September 19, 2012 • CoachingFootball

Building A Legacy

University of Wisconsin-Whitewater is the powerhouse of Division III football, but sticking to its roots is what helps the Warhawks stay on top

At the south end of the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater’s Perkins Stadium, a colossal “national champions” banner adorns one side of the football team’s locker rooms. It’s a deserving, not-so-subtle reminder of the program’s stranglehold on Division III football during the better part of the last five years.

It’s also the only reminder.

As the Warhawks battle through their final day of spring practice on an unseasonably scorching spring afternoon, the program’s third straight national title appears to be a distant memory. There are no Stagg Bowl T-shirts or discussions about the 45-game win streak (the longest in all of college football). There also is no media frenzy like the one sure to overtake Alabama’s practices this fall following its BCS championship.

It’s a tranquil atmosphere in this small southeastern Wisconsin city. For now, that’s just the way the Warhawks like it.

“If we concentrate on the process, things will happen and we’ll be good,” says Kevin Bullis, who is entering his fifth season as the team’s defensive line coach. “We don’t talk about championships, and we don’t even mention the win streak. It’s not a conversation piece.

“What we do is concentrate on the process, and that’s the thing I think (head coach) Lance Leipold, the coaches and all the players live by.”

It’s difficult to imagine that type of unbreakable focus, especially for a program that seemingly has discovered the recipe for prolonged glory. But if history holds even an ounce of meaning for UW-Whitewater, it says the Warhawks are here to stay.

Back to work

It’s early May, and close to 12,000 UW-Whitewater students are in the midst in final exams. On the north side of campus, what’s left of the Warhawks football team is wrapping up spring practice before breaking for the summer.

The team isn’t at full capacity — seniors are departing, and the incoming freshmen have not yet arrived. Those who are here participate in a limited run-through at their positions. The NCAA restricts contact and equipment during spring practice, so hard-hitting scrimmages won’t begin until the fall.

Making headway on any team’s development is difficult with fewer numbers and scaled-down practices, but the coaches here have realistic goals. For some it’s getting a closer look at the talent that’s left on the roster, and for others it’s laying the foundation for the lessons to come later this year.

Leipold, who is an exceptional 72-3 in his five years as coach, says terminology and formations are among his priorities during the spring. Offensively, the Warhawks use a lot of motion and shifts, and this gives him the opportunity to reinforce those principles.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

“These are the things we’ve been able to do, like get those younger players who were first-year players last year and get them up to speed and work with them a little more in-depth,” he says. “You get a lot more time now for individual instruction and individual time by position groups, so we’ve had a chance to do that.”

The spring also is about establishing leadership among the team. With the seniors now gone, a new crop of playmakers and captains must step to the forefront and carry on the legacy others left behind.

Bullis is doing both. He lost four members of his defensive line, and replacing that void is atop his priorities this fall. He admits that’s a bit easier for him than for most other coaches.

Bullis doesn’t name “starters,” at least in the traditional sense of the word. Last year, he rotated nine different linemen during games, and with more than half of those players coming back this fall, he has a strong core of experienced athletes to build around.

“I’m big on trying to wear down the offensive line, so I’m big into rotating guys,” Bullis says. “If there is a guy who is a good pass rusher, I’m going to put him on the field in pass-rushing situations.

“I don’t like to say ‘starters.’ I always say to my guys if you’re concerned about being the first guy to run out onto the football field, then you’re not worried about the team. We’re going to find the best role for you and put you into that role.”

That doesn’t mean Bullis won’t miss his departed stars. His unit lost All-American defensive end Casey Casper and All-Conference tackle Jake Keeser, who were undoubtedly emotional leaders in addition to their on-the-field impact. Casper this summer was invited to the Green Bay Packers’ rookie minicamp to compete for a roster spot.

That’s just scratching the surface. On offense, the Warhawks lose starting quarterback Matt Blanchard, a finalist for Division III’s prestigious Gagliardi Trophy awarded to the most outstanding player. They also are without star running back Levell Coppage, who rushed for more than 2,000 yards in each of the last three seasons.

Graduation is nothing new to college sports. Like other programs, the Warhawks were down this road before and found a way maintain their dominance over the rest of the field. The reason is maturity and a veteran staff, but most of all, Bullis says, is a commitment to the process.

Piece by piece

There’s a reason the Warhawks don’t discuss national titles, and the coaches believe it has a lot to do with their success.

Leipold is committed to “concentrating on the process,” piecing together all the important elements in making up a championship-caliber team. That approach isn’t limited to the football field. It transcends sports, requiring coaches and student-athletes to meet a variety of expectations.

