NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: It is my pleasure to tell the story of Coach Grant Schmidt and his journey as the head coach of the Concordia Men’s Basketball program. I understand that this piece will cover only a fraction of all the great moments, games and personalities that were part of that entire journey. It would take a book to detail everything that happened along the way. With that in mind, I point out that any glaring omission of people, events or moments is my fault alone. If you have a Coach Schmidt story that isn’t covered in this piece, feel free to tell it via social media – and please share this story! Now ten years since Coach Schmidt coached his last game at Concordia, we honor his legacy that carries on thanks to the impact he had on the institution, the athletic department and the people he mentored along the way. I want to personally thank Coach Schmidt for his willingness to speak openly and honestly about his experiences. It’s always been clear to me that Coach Schmidt truly cared (and still cares) about the players he coached. I also want to thank everyone who contributed to this writing. In nearly 15,000 words, I did the best to capture the essence of Coach Schmidt, who continues to make a difference, in different ways, in the present day. Thanks for reading!
So moved by what he had experienced, Grant Schmidt sat alone in a jeep sobbing. As Schmidt put it, his legs went numb while his mind slipped into a state of disbelief. Schmidt had never felt something so powerful. Nothing in his near quarter century as a collegiate basketball coach had ever inspired quite the same emotion.
In that moment on the Haitian Islands, no one cared how many college basketball games Schmidt had won. In a new chapter of his life outside of the world of collegiate athletics, Schmidt could feel his eyes opening wide. The already faith-filled Schmidt had gained a new perspective.
As Schmidt would later say, “You don’t know who looks at you and you’re the only image of God that they have. You don’t know who looks at you and you’re the only Bible they’re reading. You don’t need to go to Haiti to figure that out. You can figure that out right now.”
Schmidt is the type of person that others gravitate towards. In that Haitian village, a young mother approached Schmidt and asked if he would bless her baby. “Oh boy,” Schmidt thought. He couldn’t understand what this woman saw in a “poor miserable sinner” like himself. There was no choice. Schmidt blessed the baby in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. When it was over, the woman hugged Schmidt – and to his surprise, a line began to form. Other villagers saw Schmidt as their “image of God.”
This wasn’t something that would make the newspapers in the way that the conference championships and national tournament victories did back in the day. It was just different. In a new vocation, in a world away, Schmidt was still following the same motto he always had: give it everything or don’t do it at all.
Of course Schmidt missed coaching, but his role as Vice President of Operations for Orphan Grain Train has helped him see his entire career in a new light. The wins are great, but the people and the relationships are even better. A point guard for Schmidt’s stellar mid-1990s teams at Concordia, Darin Engelbart got choked up when talking about his old head coach. Said Engelbart, “He makes you feel like you matter and that you’re important.”
From 1989 through 2012, the unmistakable Coach Schmidt guided the Concordia Men’s Basketball program in ways only he could. Schmidt demanded maximum effort, refused to tolerate excuses, coached with tough love, toed the line with officials, fought for his players with intense loyalty and made Concordia an outfit the opposition feared. He brought the old gym to a fever pitch and inspired a reverence for him that was and still is felt emotionally by his former players.
Grant Schmidt is Concordia’s Godfather of Basketball.
It’s a Basketball Life
The common cliché about humble beginnings applies in terms of Grant Schmidt’s basketball career. In fact, an adolescent Schmidt believed he would one day become a pastor. While the career aspirations changed over time, it was clear for Schmidt from a young age that athletics would play a significant role in shaping his journey. As Schmidt stated, he grew up playing “every sport” in his hometown of Phoenix, Arizona.
Said Schmidt, “During my playing career, I realized that I enjoyed athletics too much that I never really felt the call to go into the seminary or to go into ministry. I decided I wanted to stay in athletics and get into teaching and coaching and make that a career. I went to Concordia with the idea that I would be a pastor. My passion was with basketball. When my college career ended, I just wanted to put everything into coaching.”
The Lutheran influence in Schmidt’s life impacted his college decision. In Lutheran elementary school, Schmidt became aware of Concordia Nebraska through the school’s teaching alumni who had made their way to Phoenix. In other words, Seward was on the radar, but Schmidt also had his eye on California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, California. Said Schmidt, “Since it was LCMS (Lutheran Church Missouri Synod), I went to Seward.” Head men’s basketball coach at Concordia from 1973 through 1978, Dr. Reuben Stohs paid a visit to the Schmidt home in attempt to lure Grant to Nebraska.
