Wayne State will bring something new against UMDCOLLEGE FOOTBALL: The Warriors (10-3) play at Minnesota Duluth (11-2) at noon Saturday in the NCAA Division II quarterfinals.
By: Terry Foster, Detroit News
A photo sits on Wayne State athletic director Rob Fournier’s desk in Detroit, a snapshot of the dark days of Warriors football, when few people attended the games that usually resulted in blowout losses.
Today there is a very different picture of Wayne State football. The Warriors (10-3) play at Minnesota Duluth (11-2) at noon Saturday in the NCAA Division II quarterfinals.
They got to the postseason following a controversial decision by the selection committee to bypass Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference champion Hillsdale.
Then Wayne State needed to overcome a 21-6 deficit in snow so thick that it delayed their first-round game at
St. Cloud State for 30 minutes. The Warriors eventually prevailed, 48-38, and last week raced to a 38-26 victory at Nebraska-Kearney, setting a school record with their 10th victory.
Fournier keeps the photo on his desk as a reminder of how far Wayne State has come.
“There was a lot of work over a lot of period of time,” Fournier said. “Success does not come easy.”
Build it the right way. Paul Winters followed that principle every step of the way since taking over as head coach in 2004. Some of the steps were uncomfortable. He ruffled feathers and players left the team because they didn’t believe the Warriors could be winners, or because they didn’t fit the team culture.
Winters is getting better talent each season. Expectations were so high this season there was disappointment following an 8-3 regular season. That’s because the Warriors won nine games last year, only to be left out of the playoff field.
“I felt like last year we arrived,” Winters said. “I really thought this year, I don’t want to call it a disappointment, but we felt we were the best team in the league and we lost those three games by a total of 12 points. It was a matter of us, not the opponents.
“I think we are at a point in the program where we can sustain excellence.”
An easier sell
Winters has pulled this program up from the ashes. From 1985 to 2006, when his plan began to take hold, the Warriors were 60-118-1, with just three winning seasons. If the Warriors put together a winning season next year, it would be their fifth straight, something that hasn’t happened in 33 years.
Other schools have noticed. Fournier said he’s gotten requests for permission from schools to talk to Winters for assistant positions in the Big Ten. He even turned down a job with the University of Cincinnati shortly after getting the Wayne State job because he wanted to remain a head coach.
A family atmosphere has been created at games as alumni and donors make their way to Adams Field. NFL scouts also began showing up. They were looking for hidden gems, following the success of Wayne State’s all-time leading rusher Joique Bell, the 2009 Harlon Hill Trophy winner who is currently on the New Orleans Saints’ practice squad.
They were taking notes on 6-foot-3, 308-pound tackle Joe Long, free safety Jeremy Jones and wide receiver Troy Burrell. Footnotes like these make Wayne State an easier sell to recruits and parents.
In the Warriors’ victory over St. Cloud State, Toney Davis rushed for 326 yards and five touchdowns. In the win over Kearney, Jones had a 47-yard interception return for a touchdown, one of Jones’ nine interceptions this season and one of 20 overall for the Warriors.
“Because of lack of winning it was a tough sell (to recruits),” Winters said. “But the university has always been an easy sell because of the academics. It competes with pretty much any school in the area. We are now recruiting a higher caliber of athlete. More doors are open.”
Long said he was optimistic even after a 3-8 record in his redshirt freshman season of 2007 because he saw cliques that divided the team disappear.
“We are good because of how close we are,” Long said. “This team is very unselfish and we have the right mind-set of wanting to win a championship. We’re focused to get it done.”
Changing the culture
The school believed in Winters’ game plan and has given him resources to compete with GLIAC powers Grand Valley and Hillsdale. The school built new coaches’ offices and meetings rooms behind the stadium, and a multipurpose indoor building is set to open next month. The building includes tennis courts, an indoor track, and enough room for the football team to conduct practices.
One of the first things Winters did was change attitudes. WSU football players used to attend practice with their heads down and with sour dispositions. Winters got rid of those players and installed pride in the program.
“I would like to see us get comfortable with this success,” Fournier said. “I have seen programs do it periodically and then fall back. Our goal is to create that sense of success and achievement every year. It has taken a while to get there. I want to develop that championship atmosphere so people get comfortable with success so that it does not seem like an aberration.”
Win or lose on Saturday, Wayne State’s season has been a success. There are no multimillion dollar payouts for schools in the Division II playoffs. The NCAA provides transportation and hotel and a place to play. That’s about it. For teams like Wayne State, this playoff run is about school pride.
“We don’t expect to lose a lot,” Fournier said. “I always tell our coaches here, I want our kids to enjoy a championship experience. It does not mean you have to lavish people with all kinds of incentives — where they stay or travel. They should feel gratification for their hard work. It is no different than with any employee. Hard work should be acknowledged.”