UW-Whitewater has faced Mount Union seven straight times in the Stagg Bowl, winning four.

“Concentrate on the process means, if I’m a student, I have an 8 o’clock class and I have to get out of bed and be in that class,” says Bullis. “Concentrate on the process means that if I’m supposed to be in the weight room at 11:30 a.m., I’m in there and busting my tail, then I’m at my 2:30 p.m. meeting, and when I’m on the practice field I’m concentrating on whatever the drill is.

“We concentrate on the pieces and not necessarily on the big picture.”

Clinching a spot in Division III’s Stagg Bowl and ultimately winning a championship are the big prizes, but the Warhawks believe those goals are achieved by taking into account all parts of the process. Like the way an orchestra could not create its harmonic sounds without the collaboration of wind, string and percussion instruments.

Education of the student-athletes is an important piece to that process. So is the players’ commitment to the program and dedication for improvement. That’s no different for the coaches.

Heading into the 2012 season, UW-Whitewater will undoubtedly be the epicenter of Division III football. Fans will follow the win streak and join the Warhawks on their march toward another title all while opponents attempt to halt their historic run.

Coaches see it coming, but they also know there is nothing they can do to stop it. That gives them little incentive to worry about what they can’t control.

Bullis coached at other universities prior to UW-Whitewater. Some finished 8-2 while others finished 2-8. Despite the differences, Bullis says he always prepared the same way. It was never trying to just win the game, but he believed if his players improved and did everything they could to elevate their game, winning would come naturally.

“The good coaches always prepare the same way,” Bullis says. “Concentrate on what we have to get better at this week, and that’s the way our guys look at it. Whether you won or lost a game, I guess I don’t tie that into it. I want to know what we have to get better at.”

For a defensive-minded coach like Bullis, that could mean teaching his linemen to improve their attack against a quarterback with a five-step passing game. It could even mean working with players to improve their footwork to beat offensive linemen. Whatever the lesson, it’s all about piecing together the elements ultimately needed to support the main goal — winning.

That idea resonates beyond the minds of coaches. Bullis says his players are pushed the same way. For his star linemen to become complacent last year on the heels of their accomplishments would have been detrimental to the defense’s success.

Bullis is a true believer there is always something more. A lineman with 10 sacks can strive for 12, and All-Americans can sets their sights higher. Having the mentality that you’ve never reached your peak is important because it motivates you to create loftier goals.

“You can be a two-time All-American, but there is always something to get better at,” Bullis says. “It’s not like once you get All-American, you’ve arrived and there is no need to have a coach anymore. It’s a great lesson in life.

“Obviously it’s good to have confidence in yourself and say, ‘I can be successful at something,’ but it doesn’t have to be to the point where you think you’ve arrived. You become complacent, and then you’re not going to become successful at whatever you choose to be successful at.”

Leipold’s program-wide belief in the process deserves a significant amount of credit for UW-Whitewater’s success, but it’s equally important having the staff continue to stress that idea. Leipold is quick to point out the upperclassmen’s role as leaders for the rest of the team, which helps them pass that mentality on from one year to the next.

“The process is just to get a little better each day,” Leipold says. “Our conference is competitive top to bottom and changes on a regular basis. We’ve seen the ebb and flow of that and we’ve also had it handed to us by every team in the league either as a player or a coach sometime in our careers, so we know how quickly things can change.

“Our guys understand how hard it is to win a conference championship, and the only way that we can have any type of success is by focusing on one week at a time. I think our players have really bought into that and taken pride in keeping their focus.”

Support system

It’s improbable for one program to manage this type of sustained success, especially given the ever-changing landscape of college sports. When you look at UW-Whitewater as a whole, however, it’s clear there are much bigger forces at play.

The university is home to the reigning Division III men’s basketball national champions. The school since 2005 also tallied national titles in volleyball, baseball, gymnastics and wheelchair basketball. Those closely involved with the football program are quick to point out their accomplishments are owed in part to the administration. Athletic director Paul Plinske and chancellor Richard Telfer both understand academics and athletics work hand in hand to improve the other.

In 2008, the university built the Kachel Family Sports Complex, named for a local family who donated $1.5 million to help fund it. The project included renovation of the baseball, softball, soccer, and track and field venues along with the installation of artificial turf on the football field. The following year, the campus unveiled Hyland Hall, the new home of the college of business and economics. The $41.5 million, state-of-the-art building is part of the university’s commitment to remain one of the top business schools in the nation.

