|Louisiana College and new head coach Justin Charles haven't had a ton to jump up and down about this season, but the program has a couple of wins and remains healthy after the late-offseason coaching change.
Louisiana College athletics photo
By Adam Turer
You spent your offseason working your butt off to prepare for your senior season.
You committed to and dedicated yourself to a program for three years and are determined to go out on a high note.
But before you report to camp for the final time in August, you find out your head coach has unexpectedly left your program to take on a new challenge.
Late coaching changes can derail a program and also create a domino effect that alters the course of other programs.
This season seemed to have more late coaching changes than usual, and the repercussions are still being felt across the D-III landscape.
“I haven’t had time since April 27 to sit down and drink a cup of coffee,” said Louisiana College head coach Justin Charles, who was elevated from defensive coordinator after Dennis Dunn resigned to take over a high school program. “I’ve got a million notes in my phone to get organized after the season.”
Two programs are no longer playing football this season. Maranatha Baptist shuttered its 46-year-old football program in the wake of Nate Spate’s resignation in February. Occidental tried to play on after Doug Semones’s late-July retirement, but pulled the plug on its 2017 season in mid-October.
Other programs have forged on, with varying results. Stability and leadership have been crucial for these teams as each embraces its new head coach.
Familiarity was key at Louisiana College, Defiance, Minnesota-Morris, and Northwestern (Minn.), where coordinators took the reins as head coaches.
“I was here as a coordinator and have been around for a while, so I knew some of the inner workings of the program and the university,” said Northwestern (Minn.) coach Matt Moore. “Our senior leaders had a comfort level with me, I had a comfort level with them. Having that relationship prior to me taking over as the head guy, I’m not sure you can put a price tag on that. It’s invaluable.”
Like Charles and Moore, Marty Hoffman and Matt Johnson took the reins at the program they once played for. Their situation is a bit more unique. Taking over for Rob Cushman, who returned to his West Coast roots at Occidental just days before camp opened, Hoffman and Johnson are co-head coaches at Minnesota-Morris.
“We’ve been coaching long enough ourselves that we had a good understanding of what a head coach’s responsibilities are,” said Hoffman. “For us, it’s been mostly business as usual. We divide up the day-to-day responsibilities.”
The Cougars’ co-head coaches were elevated in August. Moore was promoted in April. Charles earned his new role on the last day of the 2016-17 school year.
“That was a difficult task, just not being around my team, not really getting the heartbeat of the team and sharing with them the mindset and culture of what I wanted going forward,” said Charles “The culture is changing, but it may take time, especially now that we’re having a losing season. We may not be winning right now, but God has a bigger picture for us in the end.”
Casey Goff left Defiance in July to take the reins at The College of New Jersey. Unlike the other coaches, he was not taking over at his alma mater and had no familiarity with his players. Goff retained Rocky Hager, who previously served as the team’s interim head coach.
|Unlike many late-offseason hires, Casey Goff had no previous connection to TCNJ before he came on as head coach.
TCNJ athletics photo
“There was never an issue of getting the kids to come out and work even though we didn’t know each other,” said Goff. “The key stuff in terms of camaraderie is there. It’s been overwhelmingly supportive in terms of the campus and the kids.”
Implementing a new offense and defense were going to be challenges, but the Lions could not even get to that point until they had the coaches to teach the new systems. Goff did not finalize his coaching staff until the final week of the offseason.
“All the little logistical things are actually pretty major,” he said.
When Goff left, Aaron Mershman earned a promotion, becoming the youngest head coach in Division III.
Hoffman and Johnson are still serving as coordinators for the Cougars, in addition to their new roles as co-head coaches.
“We lost a full time coach. We went from having three people rowing the boat, to just having the two of us,” said Johnson. “We’ve had to be conscious of our offensive and defensive coordinator responsibilities.”
The Eagles are the most successful of these programs, coming off of a 9-2 season last year which ended in the program’s first playoff appearance. There wasn’t much that Moore needed to revamp.
“Kirk Talley left the program in a healthy state,” said Moore. “There’s been so much success, it’s not like we’re looking to change.”
Northwestern (Minn.) is off to a 4-4 start and is in position to earn the program’s seventh straight winning season. The results at the other programs have been more emblematic of programs going through change. The Wildcats are 2-5 and could match last year’s 4-6 campaign. The Lions are 1-6, but only won twice last year. At 1-7, the Cougars have had the most significant dropoff following last year’s 6-4 season. Defiance is 2-5 after finishing .500 last year. Waynesburg, under interim head coach Chris Smithley, is still seeking its first win of the season. Smithley, a former Yellow Jackets player who was the offensive coordinator in 2016, was promoted to interim head coach in May, two months after longtime head coach Rick Shepas retired.
These coaches are trying to maximize their talent and win as many games as they can this season, but also have an eye on the comprehensive changes that will take shape once they have a full offseason in charge of their program.
“The word I’m really stuck on now is our mindset. You want your kids to have mental strength and toughness, and you build that through the offseason. We didn’t have the opportunity to do those things together,” said Charles. Nevertheless, he’s been proud of his team’s toughness thus far.
“We do not have a quit bone in our body. Our kids have a never-quit attitude. I’ve never seen a Louisiana College team fight the way they have from whistle to whistle all throughout each game. That’s the most positive thing.”
These programs will not see the true impact of their new hires until 2018 at the earliest. Recruiting, weightlifting, and spring ball will give these coaches an opportunity they didn’t have in 2017.
“We’re already making preparations for winter and spring, implementing an aggressive recruiting plan,” said Goff. “We made sure that we attacked all aspects of the way this program is going to be run, we just had a much shorter time period to get that rolling.”
The good news for most of these programs is that they appear to have ushered in an era of stability. By retaining experienced coordinators who have a special pride in coaching their alma maters, these teams should only improve over the next few seasons.
“This program and this place had a huge impact on my life and developing who I am as a man, husband, and father,” said Moore. “To have the opportunity to have a similar impact on young men, it’s a dream job for me.”
As part of my attempt to rekindle a love for football, I’ll be reaching out to players all season long to give them space to explain why they love the game. This week’s guest is Crown offensive lineman Matthew Leathers, a Texan in Minnesota whose team is seeking its first win of the season.
Growing up in Texas, it is more of a standard of life. Everyone has either played or been exposed to football. I really didn’t enjoy playing football until my second season of tackle football which was actually a kids’ arena league.
The reason I love football are the life lessons that it provides: work ethic, battling tough situations, and growing as a team on and off the field.
If you or someone you know would like to be featured in Players’ Corner this year, please reach out to me at any time.
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for reading!