|Scott Benzel's second season saw Westminster move forward.
Westminster (Pa.) athletics photo
Westminster College’s program is filled with a long tradition of success.
From 1950-99, the Titans won 355 of 474 games, produced eight undefeated seasons and claimed six national championships at the NAIA Division II level.
The 21st century hasn’t been so kind to the program, though, which endured a rocky end to the 20th century as well. Westminster, which claimed its last national title in 1994, left the NAIA for NCAA D-II in 1997. That ill-fated move didn’t last long as Westminster made the jump to D-III and the PAC in 2000.
The Titans produced an 8-2 mark in 2000, but struggled since. They managed only one winning record in the next 14 seasons.
However, it all came together for Westminster last season. The Titans produced a 9-2 record, which included a 42-21 win over St. John Fisher in the ECAC James Lynah Bowl. They made a rapid ascent up the PAC standings, too. They finished second (7-1) behind Thomas More and are expected to contend for a championship this fall.
So, what happened?
Credit third-year coach Scott Benzel and his coaching staff for helping to bring a new direction to the program, while honoring its past achievements.
“It’s been a tremendous quick little turnaround here in a couple years,” he said. “It’s very rewarding. This is such a tradition-rich program. They have been used to having football dominance. For some reason, when we switched from scholarship football, we got lost somewhere. Maybe a lot of that had to do with figuring out the landscape of D-III.”
Benzel has had little problem figuring out the D-III landscape, so far, even though Westminster is his first collegiate head coaching job. He spent one year (2004) as a Wittenberg assistant and 11 seasons at the D-I level. He was a Robert Morris assistant for nine seasons and at St. Francis for two years.
“I didn’t have a tremendous background in D-III, but I was at Wittenberg for one season and saw how a tradition-rich and dominant program operated and that helped,” Benzel said. “Growing up in Western Pa., I was always aware of Westminster. I learned a lot about Westminster through the interview process. One of my good friends is (former Westminster player and coach and current Detroit Lions assistant coach) Matt Raich. When the Westminster job opened up, he was the first guy I called. The thing that really opened my eyes was that the people that leave this school have had tremendous success.
“My assistants and I tried to build the program like we would at any other school. We have to get out there and recruit and use our ties and get some talent in the program,” he continued. “I think there is more small-college talent in Western Pa. than big-time talent. It’s nice to have our backyard here.”
Benzel and his assistants have been active in the local area, but have expanded the program’s footprint to Florida. In the Titans’ season-opening 40-0 win over Hiram, Florida products tallied five of the team’s six touchdowns. Boca Raton native Paul Columbo passed for two of them as well.
“We always want to recruit in the (Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic League). We also understand there is a lot of talent out there and a lot of kids looking for a home,” Benzel said. “We do a good job recruiting South Florida and do a good job taking care of the players, making them feel like they are part of a community. That’s paid off for us.
“If you take care of things on Saturdays, a lot of that takes care of itself. You just have to get it done. Winning helps.”
It’s been a process – albeit an accelerated one – for Westminster under Benzel. The Titans dropped their first five games – three by a touchdown or less – in his first season at the helm. But, they rebounded in a strong way.
“That first year, I thought we had a talented group. They were young and learning how to play college football. The result was a lot of close games,” he said. “It was a tough start. Like anything, the learning experience was tough. We won four of our last five games and the guys really learned how to win and how not to lose.”
The program continued its educational process last year. The Titans started the season 2-2, which included a 35-31 setback to Washington & Jefferson. Westminster led, 16-14, at halftime and had a 31-28 edge with 2:26 to go, but did not close out the upset victory against the then-ranked No. 14 Presidents.
“Really, I thought we could have easily beaten W&J. I thought they played well, but they are used to being in those situations and they are used to finishing games and we are not,” Benzel said.
Westminster finished the year with seven wins in a row, culminating in the ECAC bowl triumph – its first postseason victory since 1996.
“That bowl experience was really good for us,” Benzel said. “A lot of these good programs expect to play more than 10 games. That part of it was great for our players to understand.”
The team’s strong 2015 campaign reinvigorated interested in the Titans – on and off campus.
