Nov. 20, 2008

By Amy Farnum Novin

When Matt Land was hired as the head football at Trine University three years ago, the program was down and out.  The team had combined for a 2-28 record in the previous three seasons, including a pair of 0-10 campaigns in 2003 and 2005.  Things were incredibly bleak.

Land, along with his first two assistant coaches on the staff – Dan Pifer and Jacob Kinsey - immediately sat down and made a long list of problems and reasons why the program had hit such hard times.  Trine had recently made the transition from the NAIA to NCAA Division III in 2003, but Land believed the problems ran much deeper.

“There was an extensive list,” said Land.  “The biggest problem we identified was citizenship – they just were not very good citizens.  You cannot endear yourself to the community or university and the students for the support you need to be great, if you’re not good citizens first.”

Land and his staff corrected the problem by ridding the roster of players that were not committed to the new philosophy of the program.  They were down to only 29 players at their first spring practice in 2006.

“We decided that we were going to be personally accountable for everything they did -- good and bad,” said Land.  “We tracked that and treated it importantly.  We set a solid foundation of trust, honestly and loyalty, which is what our football program is based on and stayed very consistent with that.”

Land, who was previously the head coach at South Side High School in Ft. Wayne, Ind., got veteran players and new recruits to believe in his approach, and tremendous strides were made.  The Thunder finished 2-8 in Land’s first season, and followed it up with a 6-4 mark last year.  Both were improvements on the recent past, but this year has been the Thunder’s crowning achievement.

Trine has posted a program-record 10-0 mark, cracked the Division III national poll for the first time in history, won its first Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association title and earned its first berth in the Division III playoffs – making those winless seasons a distant memory.

The program has not only flourished, but Land was able to keep a promise he made during the interview process to the 14 seniors that have stuck with him from the beginning.

“I looked them straight in the eyes and said if they hired me and my staff they would play in a game of great significance before they left here,” said Land.  “That was my promise to them and I don’t break my promises.  The greatest gift that I can give those guys is my word and the culmination of that promise.  It’s been an emotional year, and I’m glad I can give that gift to my team.  They worked hard to deserve everything they’ve gotten.”

Land says the most exciting aspect of the program’s turnaround is the increase in attendance.  The Thunder raised its average attendance from 800 to 3,700 per game – well above the 2007 Division III national average of 1,961 fans.

“One thing I’ve said this year is that it takes a village to rebuild a football program, and this season is for our village,” said Land.  “It takes students, staff, administrators, faculty and community support.  It’s been three long years of mending relationships and building relationships to get our football program where it is.”

Statistically, there are no superstars on the Thunder squad. They only led the MIAA in two categories – rushing defense (62.50 ypg) and turnover margin (1.40), and are fifth and ninth in the nation, respectively, in both of those areas.  The Thunder has found a different way to win every week with a different player stepping up and making significant contributions every week.

“Football is about team chemistry, and that’s what we are built on – the many, not the few,” said Land.  “If football was just on paper, or what your stopwatch says, or what you can bench press, would the New York Giants have even shown up at the Super Bowl to play the New England Patriots last year?  That’s why everyone loves this game so much, because there’s something else to it.  It takes a lot of people to be great at it.”

Trine will host Wheaton (Ill.) College (8-2) Saturday in the first round of the Division III playoffs. 

“Wheaton is historically one of the top five football programs in Division III,” said Land.  “It’s an opportunity for us to use it as a measuring stick to see where we are a program.  I think we’re a pretty good football team.  I know Wheaton is a good football team.  We’re going to be able to see where we’re at and maybe surprise some people along the way.  I have great respect for Wheaton’s program, and we’re just trying to build ours.  To earn an opportunity like this doesn’t come along very long and we’re going to play hard and see how it turns out Saturday.”

Wheaton, also nicknamed the Thunder, is making its fifth playoff appearance in the last seven years.  The winner of the Trine-Wheaton contest will play the winner of Case Western and Franklin Nov. 29.