A coach's impact: letter from a former player

We post dozens of coaching transactions every week on The Scoop and, especially at this time of year, a lot of the reports we share aren't happy ones. Coaches move on, sometimes by choice and somtimes by choices made for them. It's unpleasant, but it's the nature of the business.

One of the transactions we noted Monday was the retirement of Jim Dennison. Dennison was the head coach at Akron from 1973-85 and until yesterday was the only head coach Walsh University, a Division II program in Ohio, had ever known. Dennison helped found the program in 1995 and led the Cavaliers to 119 wins. 

Due to the sheer volume of news items we post, we simply can not detail the impact and accomplishments of every coach we mention. The Scoop would simply become unreadable otherwise. But Monday night we received a note from one of Dennison's former players that we had to share:

Since Coach Dennison has announced his retirement, I felt it necessary to write this.

When I was being recruited from 2001-2002 I was promised many things, instant playing time, a favorable class schedule, brand new facilities, etc.  I was a borderline scholarship player, and several Division I schools had wanted me to come in as a preferred walk-on promising me a scholarship after a year.  I had made a choice on a college when I got a call from a coach at Walsh University.  I talked to my high school coach, who is like another father to me, about the new development.  He said, “I don’t know anything about the school, but I do know Jim Dennison is known as a man of character who plays good, traditional football.” Based on this alone, I went on a visit to Walsh in January of 2002. 

After the standard tour, which I had gotten at a dozen other schools, I was led into Coach Dennison’s office, expecting to hear the same lines I’d heard a million times before.  Coach Dennison told my mother and myself that he couldn’t promise anything in football, that it was all up to me.  What he did promise was positive support, a family atmosphere, and a solid education, and when I graduated he would personally help me find a job.  I left his office, got in the car, and told my mother this is the man I wanted to play for and the school I wanted to attend.

When I arrived eight months later, every word he had told me had been held true.  He had done everything possible to foster a sense of family and stayed positive throughout camp. On August 20, 2002, my life forever changed.  I suffered a severe knee injury and in a moment, my playing career was over.  When I got to the hospital, I was told that I might lose my leg and I would probably never walk again.  These are tough facts to face when you are 19 years old and you feel as if your life has just started.  Coach Dennison was one of the first people at the hospital after my mother arrived.  He was followed by every assistant coach on the staff and then by seniors who barely knew my name.  He assured my mother that I would remain on scholarship for as long as it took for me to graduate, which he honored.

A few weeks later, I arrived on campus to find out that Coach Dennison had coordinated with the Department of Student Affairs to move me to a handicap accessible dorm room, had moved my schedule to accommodate rehab, had gotten teachers to come to my dorm room to get me caught up, and had a spot for me as a student assistant coach.  I worked as a student assistant coach for four years under Dennison and never once did he break his word, bend his morals, or treat the coaching profession with anything less than the utmost dignity and class.

I am successful today in a large part because of the example that Jim Dennison set for me.  The coaching profession is losing one bright, shining star today, but the legacy of coaches that have learned under Dennison will remain forever. I felt the need to share my story to really put words to a blurb on a ticker.  This isn’t a guy deciding to move on, this was a true molder of men who personified class, character, and dignity. 

As an alumnus of Walsh University, the school will be hard pressed to find a man like Dennison.

- Tim Foor

With so much unfortunate news to come over the following weeks and months, we thought it important to highlight the positive impact of one of the many coaches that will not return to their teams next season. 

Inside Scoop: Pat Fitzgerald

In 2006, Pat Fitzgerald was named head coach at Northwestern at the ripe age of 31. Since that date, Fitz has turned Northwestern into a model program. He has won more than just football games in his six-plus years at the helm (though he's done plenty of that with a 47-39 record) but also the respect of the college football world, for himself and his program. At a school that went nearly 50 years between bowl games, it's now news when Northwestern doesn't appear in the postseason as this winter the Wildcats will play in their fifth straight bowl. 

His success has come from embracing the university's strengths and turning what some aspects that be might perceived as challenges into selling points for his program. Those in the game consider Fitz one of the ideal head coaches, the type of guy you would ask to create a program from scratch. 

Last week we ran an article questionning whether "He's too young" was a valid criticism of potential head coaches. Watch the video above and hear how he responds to that one and you'll quickly be able to see why so many other coaches think Fitz will go down as one of the great coaches of our generation. 

The Scoop on the North Park University (D-III) opening

Earlier today we learned that North Park University (D-III - Chicago, IL) head coach Scott Pethtel had been let go after serving as head coach of the Vikings for the past seven seasons. Coach P has helped rebuild the foundation of a program that had once really struggled on and off the field, and the next head coach should benefit because of him and his staff's work.

North Park University is located on the north side of Chicago and competes in the very competitive College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin alongside teams like North Central, Illinois Wesleyan, Wheaton, and Elmhurst. The conference is highly regarded as one of the top three toughest small college football conferences in the nation, and almost always receives an at large bid for the D-III playoffs, and can make a case for another at large bid for their third place team more times than not.

