Saturday, April 14, 2012

National D3 Week-- Why D3?

I admit that this blog is longer than most, yet I do not apologize for it. I also admit up front, that this blog entry is 100% my opinion, and though I am confident that my administration would agree with most if not all of what I am writing, I feel that this clarification should be made. Thank you for indulging me with your decision to read this.

I have been very privileged over the course of my life to play and coach in great environments. I have had the opportunity to play in front of 20,000 fans at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, be on the sideline of a Division I Bowl Game, as well as meet and work with NFL coaches over the course of my career. In addition, I have had the opportunity to play an away collegiate basketball game in front of a crowd of 50 (maybe), travel 14 hours in a bus to coach a game in the middle of a cow pasture (Glenville, WV to Rensselaer, IN), and have had countless discussions with people about why I love my “job.”

During National D3 week, I have asked numerous friends of mine to comment on my Facebook wall about what was “great about D3” to them. The response has been outstanding. Their responses continue to inspire my coaching, and strengthen my conviction about the level which I am coaching. The responses hit four themes with great consistency: Opportunity, Family/Brotherhood/Caring environment, Life changing/Life lessons learned, Love of the game.

I can say without any hesitation, that Division III athletics is the purest form of intercollegiate athletics. There are no scholarships, there aren’t 75,000 seat stadiums, and there aren’t multi-million dollar coaching salaries. Truth be told, that is about where the differences end. There are talented players, who are often times more competitive and driven than their scholarship counterparts. The intensity of the competition in practices and games is on par with any Division I game that you’ll see. Though some Division III players won’t pass your “eye test” as college athletes, you should see them on the field. Sports means more to them. Their athletic talents didn’t get their college paid for, and 99.9% of them know that they will never make a living playing their sport. However, there is a part of them that dies with every passing competition because they know that their opportunities to wear the uniform are dwindling.

I could wax poetic of the Division III players that I have had the opportunity to be around. Guys like Robert Aguilar who I played next to at Greenville College, make it easy to do so. “Stump’s” program height and weight were 5’5, 225 lbs. according to the 2001 preseason media guide. He certainly didn’t play that size. He had 16 tackles in a bowl game. During the 2000 season, Robert had 162 tackles in a 10 game season! At the time, that was second all-time in the history of Division III Football. More impressively, 35 of those tackles were SOLO TACKLES FOR A LOSS—that number was an NCAA record for ALL levels, and still is third all-time. Those stats tell you how productive Robert was, but they don’t scratch the surface of what playing for the Panthers was like for him. In his words:

“D3 is... Family!... a bunch of athletes who really and truly LOVE the game (all sports)… It’s a life saver, and a life changer. If I would have gone to any other type of school, I would not have made it. I’ve met some of the best people I’ll ever meet, coaches, teammates, professors, friends, and my wife! It was one of the best experiences of my life.

As a teammate, I can tell you that Robert’s impact was even greater than that. He was the heart and soul of our defense. When a play needed to be made, he made it. Nobody celebrated his teammate’s success with greater enthusiasm than Robert did. I’ve always said that if I had 11 Roberts on the field, we would never give up a point.

One of the other great things about Division III is it still remains the sole opportunity to be a multi-sport athlete. On my current team, I have 15 guys who are playing on the schools rugby team. Can you imagine if the starting linebackers at Michigan or Ohio State told their coach that they were going to play rugby during the spring instead/or in addition to doing spring football? I was very fortunate in college to have the opportunity to letter in four sports. There are memories I will never forget. When Coach/Professor Rick Stephens added me to the tennis team I was shocked. I had never played tennis, and didn’t even know how to “keep score,” but I’ll never forget playing in a match, or playing in the tournament in Hilton Head, SC over spring break. I felt that my season was a success. I’ll never remember what my record was, I know I won a few, lost a few, but I had a much broader experience just by being on that tennis team. I met guys who I probably wouldn’t have met otherwise, and one of those teammates became my roommate the following year. Moreover, I didn’t just “meet them,” I formed a relationship with them, based on a shared experience, which only nine people in the world had. It was unique, it was entertaining, and it is a source of stories and memories to this day.

This tennis experience would also open the door for me for my first intercollegiate athletics “job” as I served as the assistant director for the National Christian College Athletics Association National Tennis Championships. This opportunity taught me more about organization, time management, and how to handle coaches than any class I took, or book that I read. I am still using the lessons learned from that weekend as a coach 15 years later.

Division III is great because academics don’t just matter; they are at the forefront of our interactions with our athletes. Our goal as coaches isn’t to have our players be eligible; our goal is to have our players be successful. We want them to learn, not just be educated on paper. As coaches, we focus on wins on the field when it is appropriate, but we spend just as much time, if not more, focusing on winning off the field. Where else can a student finish four years of college with this resume:

• Four year letterman and two year starter football player
• A four year participant in and team captain for all four years of a club sport (lacrosse)
• Vice President of his Fraternity
• Graduate Phi Beta Kappa
• Start a club on campus
• Earn Departmental honors in two different departments as a double major
• Contribute over 400 hours of community service
• Participate in a team leadership group for two years

In Division I, this would be celebrated with significant pomp and circumstance; there would be articles in newspapers and magazines, ESPN would do an interview, Mike and Mike in the Morning would make a song parody to the individual’s greatness, yet at the Division III school there likely would not even be an article in the school newspaper. Our student-athletes aren’t motivated by attention, and are often caught off guard when there is attention. They expect to do great things without reward. This is just another reason why I love D3!

