Foundations of a first impression

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Dave Harper
New Ferrum coach Dave Harper went from linebackers to offensive coordinator to head coach.
Photo by Ryan Tipps, 

The man striding up in the black polo shirt looked out of place on a campus that was overwhelmingly crimson and gold. A crowd of tailgaters, veteran fans of Bridgewater’s football team, saw the approach, but they were unlikely to turn away the man with a big grin on his face.

With his hand outstretched, the man’s first words sounded something like, “Thank you for all the support and energy you bring to this level of football.”

That was September 2007, on the Eagles’ campus off of Interstate 81. The crowd, members of the popular tailgate crew known as Stone Station, shook hands with the visitor and, if just for a few moments, celebrated with him the spirit of gameday.

You can’t undo a first impression, and Ferrum’s Dave Harper nailed it that morning.

This fall, he’s been making another kind of first impression in his role as the Panthers’ head coach. After nearly two decades as an assistant, the landscape isn’t exactly new. But, so far, it’s been rugged.

The team began the year on the losing end of lopsided games against Emory & Henry and Hampden-Sydney. But Saturday, Ferrum used its Homecoming matchup against Bridgewater to finally complete what it set out to do and get Harper his first head coaching win.

What’s it like for Harper to head coach at his alma mater?

“Extremely cool. That’s for sure,” he said.

Harper was a linebacker during his playing days, having been an All-American and three-time team captain during the era when the school transitioned from being a junior college to a four-year NCAA program. Shortly after he graduated in the late 1980s, he became one of only two Ferrum football players to have had his number retired.

“When you talk about an honor, [I was] humbled, embarrassed,” he said. “Was it a dream? Yeah, no question. I didn’t expect it by any means.”

When he joined Ferrum’s coaching staff in 1991, he cut his teeth as the linebackers coach before becoming the defensive coordinator two years later. Then, in 1999, the team suddenly found itself without an offensive coordinator in July. Then-head coach Dave Davis was scrambling to find a replacement, but no candidates emerged.

Harper offered to step in.

“We’ll do a one-year thing, and if things don’t work out, I’ll move back to defense,” Harper said he told Davis at the time. That one year turned into a decade. And Harper came to fashion Ferrum’s run-based offense.

As the head coach, Harper said one of his biggest goals is to generate excitement on campus for the team. Make the players recognizable. Make them accountable for one another and their actions. Make them a part of the community. He said it’s leadership by action.

“It starts by being a good person,” Harper said of the mentality he’s trying to instill. “And the people in the community see that a Ferrum football player will give back to Ferrum College, will open a door for a lady, will help someone carry a box into a room, just being the right type of person on campus and being a leader on campus.”

The team expects to build on the more 300 hours of on-campus community service it took part in last year.

But beyond that, having a big name on the coaching staff will also help drum up campus support. This year, the Ferrum added former Seahawks running back and Pro Bowl athlete Chris Warren as a volunteer coach.

Harper and Warren played in the same high school district as teenagers in Northern Virginia, and they had parents who knew each other. Harper was already a standout athlete at Ferrum when Warren arrived. Now, more than 20 years later, Harper helped bring Warren back to campus after they ran into each other at an alumni function.

“He’s really digging in. He’s learning. He’s challenging the players,” Harper said of his new coach. “Obviously, when you get an All-Pro type of player who’s been coached by a number of great coaches, players want to listen.”

Harper himself needed little more than the smell of the sidelines to get him ready for this season’s role. For years, he’s spent games looking down on the field from the pressbox. But now, he’ll be in the thick of the action managing the game.

“In the heat of battle, you’re on the sidelines, with more emotions down there,” he said. “If you’re up in the press box, you don’t see all the emotions.”

Centennial scoring record broken

Susquehanna and Gettysburg combined for a whopping 111 points in a contest that tied the Centennial Conference record for points in a game -- which these same two teams set last year. Both teams also topped 550 yards of offense. Nationally, we’ve seen several instances of 2-point conversions tried and failed, but Susquehanna made the gamble, and it paid off with the 56-55 victory in overtime. Crusaders quarterback Rich Palazzi notched 430 passing yards, finding Spenser Ercole and Mike Ritter for more than 100 each. The Bullets, on the other hand, benefitted the most from rusher Ted Delia, who found the end zone three times while piling on 244 yards

Rapid roundup

I made note last week of the total number of offensive yards in a Washington and Lee game. This time, the Generals surged even further (and got the win to boot). W&L gained a school-record 657 yards in a 49-42 shootout against Alma that totaled 1,132 yards combined. Brett Murray spearheaded the Generals with 200 yards and two scores.

Six players -- Sean Hopkins, Larry Jackson, Mike Asiedu, Steven Koudossou, Joe Bonato and Derrick Bender -- each made their first career touchdowns in a Wesley uniform as the Wolverines pounded Husson 72-0.

Ursinus’ Chris Curran got two of the team’s five rushing touchdowns, but it was his last one with 18 seconds left on the clock that broke a tie with McDaniel and gave the Bears a 35-28 win.

Emory and Henry strung together two late-game scores to rally for a 34-27 win against Methodist. Defensive backs were kept on their toes as the pass-heavy game saw 17 different wideouts make catches.

Linebacker Patrick McDonough posted 10 solo tackles and six assists, but Muhlenberg was intercepted three times, which helped Johns Hopkins to a 27-17 win and continued control of the Centennial.

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