way it appeared after giving up 49 points, or if it’s deliberate.

But it reminds me of a strategy Trine’s Matt Land once shared: In your first season, put all your best players on defense. It might not help you win much, but it will keep the scores down, and give the players confidence that they’re a lot closer to turning the corner than they might be. In turn, they work harder because they can see the light at the end of the tunnel (this is me extrapolating now, not quoting Land).

It makes sense, given something Barnes said on Saturday: “It’s all about confidence. The whole game is about confidence.”

Welcome back

Since Around the Nation is considered the clearinghouse for everything that means anything from a national perspective in Division III, and because I spent the week before the season’s kickoff icing my typing fingers after helping to produce our Kickoff ’11, we’ve got a lot of catching up to do.

First, if you’re new to Division III football, welcome. We know most people don’t grow up following our 239 schools, but rather discover us when they join a team as freshman, or when a son, relative or friend does. But once you’re D-III, it’s for life. Once you discover the purity and passion of players doing this solely because they love it, you won’t see the term “college football” the same way.

In any case, if this is your first season with us, our executive editor and fearless leader, Pat Coleman, put together a primer to show you “how we roll.”

If you’ve been around a long time, but maybe checked out at the end of last season, you’ve missed a lot. D3football.com doesn’t hibernate – we released our all-decade team in January, accompanied by a tremendous feature story by Ryan Tipps. The story examines what made the greatest players we’ve covered excel, and the team inspired a bunch of discussion.

I didn’t get a chance to write the traditional Year in Review edition of Around the Nation, which left some of last season’s outtakes on the cutting room floor. I wasn’t able to relay the story of Montclair State’s Rick Giancola saying after a first-round playoff win at Hampden-Sydney that Marty Favret’s passing attack is every bit as dangerous as Mount Union’s, whom the Red Hawks played the season before. I didn’t get to write about running into Franklin coach Mike Leonard in the lobby of the Hotel Roanoke at the Stagg Bowl, reading and writing notes from a Pete Carroll book. Leonard’s program is becoming a playoff regular, and I remember him talking about what it takes to get to a championship level in D-III (which I also wrote about in Kickoff, if you haven’t read the story yet).

While I didn’t get to tell my favorite stories, review 2010’s preseason picks or chart the most outstanding stats, I did round up the best pictures of last season, which I hope to be able to share with you soon. While we’ve already dipped our toes into the waters of 2011, it’s still a good way to familiarize you with the work of our friends at d3photography.com. Reprints and digital prints are available for teams, parents and players themselves.

For the love of the game

For a long time, we here at D3sports.com have considered it part of our mission to not only be a news outlet for the entire division, but to help foster pride in and recognition for the student-athletes at this level.

Now you can wear that pride to the game. I’ve written about it before, but now I’m thrilled to introduce the For the Love of the Game shirt series:

Designed by David Taylor to visually evoke the sounds of a PA announcer, and showing the phrase three times for our division, Around the Nation is making the shirt available in the 20 most popular color combinations.

We’re not selling these just to sell them. We truly believe Division III is a community bound by what we all have in common: the pure love of the game. Since it’s ATN’s job to give you a slice of game day at as many of our 239 schools as possible, we’re enlisting your help:

Wear the shirt on game day or somewhere on your campus and e-mail a photo; It’ll run in ATN, showing off our sense of community. Tweet us a photo, and we might re-tweet it, or perhaps they’ll pop up on our blog, the Daily Dose. None of us can visit all 239 campuses to see how you show your love, but we’d love to get a look at how you represent it on your campus.

The shirts are also not sport-specific, so if you’re more into D3hoops.com, D3soccer.com, D3baseball.com or something else, you’re still included. And you can wear them beyond football season. Ordering through Zazzle means they're customizable, in case you'd rather have long sleeves or a hoodie for later in the season.

We’re also working on a second design built around the #whyD3 hashtag, and are planning more. If you’ve got graphic design talent, send an e-mail to keith.mcmillan@d3sports.com.

Your game, your words

While we’re on the topic of getting a taste of game day from all 239 stops from coast to coast, let me call your attention to the very first D3reports, and Pat’s tutorial. It’s a new addition this season, but another great way for us to stay connected and foster that sense of community. We envision being able to hear directly from teams’ most avid followers, and then watch a few highlights packages, via YouTube, following Saturday’s games.

We might not yet have a studio show, but we have the power to connect. Your reports don’t need to be fancy – take them from the stands or from the tailgate, with your smartphone – add the tagline at the end, and file them. Be creative, keep it clean and on topic, and you’ll see it on the site. (That tagline: This is my D3report, and I hope to see it on D3football.com)

And the best part is, when you go to watch yourself, you’ll find other D3 reports, and get a taste of game day from somewhere you’d never yourself be able to travel.

The ATN tailgating title is up for grabs

It’s time to revisit this, but with some serious stakes.

Around the Nation wants to settle, once and for all, which is best tailgate in Division III. The championship will be held at the Stagg Bowl this season, and the invitees are Bridgewater (Stone Station), St. John’s (Stiftungsfest), Franklin (no snazzy name that I’m aware of) and any other school who thinks its pregame festivities can go toe to toe with the best.

But, wait, you say: What if my team doesn’t make it to the Stagg Bowl? Come anyway! That’s why we’re starting the planning now, in September. Forget that holiday party and the lame fruitcake you’re going to get re-gifted. Come get some serious grub and watch the nation’s two best teams go at it.