What do the following four individuals have in common?
John Hammond- Current GM of the Milwaukee Bucks

Dr. Robert “Ish” Smith- Former President of the International Baseball Federation, and recipient of the Olympic Order, from the International Olympic Committee

Dr. Robert A. Briner- Emmy winner, Founder of the Association for Tennis Professionals (ATP) and former General Manager of the Dallas Chaparrals (now the San Antonio Spurs)

Dr. Coleman Griffith- considered to be the “First Sports Psychologist,” and “Father of Sports Psychology”

Not only were they talented student athletes, but they all attended the same small Division III school that had a student population of under 600 students during their time of enrollment. This is a testament of what is great about Division III, we begin our college careers with the end result in mind. Though our 40 time, or our height might not make us a viable candidate for professional sports as a player, we are prepared for role of leadership within those professional organizations. Our ability to handle our college career without the “support services” of our scholarship level counterparts prepares us to be successful as we enter our careers without any hand holding.

I don’t necessarily believe that Division I and Division II are bad; they are just different. I doubt that coaches in the SEC talk to their player’s parents after games, win or lose. I like the full immersion that a coach/player has the opportunity to experience at a Division III school. I wonder when the last time Coach Saban was greeted with a hug on the field after a game from the parent of a player. I wonder if Urban Meyer ever was saddened by the fact that he would never get a high five from one of his players’ younger siblings after the game in what had become a four-year tradition. I wonder how many DI coaches get a Pop Warner Football update from his back-up safeties younger brother at every home game, win or lose, on his way off the field. Family is a focus of all teams, but the extended family that comes from a smaller college athletic environment is amazing. When was the last time that Mack Brown served as the public address announcer for the men’s and women’s basketball game, spending time picking out a play list for the students, and coming up with a unique way to announce each player’s name.

Brian Bruha, the Director of Facilities at Lake Forest, wrote about his experience as a Division III basketball player on my Facebook wall. Like me, after graduation, he has found himself working at a Division III institution, still addicted to the environment.

“D3 is a place where good, and sometimes, great athletes find a place to play. In doing so, they find a family that they are committed to and are willing to work for. Being selfless is the epitome of D3. You are only playing for your team as a limited few are able to play beyond this experience. You come to D3 because of a coach, or institutional reputation, you stay for the teammates and the relationships built through hard work, fun, and the game days. You look back on the experience not realizing in the moment how short of a time it is. Work hard in the moment and you are rewarded with a lifetime of friends, memories, and a place to reunite… I wouldn’t have traded it for the world.”

Our public address announcer commented on Facebook:
“D3 sports means inclusiveness at every level. I’m the announcer, my son runs the video cameras, my daughter assists the coaches, we all know people on the field, as well as the people in the stands, and we know them well. Everyone in the stands knows someone else, either on the field, or on the sideline, or in the stands with them. There are no loners in D3 sports, because we won’t let you be a loner. Everyone is part of the team.”

Did I mention that our PA announcer is also the Director of Annual Giving for the College?

One of my graduating seniors this year commented on the D3 experience, stating the following:

“The best part of D3 sports is the family that is formed over four years. I didn’t have classmates leave early for the draft or anything like that, the 11 seniors that played all four years are my best friends and that won’t change. The relationships that are formed with the coaches are also special. For a coach to say ‘call him if I ever needed anything’, and mean it, is very special as well. Overall, D3 sports are all about the love of the game, and nothing else. We learn to be true students who can handle school, and still do amazing things on the field. It is a well rounded experience that helps build who we are.”

In 1999, Sean Sornsin, a student-athlete at Cornell College wrote the following article for the student newspaper on “Why We Play Division III Athletics.” You can find that article here:

This should be required reading for ANY and ALL Division III student athletes before they begin their career. I’ll actually be sending it to all of our incoming players this year as part of their welcome packet.

Over 40% of all the NCAA participates at the Division III level, making it by far the largest component of the NCAA. One of the greatest parts of the D3 experience is meeting those that shared the D3 experience at another institution. Though the school name may change, the stories are the same. They remember training without a strength coach, eating in the cafeteria, not at a training table, grueling bus rides, sleeping four to a room in a hotel, and loving every minute of the experience. We all have that coach we are still close to, that team that we hate, and that opponent that wowed us. We all remember that kid that came in as a freshman and looked great in drills, but couldn’t play a lick. We remember the kids that came in, and were only there for a year. They didn’t have what it took to be a Division III athlete. They didn’t have the inner makeup that we had. Most importantly, now that we have graduated, they’ll NEVER have what we have, our teammates, coaches, family and memories.

To this day, I consider myself lucky, because I am still involved in the D3 experience. So when I am asked “WHY D3,” my response is simple, “D3 is everything I hope to be. It is diverse, well-rounded, and an environment geared toward success and development of every individual who wants to embrace it.”