September 11, 2011

Tailgating like a champion

More news about: Franklin | UW-Whitewater
Tailgate like a champion today
The Franklin folks know how to roll out the welcome wagon.
Photo by Adam Turer 

By Adam Turer
Special to D3football.com 

FRANKLIN, Ind. -- In Around the Nation this week, Keith McMillan threw down the gauntlet for tailgating teams across the country. Franklin’s Griz Zone mirrors the Grizzlies program in many ways. As the football program has risen under coach Mike Leonard, the Franklin Touchdown Club has stepped its game up each year.

The Griz Zone tailgate, led by former Grizzlies defensive lineman and Touchdown Club board member Chris Lynch, has all of the qualities a tailgating program at this, or any level, needs to succeed. Former players, parents of former players, parents of current players, school administrators, and local businesses were all represented outside of Faught Stadium. It helped that the Grizzlies were welcoming top-ranked UW-Whitewater, but the big tailgate crowd was nothing new for the Grizzlies.

The Grizzlies’ tailgates started as a group of about 20 former players grilling out. These days, hundreds of Franklin fans start filling the parking lot immediately outside the stadium five hours before kickoff. Some students secured parking spots in the next closest lot two nights before game day.

“Our tailgates have really taken off the last five years,” said Lynch, who custom built a grill with the Franklin College logo in the middle of it. “Coach Leonard wants to keep taking this team to the next level and it’s not only been exciting for alumni, but our whole town is getting into this.”

Former D3football.com All-American quarterback Chad Rupp was one of many Grizzlies alumni in attendance. Rupp was at the forefront of the program’s resurgence under Leonard and has seen the support of the program continue to build.

“I don’t think there’s any other game day atmosphere in Division II or Division III like this,” said Rupp, who spent the past two years coaching at Division II University of Indianapolis.

The atmosphere creates a recruiting edge that programs like Whitewater and Franklin use to lure both recruits and their families.

Franklin's brand goes on the grill. 
Photo by Adam Turer 

“As a parent, you can look at Franklin, see game day, and think, ‘This is where I want to spend my Saturdays for the next four years,” said Joe McGuinness, Franklin class of 2000. “As we get older, we start to realize how fortunate we are to be a part of a program that’s on the rise.”

While Franklin continues to set higher goals for its football team and program, Whitewater has reached the pinnacle and intends to stay there. The Warhawks have one of the nicest facilities in the country and try to bring that homefield advantage with them on the road.

“We had an incredible amount of alumni from all over the area come out,” said UW-W vice chancellor Jon Enslin. “I’ve been at this university for 15 years. The change in support for football, and other sports, has been great and has really grown over the last five or six years.”

Chuck Heinrich, a Whitewater alum from the 1966 NAIA national runner-up team, lives in Indianapolis and began planning a Whitewater game day at Franklin as soon as the schedule was released in April. He found The Willard, a former hotel in Franklin, to host the Warhawks for their tailgate. Joe Schofield, who has owned The Willard since 1990, wanted to make the Warhawks feel at home and cooked bratwurst for the first time.

“It’s very exciting for us and it’s nice to be able to host somebody,” said Schofield. “This is a wonderful town and Franklin College makes it terrific.”

For the record, Heinrich and the other Wisconsinites were impressed with the quality of the brats.

More than 100 Warhawks parents and alums made the trip to Franklin. The teams met at Whitewater in the first round of last year’s playoffs and the Grizzlies traveling fans made a strong impression. The Warhawks returned the favor this year, albeit with much lower stakes. The two top-25 teams are now competing not just for pride on the gridiron, but also on the grill.

“This has become a great friendly rivalry over the past two years,” said Whitewater athletic director Paul Plinske. “The coaches love each other, there is no recruiting crossover, and it’s not too long of a trip. We hope this is something that can continue.”

Turnout is a key ingredient to a good game day, and both schools provided plenty of fans. The home stands were at capacity by kickoff. The visitors’ stands were nearly full. Hundreds of fans remained outside the stadium, where they could continue tailgating and still have a mostly unobstructed view of the game.

Food is the next key ingredient. While the Warhawks enjoyed The Willard in downtown Franklin, the Griz Zone had 20 yards of tables lined with nearly every conceivable tailgate food. Homemade hand-cut french fries were deep-fried on site. The Franklin Touchdown Club sells tailgate-specific shirts, which are very popular around town. Several parents of former players continue to come back for game day at Franklin. After four years, they fell in love with game day at Faught and are always welcome back in the Griz Zone.

“This is a great atmosphere for Division III football,” said Warhawks head coach Lance Leipold before kickoff. “We’re excited about it.”

Mike Leonard studies Leipold and the Whitewater program closely. The Grizzlies have asserted their place as a Top 25 team with playoff expectations every year. The next step is to become a championship threat. Leonard hopes that Franklin can become a name on par with Whitewater, recognized by D3 fans nationwide. That level of success means more than just winning football games.

“Everybody in the Franklin community realizes the importance of team,” said Leonard. “Winning can really carry over into other areas.”

One of those areas is the game day experience. Leonard goes beyond X’s and O’s and has worked at crafting a game day experience at Franklin. In last year’s season finale against Hanover, the Grizzlies started a new tradition with players walking through the Griz Zone prior to pregame warmups. It connects the players with their community and vice versa.

“Our tailgating is really going to the next level,” said Leonard. “When I started here, we had two Touchdown Club board members; now, we have 12. That takes pressure off of me, and I can focus more on recruiting and coaching.”

While you might think a tailgate is just pregame food and drinks for parents and alums, Leonard knows how important it is to cultivate a culture of community support.

It is no surprise that many of the biggest D3 tailgates come from programs with a track record of success.

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