September 8, 2011

Taking the field is just part of the battle

More news about: Birmingham-Southern | Presentation | Shenandoah | Stevenson
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. 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 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 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:

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