Now let’s sweeten the pot. ATN is seeking a title sponsor to help defray the costs of travel and buying food. The participants can decide if the money will be winner-take-all or split evenly, in the D-III spirit of community. We’ll also need official tasters to be judges.

E-mail your interest to keith.mcmillan@d3sports.com and put “tailgate” in the subject line.

For old time’s sake

Let’s also put a new twist on the Stagg Bowl weekend alumni football game. If we can’t recruit enough ex-players from any school to show up in Salem and play, we can always do fans vs. alumni.

These ideas are only as good as the people who want to participate, so e-mail your thoughts. We’ll set up the format, decide flag or touch and draw up the rules once we have the interest. Fields and start time can all be decided later too.

Quick impressions on Week 1

Back to things that have already happened, between the white lines.

Although we don’t have a summer-killing lockout to blame, I still expected to see some bad football in Week 1. Players are eager to hit one another for the first time, but the sharpness isn’t always there.

Aside from the occasional 82-6 or 77-7, the games were remarkably competitive, and featured all kinds of great finishes, as Pat and I detailed in the podcast.

Among the superlatives, Wallace and Lebanon Valley running back Ben Guiles each scored five touchdowns, while Westminster (Mo.) wide receiver Carl Givens caught four.

St. John’s and Hampden-Sydney were the attendance leaders, each drawing more than 7,000 fans to the openers.

As for the five programs I identified in Kickoff as most likely to break up the Purple Reign? Well, yeah, North Central lost. Wesley and St. Thomas won, but not easily; Mary Hardin-Baylor and Linfield get underway this weekend.

Quick look ahead to Week 2

No breakdown is more comprehensive than Friday morning’s three-man Triple Take. That’s where you go for a look at each week’s slate from a national perspective.

The top 25 looks to be filled with intrigue; that’s often the case early in the season, but not always. Cal Lutheran-Linfield and UW-Whitewater-Franklin are the highlights, but Friday morning, we’ll dig deeper to see which teams are most likely to be upset, which teams will bounce back from Week 1 losses and which openers we’re most curious about.

Over/under

Highlighting teams in the D3football.com poll who seem like they’re getting too much or not enough love. Log your disagreements or additions to the list on the Around the Nation thread on D3boards or via Twitter, with hashtags #d3fb and #d3top25.

• Overranked, No. 4 St. Thomas: I think the Tommies might well end up here, or as the best team in the MIAC, and I know they played a playoff team in Week 1. So we should consider their 20-7 victory special … but honestly, from afar, the Tommies seem like they should be behind No. 6 Bethel until further notice. The Royals bounced the Tommies from the playoffs last season, brought about the same amount of talent back, and beat Simpson, 55-3, in Week 1.

• Underranked, Redlands: I get the logic behind thinking North Central might not lose to the Bulldogs if the game had been played in Illinois instead of California. And even though that’s a hypothetical, since Redlands won, 35-29, at home on Saturday night, the teams proved to be pretty even. So how come one is ranked 15th with 242 points and the other is ranked 20th with 156? Probably because voters didn’t want to stray too far from their preseason ballots, which had North Central in the top 5 and Redlands unranked, in others receiving votes. But it’s time to show the Bulldogs, and the SCIAC, their due respect. Redlands went 8-1 last season, left out of the playoffs by virtue of a stacked group of at-large teams, and a 24-22 loss to Cal Lutheran. Considering that the SCIAC opened last season with a victory over a national power (CLU’s 47-42 win over Linfield), it’s time we stop thinking of their teams as second class. If you open with a victory over a team ranked No. 4 in the nation, and there are no other major quibbles, don’t you belong higher than No. 20?

Tweet your question, get an answer

Send specific inquiries during the week to @D3Keith on Twitter, and I’ll pick a handful of questions to answer in the column, if not sooner.

Five Ways to Saturday

Follow Around the Nation …

• Throughout the week on Twitter. Follow @D3Keith. It’s a sporadic stream of short-form minutiae, most of it D-III related. It’s also the best way to directly converse with the column’s author.

• On Around the Nation’s Post Patterns thread, at the top of the General Football board. That’s the next best place to ask a question about a topic raised in the column, or continue a discussion unrelated to this week’s ATN.

• 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.

• When the column publishes on Thursdays.

• In Friday morning’s Triple Take, on The Daily Dose.

On Saturdays, the  The Daily Dose features a running game day thread, for real-time reactions from across the country. When ATN travels, find bonus observations there or on Twitter.

The press box

• Readers: Around the Nation encourages your opinions, questions and insights. Readers can best get a response by posting on Around the Nation's running thread on Post Patterns (under general football). Send email to keith.mcmillan@D3sports.com or use our feedback form.

• Sports Information Directors: To contact Keith McMillan, use keith.mcmillan@d3sports.com, or mail to D3football.com, 12331 Midsummer Lane A102, Woodbridge, Va., 22192.

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Ryan Tipps

Ryan is D3football.com's Senior Editor and begins as National Columnist in fall 2014. He was the Around the Mid-Atlantic Columnist from 2007 to 2011; has worked on all but one of the preseason Kickoff publications; has done game-day writing and photography and the pregame broadcast at the championship Stagg Bowl in Salem for almost a decade; and has taken photos at the Final Four for D3hoops.com. He's also on the selection staff for the Liberty Mutual Coach of the Year award.

2001-2013 columnist: Keith McMillan.

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