The campus setting is very nice, and while it is surruonded by city streets, you hardly notice it while walking through campus, making it easy to forget that your in one of the nation's largest cities. With that said, recruits and student athletes get a unique experience of having one of the most vibrant cities  in the U.S. at their fingertips, while still getting a true small college feel. Very rare.

The field and indoor training facility are named after Mike Holmgren and his family, who have made substantial donations to help the athletic facilities at North Park. Several of Holmgren's children and in-laws graduated from the University. We understand that coach Holmgren often makes the occasion trip to Chicago and swings by campus to address the team or visit with coaches. That's one booster most head coaches and athletic directors would love to have by their side. 

Administrative support is excellent, everyone on campus, from the Vice President to the people in admissions are all very approachable and supportive of the football program. 

While the program hasn't had a conference victory since 2000, Pethtel's staff's did an an admirable job of closing the competitive gap by recruiting the right type student-athlete that will stick with the program and develop over a four year period. The job would be great for an established recruiter who can recruit the Chicagoland area, which is very populated with quality D-III programs. Chicago is an area that many other programs in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and Iowa are really starting to saturate looking for quality student athletes to build their program with, and there is no shortage of them in the city and suburbs.

With everything else seemingly in place, this would be a tremendous opportunity for the right hire.

Georgia alters practice routine to prepare for the triple option

After wrapping up the SEC East crown on Saturday, Georgia will take a challenging two-game detour outside of conference play before playing for the league championship on December 1. 

The Bulldogs will play back-to-back home games against triple option mavens Georgia Southern and Georgia Tech beginning this Saturday. At a hair over 400 yards per game (and 6.68 yards per carry), Georgia Southern runs for more yards per game than any team in college football across all levels. No other college football team averages more than 385 yards.

Paul Johnson's isn't too far behind their in-state counterparts, ranking fourth in FBS at 324.4 yards per game and 5.86 yards per carry.  

While Mark Richt's team will be heavily favored to win both games, Todd Grantham's defense has it work cut out for it, so Georgia decided to cut out its normal practice week routine. The Bulldogs practiced in full pads on Monday and allowed the scout team offense to use cut blocks against the starting defense.

“It’s very, very, very difficult to simulate in practice,” Richt told the Athens Banner-Herald. “You can’t do it. … As you’re trying to adjust to not only what they’re doing schematically, you’re also adjusting to how well they do it. Their execution, their speed, their quick decision-making and all that type of thing that can become very, very frustrating.”

Georgia Southern has the ability to frustrate even the best defenses in college football. Recall the Eagles' trip last season to Tuscaloosa, when the eventual national champions (who led FBS by allowing just 72.1 rushing yards and 8.1 points per game) allowed a season-worst 301 rushing yards and 21 points.

Grantham was non-committal when asked of the benefits to playing two triple offenses in a row.

“I guess in some ways,” Grantham said. “I mean, I don’t know. Whatever. I didn't set the schedule, so I’ll do whatever they say.”

Grantham has faced Georgia Tech's triple option twice in his tenure at Georgia. The 2010 meeting saw the Yellow Jackets compile 512 yards of offense in a 42-34 Bulldogs win. Last season, Georgia limited Georgia Tech to 355 yards in a 31-17 victory. 

Jim Harbaugh: Motivational speeches are overrated

A handful of Bay Area high school coaches got the opportunity to sit down behind closed doors with 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh last night for a "Gameday Speech Clinic" where the head coach touched on everything from leadership, to teaching, to relationship building.

The coaches in attendance got a lot of quality material from the experience, according to MaxPreps.com.

Sequoia HS (CA) coach Rob Poulos noted that Harbaugh was very down to earth and addressed the group of coaches as colleagues while offering some some quality insight.

"I liked him right off because he peeled away the BS real fast and the motivational issues. He got right to the heart of the matter – your relationship with the players. He wasn't selling a bill of goods. We found out there was a lot more similarities than differences between his level and ours."

Harbaugh also told the coaches in attendance that he's not real big on motivational speeches.

"If those things really could make a difference, you'd see motivational speakers as coaches. I'm an information guy. That's what I think all good coaches are about." Harbaugh explained.

Leigh HS (CA) head coach Kyle Padia, a former quarterback at Northern Illinois, took one idea from the mini clinic that he plans to go back to share with his assistant coaches.

"He talked about trusting your coaches and putting your ego aside. The best idea doesn't necessarily have to come from the head coach. It's all about taking that plan and carrying it out."

Padia also noted one nugget that stuck with him about Harbaugh and those motivational speeches. "He's a big proponent of preparation and practice and not necessarily needing a big speech on game day. He said pregame speeches all are forgotten by the time you get out the field and warm-up anyway."

There you have it. A solid, and proven approach to building a program.

Forget the motivational material and focus on what really matters (although everyone does enjoy a good motivational highlight video to get the blood pumping). Harbaugh and his staff revitalized the Stanford program, and immediately helped to breathe new life into the 49ers organization, by doing what coaching is really all about; quality teaching and instruction, providing players with the information that they need to be successful, and building meaningful relationships.

Leave the motivational speeches to the professional speakers.

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