The investment in university athletics conveys the administration’s support of its varsity sports, while the growth of its business school helps impress recruits.

“Obviously it’s something that we highlight during recruiting, along with the college of education because we have a lot of people here that want to be teachers,” Leipold says. “We have some good majors to draw people to, so if they have that interest and you can get them on campus and show them (our academics), it’s always been a strong area for us. The reputation of our college of business has been there a long time and it’s something we can sell, so that’s definitely been a benefit for us.”

Coach Lance Leipold gives athletic director Paul Plinske (left) and the administration a lot of credit for the program’s success.

The administration finding the right coaches — and those coaches putting the right assistants around them — is another dynamic, which doesn’t garner the attention it deserves. With the football program, Leipold takes careful consideration in finding the right assistant coaches to work with his players. He wants players who are caring, have a strong work ethic and always keep an open mind.

When Leipold took over the program in 2007, the team was going through a natural transition adjusting to a new coach. The theme for that season became having a mind like a parachute — it works a lot better when it’s open.

That’s a motto Leipold says he’s brought back from time to time over the last five years.

“Keep an open mind with things, but once we make a decision we must all commit to that idea,” he says. “We all had thoughts as we implemented certain things. I’m very proud of the job our coaches have done on the football field, off the football field and with one another.”

It’s likely hundreds of other college football programs covet these same values of open communication or caring for players, but coaches at UW-Whitewater truly believe it’s better here. Bullis says part of the reason is the maturity and experience of the group, many of which he says have the talent to be head coaches themselves.

“That’s not to say young guys don’t know what they’re doing, but being with such a senior-laden staff is an advantage,” Bullis says. “You really have a number of guys that have a great amount of experience, and our administration has done a great job at keeping those types of people around. I think that’s a huge advantage.”

Bullis also described the administrative support at UW-Whitewater as the best he’s ever witnessed. The university discovered a way to invest its resources in academics and athletics without sacrificing the quality of either, and to Bullis that makes all the difference.

“So many times people think good athletics and good academics are mutually exclusive, and that’s not the case,” he says. “You can have great quality of both and combine those, and they’ve done that here. They’ve made it a priority, and it’s a great part of the culture of this university.”

Continuing the legacy

When you gain national recognition the way UW-Whitewater’s football program has, it’s natural to think recruiting is a breeze. After all, everyone wants to be part of a winning team.

While coaches admit it has aided their efforts, it’s still a challenge. Division III sports do not offer scholarships, so UW-Whitewater has to compete for student-athletes willing to pay their own way or rely on academic scholarships.

Leipold says his program continues to value the homegrown athlete, recruiting many of its players from within a few hours of campus. He makes sure they understand that although UW-Whitewater is a smaller school, the Warhawks program cherishes the same values and demands just as much as a Division I program.

“Our goal is to recruit and keep the local player in the state,” says Leipold. “When they see our facilities, the level of play and the chance to compete for a conference and maybe a national championship, we hope that young man and his family want to stay in Wisconsin. That way the family can see their son play, and he can get his degree from here.

“We’re going to try and do what we can within our budgetary means and within the NCAA rules, so we have to find a young man and make sure he’s willing to be here not just because he likes our stadium, our uniforms or thinks he’s going to win a lot of games. He has to be willing to go through that process of what it takes for us to be successful.”

Harold Kinney, the Warhawks’ first-year quarterbacks coach and recruiting coordinator, doesn’t expect recruiting to be that much different now from 10 years ago. Sure the team has clout as it has become a national force, but Kinney says it’s not where you’ve been — it’s where you’re going.

“You have to remember, the young men you’re going to recruit, they’re more interested in your future than your past,” he says. “They haven’t been involved in your past. Does the winning help? I’m sure it does. But you still have to go out there and work. Young men are no different than anyone else; they want to feel wanted. You have to make them feel wanted and appreciated.”

Bullis says if one aspect of recruiting is easier, it’s describing the program’s history to prospective students. Most already know all about the Warhawks and their record-setting run.

The student-athlete experience at UW-Whitewater is a unique one, not solely because of the academics or the fact that its football team hasn’t lost a game in three years. It’s a combination of staff, support and the belief that no matter what the program achieves, the quest for greatness starts at the ground level with hard work.

“We need to compete daily and just try to get a little bit better at one thing, and we’ll become better as a football team if we work on those things,” Leipold says. “We have to make sure heading into the 2012 season that we know winning won’t just happen. That’s something we have to keep emphasizing.”

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