Sweaty Men Endeavors

The sports blog with the slightly gay name

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

One hell of a West Side Story

Here's the football story I should've focused on yesterday, instead of flogging the Detroit Lions yet again (which isn't even fun anymore):

Congratulations to the Grand Valley State University football team for winning their second straight Division II national championship on Saturday.

If you're keeping count - and we really should be, at this point - that is four national titles in five years for the Lakers. They've won 66 games in that same time span.

Since GVSU plays in a Division II forest, however, not enough people have bothered to hear the trees that have fallen. But when a program keeps making the kind of noise that the Lakers have, it attracts attention. Even here on the east side of Michigan - where the "big boys" play - we have to turn west toward the little town of Allendale and take notice.

This is just too good a run of success to ignore. Slap the "dynasty" bumper stickers on the GVSU football wagon. It's more than well deserved.

Coach Brian Kelly built the championship foundation during his 13 years at GVSU (and has since moved on up the Division I ladder, first at Central Michigan, and now at Cincinnati). But his successor, Chuck Martin, hardly dropped the keys when Kelly handed them over at the end of 2003. He may have initially felt the pressure of maintaining the excellence that had been established, but has since emphatically carved out his own legacy.

Back in the summer, I wrote a feature on GVSU for Motor City Sports Magazine, and was able to interview Coach Martin. His honesty about the expectations he had to deal with - especially as a first-time head coach - was pleasantly surprising. But it was also pretty clear that building upon the success that preceded him had given him a great deal of pride and confidence.

(Of course, I'm also extremely grateful that he was patient with me, as some of my questions had made it apparent that I hadn't watched GVSU play very much. Thanks, Coach.)

The great fans at gvfootball.com posted my article on its forums when the article was published in August, which was really cool. I received some really kind e-mails from people who read the piece. Unfortunately, I never was able to make it out to Allendale this fall and follow up on the generous offers of tours and tailgates. Maybe next year, guys? I really do want to see some GVSU football up close.

You can read the article after the jump. Congratulations again to the GVSU football team, and thanks to Coach Martin for his time earlier this summer.

Read "A Grand Brand of Football"

Motor City Sports Magazine
August 2006 Issue
p. 64

A Grand Brand of Football
By Ian Casselberry

There’s something special happening on the west side of Michigan. And it’s becoming too good to ignore. Three national championships in the last four seasons. Fifty-one victories within that same time span, tying an NCAA record.

It’s the kind of record that the bigger schools across the state yearn for. It’s a run of success — of dominance — that fans and alumni in Ann Arbor and East Lansing expect from their gridiron programs. But the best college football you might not know about is being played at Lubbers Stadium in Allendale, a small town approximately 12 miles west of Grand Rapids.

One of nine Michigan schools in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, Grand Valley State University has asserted itself as a football powerhouse. And after years of close-but-not-quite finishes, the Lakers finally find themselves on top. And they have no intentions of slipping from the pedestal they fought so hard to climb onto.

In 2005, the Lakers capped an undefeated season with their third NCAA Division II national title. It’s a result the fans in Allendale have come to expect from their football team.

“They expect you to win every game,” says head coach Chuck Martin, “and win by a lot.” Martin, now in his third year leading the GVSU program, took over for Brian Kelly, who left for the head coaching position at Central Michigan in late 2003, following two consecutive national championships. Having served as Kelly’s defensive coordinator, Martin was fully aware of the expectations he had to fulfill.

“It was difficult because I’d never been a head coach before,” Martin says. “But it was easier for someone on the inside, with some experience to draw upon.”

The Lakers went 10-3 in Martin’s first season, losing in the playoff quarterfinals at North Dakota. But as disappointing as that was, Martin knew his team faced more adversity than it could realistically overcome.

“Health was a factor,” he says. “We had seven starters out for the ’04 playoffs.”

So how did Grand Valley State become a Division II football power? Look no further than the school’s administration.

“The university invested in athletics,” says 1999 GVSU graduate Ryan Maguire, program director and afternoon drive-time host at WTKA-AM 1050. “There was a renewed commitment from [Athletic Director] Tim Selgo in marketing the program, and upgrading its facilities.”

Under Selgo’s term as athletic director, the Lakers’ sports teams have thrived, winning three straight Directors’ Cups, awarded by the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics to the best overall athletics program in the country. And GVSU football has been a chief beneficiary of Selgo’s resolve.