“Once the alumni saw that, they started getting more involved,” Benzel said. “I started getting emails and phone calls and people were really getting interested in how we’re turning this around,” he said. “It helps all the programs. I really believe that excitement you get from having a good football program will help everyone. We are blessed. The more success you have, the more alumni get back behind it. Our goal is to get better than we were a year ago and get more support.
“One of the byproducts having some success a year ago, we had a major upgrade to our weight room. Some alumni came in and helped us get all brand-new equipment,” he continued. “We have everything we need here to be successful. Maybe in the past, that wasn’t the case. I am very, very happy to be where I am. Football coaches are super competitive and want to win. We want to feel like it’s important to our school, too. We have both of those situations here. We can be competitive and we can win and I am at a school where it’s important.”
With Westminster’s success last year, the Titans are a known commodity in the PAC. So, their next task is learning how to deal with being the hunted and not just the hunter.
“Our players, once they got a taste of winning and what that’s about, they liked it. They worked harder to maintain it. Now, how do we handle success? That’s the thing I’m interested in seeing how our guys deal with,” Benzel said. “There’s a saying about grinding the stone and polishing the mirror. There’s a time for both. Right now, we are definitely on the radar. Teams are gunning for us. To me, that’s the next evolution for our team – getting there and maintaining it now.”
Historically, Thomas More and Washington & Jefferson have been able to sustain success in the PAC. The Presidents have been at or near the top for the past three decades, while the Saints have been a conference power for the past decade. Westminster wants to join those ranks, but it’s become a challenge in the PAC, which has seen the competitive balance improve in recent years.
“I think that’s good for the league, overall. You don’t want that one team to dominate. That kind of disinterests other programs. Case Western was a field goal away from being a champion last year. I think that encourages other programs,” Benzel said. “If school A and B do it, why can’t we? I can see that with Grove City and Thiel. You have two young, first-year head coaches there who are hungry and will get support from their alumni. Instead of sleepwalking for five weeks and having to get up for one game, now, you have to be ready to play week in and week out. As a conference, that’s what you want.
“The competitive balance pushes everybody up to the top. That should help our conference, as a whole, getting into playoffs because you know that, in that first or second round, you’ll have to go to Alliance, usually,” he continued. “There’s not enough adjectives to describe Mount Union’s greatness. (PAC teams) don’t want to just go in there and play; we want to legitimately try to compete. Hopefully, that’s what will happen with teams improving in our conference. Hopefully, Westminster is a part of that.”
Game of the Week
Wabash rallied for a wild 41-34 overtime win at Albion. In a rematch of last year’s playoff battle, the Little Giants held a 20-3 halftime lead, but the Britons erupted for 31 points in the second half. The hosts took their first lead in the fourth quarter and had a 34-27 advantage, but Wabash tied the game with 12 seconds left in regulation. Tyler Downing scored the winning TD in overtime and the Little Giants’ defense kept Albion out of the end zone on its OT possession.
In the polls
No. 1 Mount Union did not play. The Purple Raiders open their campaign Saturday at N.C. Wesleyan.
No. 13 Wabash climbed a spot after its thrilling 41-34 overtime win at Albion. The Little Giants return to action Sept. 17 against Allegheny.
No. 18 Ohio Northern was idle, but moved up four spots. The Polar Bears begin a three-game road trip Saturday at Utica.
No. 22 Thomas More slipped 11 spots after a 43-39 road setback to Franklin. The Saints had a 32-14 lead early in the third, but the hosts outscored them, 29-7, the rest of the way to post the win. Thomas More faces another tough challenge with a road game at Bridgewater on Saturday.
No. 23 John Carroll dropped a 33-14 decision at No. 6 UW-Oshkosh. The Blue Streaks fell behind, 27-0, and the Titans cruised in the first meeting between the two programs. John Carroll is back in action Sept. 17 against Baldwin Wallace to open OAC play.
No. 25 Washington and Jefferson’s offense erupted in a 58-20 win over Wooster. The Presidents, who moved into the Top 25 with the win, racked up 582 yards of offense. The guests had a 13-7 lead in the second, but W&J tallied the next 44 points – including 30 in the third quarter. The Presidents welcome Grove City on Saturday.