By the time Schmidt arrived in Seward, Wayne Rasmussen had taken over as head coach. Grant estimated that he was 6-foot-5 and 180 pounds as a college freshman coming off a growth spurt late in his high school career. Schmidt grew up playing a guard position and now had the size to bang in the paint with other frontcourt players. Schmidt especially relished the opportunity to play against taller opponents that he could beat with superior quickness and footwork. He also possessed the type of wingspan that would later make him impossible to miss as he gestured at players and officials.
Schmidt held the distinction as a team captain at Concordia, was named the 1983 Concordia Invitational Tournament MVP and averaged a team high 14.5 points per game his senior season. This was a bit of a turning point for the Bulldog men’s basketball program, which won 17 games during the 1981-82 season, a school record at the time. Schmidt credited Coach Rasmussen with “changing the basketball program.” Rasmussen even had a professional relationship with former Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan, who worked basketball camps at Concordia in the summer of 1980.
Another prominent figure in the early 1980s, Schmidt’s roommate Marty Kohlwey proudly remembers the 90-78 win over U.S. International University, then an NCAA Division I program, in January 1983. Kohlwey served alongside Schmidt as a co-captain on the ’82-83 squad. Kohlwey and Schmidt were roommates their freshman through junior years. That arrangement ended when Schmidt married his wife Deb (Aurich) Schmidt while still in college. Recalled Kohlwey of that teammate and roommate relationship with Schmidt, “It was a lot of fun. He loved to win, and he was a great teammate. He and I had a great connection as we played. Grant was a catalyst for us for sure in the way that he played and led. I think there was a great budding coaching pedigree coming out in him already at that point.”
The relationship between Grant and Marty would pick up steam in the years to come. Little did anyone know at the time just what that would mean for the future of Concordia basketball. Kohlwey was spot on regarding Schmidt’s coaching acumen. Schmidt returned to his hometown of Phoenix and got his start as the head boys basketball coach at Valley Lutheran High School. Schmidt had just graduated with degrees in History and Physical Education while studying Secondary Education. As Schmidt joked, the first points any of his teams ever scored came when the opponent accidentally tipped the ball into the wrong basket. His success was immediate as Valley Lutheran won state championships in 1986 and 1987. A story from March of 1987 in the Arizona Republic detailed the complete turnaround Schmidt had orchestrated at Valley Lutheran, a small school with less-than-impressive facilities at the time.
As the article read, “Schmidt doesn’t credit himself for the remarkable turnaround. He praises the teams’ perseverance. He also recognized Terry Coyle, who was his high school coach at Arcadia. Coyle taught Schmidt that winning basketball games isn’t what coaching is all about. ‘He (Coyle) made that evident as a coach in shaping young men’s lives and making them as successful as possible,’ Schmidt said. ‘The way to motivate kids is to show them you’re motivated too.’”
Schmidt quickly learned from the mistakes he initially made. “I taught them everything, but they didn’t do one thing good,” Schmidt would later say with a smile. In other words, the key was to keep things simple with man-to-man defense and a motion offense. Above all, if you didn’t play hard, you couldn’t play for Coach Schmidt. That maxim would eventually be learned the hard way by some who donned the Concordia jersey.
Without question, Schmidt could have carried on as a successful high school teacher, coach and athletic administrator in Phoenix. He seemed to have everything going for him. Grant and Deb had just started a family and life appeared to be stable. Not so fast. God was about to call for an audible, one that would change the course of Concordia athletics history.
The return to Concordia
“I had a lot of people in Phoenix thinking I was crazy when I left,” Grant says in looking back at his return to Concordia in 1987. To this day, Grant admits the decision was a risk. The gravity of the move started to hit his wife Deb as she sat in their Seward rental home, her back against a wall with tears streaming down her face. ‘What are we doing?’ she wondered while pondering life in their decidedly modest house. Said Grant, “It wasn’t the proudest moment, but it was a realistic moment. She never said I was crazy. It was clear though that she had her doubts.”
The coaching upheaval at Concordia had opened a door for Schmidt, although it certainly wasn’t a prosperous one in terms of financial stability. Schmidt wasn’t even afforded a full-time position at Concordia. He was paid $4,000 per year to be the assistant men’s basketball coach and $3,000 annually to head the tennis program. A major part of the draw for Schmidt was the chance to work under new head coach Tom Baack, a well-known former University of Nebraska basketball player and Detroit Pistons draft pick. Baack had been hired after Brian Mueller finished his three-year tenure as head coach. Said Schmidt, “This was my chance.”
And so Grant and Deb uprooted the family and relocated away from Grant’s hometown, where his parents still lived. At the time, their son Preston was 3 years old and son Brandon was six months old. The meager coaching salaries alone were obviously not enough to support a family, so from 6 a.m. to noon, Monday through Friday, Schmidt toiled in the truckyard at Seward Motor Freight. He would then eat lunch before heading to the Concordia campus to assist with the daily activities of the men’s basketball program. During the spring, tennis was also added to his plate.