On his watch, the football stadium has increased its seating capacity to 8,550, installed lights, incorporated a new weight room, and added executive suites, along with a video display scoreboard. And the GVSU Football Center, just outside the stadium, has been expanded by 4,000 feet.

“It’s on par with any university,” Maguire says. “It’s a showplace for recruits now.”

But sleek weight rooms and glitzy scoreboards can’t do it alone. To build a top-notch football program at a school this size, there’s another critical ingredient — talent. To find it, GVSU has seized upon an influx of transfers from Division I programs who opt for immediate playing time, rather than serving an apprenticeship behind entrenched upperclassmen.

Of course, when you’ve been as successful as the Lakers have the past few seasons, it’s a lot easier to register on the radar of high school athletes, especially when your postseason games are broadcast on national television.

“We’re pretty well-known now,” Martin says.

A vast majority of GVSU’s talent base comes from Michigan, and the coaching staff focuses its recruiting efforts largely within the state. But the school’s increased exposure has allowed Martin and his coaches to expand their scope, reaching throughout the Midwest, and even down to Florida.

So what can be expected from the Grand Valley State football team in 2006? Ask the other coaches in the GLIAC, who voted the Lakers No. 1 in their preseason poll.

Among the Lakers’ returning starters is senior defensive lineman Mike McFadden, who won last season’s Gene Upshaw Division II Lineman of the Year award. McFadden recorded a sack in every one of GVSU’s games in 2005, finishing the season with 19, tied for first in the nation. And with 29 for his career, McFadden’s next sack will give him the most in school history.

Leading the offense is senior quarterback Cullen Finnerty, whose résumé includes a 36-4 career record and two national titles. With 22 touchdowns passing last season, Finnerty is a force to be reckoned with. He’s also a threat to run the ball, leading the team with nine rushing touchdowns, and finishing second with 523 yards on the ground.

Also returning is senior running back Astin Martin, who runs just about as well as his automotive namesake, finishing with 1,419 yards last season. And Eric Fowler, one of Finnerty’s favorite targets, is back, too. The senior wide receiver caught six scoring passes in 2005.

On defense, the focus is on the one word that should make any defensive coordinator’s engine rev: Turnovers. And the defensive unit kept its coaches’ spirits in overdrive, forcing 28 miscues in 13 games.

Running the football, making big plays, and creating turnovers. No wonder GVSU wins a lot of football games. And the fans in Allendale turn out in big numbers to show their support. In five home games in 2005, attendance at Lubbers Stadium exceeded 10,000 four times — well above capacity. For two of those games, more than 14,000 fans packed themselves in.

The big schools in the state have taken notice. In November 2004, Michigan Stadium hosted a game between GVSU and Michigan Tech in front of 50,000 fans. Metro Detroit fans can join in the fun this season, too. GVSU will travel to Wayne State in late September for a conference game. And after watching the Lakers in action, you might find yourself looking outside the Big Ten and the MAC for quality college football.

“Give it a chance,” Maguire says. “You might enjoy it.”

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  • At December 19, 2006 11:36 AM, Blogger Kurt said…

    I had the opportunity to see GVSU play this year and wow, I was amazed. They looked in every day like a D1 school. Just big size, speed, organization. Finnerty surely will end up at least on an NFL practice team if that's the direction he wants to go. They were unreal.

    They probably would have beaten a few MAC schools was my judgment. You wonder why they stay D2, I am sure they have the resources to flip their programs up the D1, because the athletic department really is dominating the D2 competition right now. But maybe they'd rather do that, or maybe they just view themselves as college first, sports second. I don't know.

    But I do know that football team is one everyone should try to see at least once.

  • At December 20, 2006 11:21 PM, Blogger Ian C. said…

    One thing that I forgot to mention (and maybe should keep to myself):

    I probably owe Coach Martin an apology for our game of phone tag. But I was afraid to admit that I missed his first call back to me because I was at the movies, watching Superman Returns.

    I'm sorry, Coach. Especially because the movie was kind of disappointing.

  • At December 21, 2006 3:09 AM, Blogger twins15 said…

    As a University of North Dakota student and fan, I'm required to dislike GVSU after all of the great playoff battles over the past few years... but seriously, congrats to them, a fine program.


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