Baack and Schmidt went to work on building up a program that needed some stability. This wasn’t going to be a one- or two-year project. The records were not pretty – 11-19 in 1987-88 and then 7-23 in 1988-89. The latter squad went 0-10 in Nebraska Intercollegiate Athletic Conference action. However, there were some glimmers of hope. The official season recap from ’87-88 mentioned “an excellent recruiting class (for the following season) which shows some promise for the future.” In that class of ’88, Concordia welcomed John Puelz, Devin Smith and Todd Voss, among others. Meanwhile, Matt List was a sophomore on that team. It was a young crew that would earn immediate playing time and take its share of lumps. Seven freshmen saw action during the ’88-89 season.
On February 14, 1989, Baack announced his resignation (effective at the end of the season). As Schmidt recalls the story, “Coach Baack said, ‘I’m done coaching. I’ll do whatever I can to make sure that the school allows you to be the next head coach.’ I need to give him credit. Fortunately, the players all stood by me. They didn’t leave.” The motion to promote Schmidt did not take long. According to the Lincoln Journal Star archives, Schmidt was named Concordia men’s basketball coach on February 21, a week after Baack’s announcement. The school’s Board of Regents unanimously approved Schmidt’s application.
The risk had paid off. At 28 years of age, Schmidt was given the reins to the program at his alma mater. As Schmidt told the Journal Star, “Coach Baack gave me a chance to come back to Concordia and get my feet wet in the college ranks. I never thought it would turn out like this.” At first hearing of Baack’s resignation, then freshman Devin Smith found the news “rough.” For a short time, there was a period of uncertainty, but it wasn’t hard to get behind the swift promotion of Coach Schmidt. Said Smith, “It created a sense of peace. It was so relational (with Coach Schmidt), and he kept a lot of things very simple. He didn’t have all these extravagant set plays or all these rules. He made basketball simple.”
Simplicity would be part of the formula for first making Concordia a more relevant program within its own backyard. The young hotshot Schmidt would now be tasked with going up against established rival programs with well-known head coaches: Bob Erickson at Doane, Rich McGill at Midland, Jerry Schmutte at Nebraska Wesleyan and Hastings’ Mike Trader, who was just named the small college coach of the year by the Omaha World Herald in 1988.
Perhaps Schmidt was too young and naïve to know what he was getting into. Said Schmidt, “It wasn’t like we had the big scholarships or great facilities. We weren’t NCAA. Here’s a young coach.” In a conversation Schmidt had with former Lincoln Journal Star Reporter Mark Derowitsch, the scribe told Schmidt he came in as a “no-name coach” going up against the titans of the NIAC. As Derowitsch continued, “You came into the conference when every men’s basketball coach in the NIAC was known.” Said Grant, “If you were playing against Hastings, you were playing against Trader. If you were playing Doane, you were playing against Erickson. If you were playing Wesleyan, you were playing against Schmutte. Midland – you were playing against McGill. At all these schools, everybody knew who the head coach was. Here you are the new guy, you had to prove yourself.” Continued Schmidt, “I felt like, why should they respect me? These guys are in the middle or the ends of their careers with these great histories, and it was hard to recruit against them.”
By the time their college basketball coaching careers concluded, Erickson, McGill, Schmutte and Trader would earn more than 1,500 combined wins. That young guy Schmidt was just starting on a career that would eventually rival the success of each of those Nebraska coaching icons. First thing’s first, Schmidt had to get Concordia off the ground and develop an identity for the program. What was it that could separate Concordia from these other winning programs within the state?
For starters, the Bulldogs needed a dependable coach willing to see this through for the long haul. When Schmidt coached his first season in 1989-90, it marked the sixth different head coach for Concordia in a 13-year span. That’s not the recipe for sustained success. As an alum who took intense pride in being a Bulldog, Schmidt had dropped anchor. It wouldn’t be long before Concordia basketball took off.
‘Playing Concordia is not fun anymore’
“Playing Concordia is not fun anymore” is what the headline read in the sports pages of the Lincoln Journal Star on June 21, 1992. Pictured next to the story was Grant Schmidt, who sat underneath a tree while wearing a white Concordia Bulldogs polo. At 31 years old, Schmidt must have felt on top of the world. Grant and his wife Deb were now the parents of three children, Preston, 8, Brandon, 5, and Megan, 2. As he managed a crazy life at home, Schmidt had built Concordia men’s basketball in his image.
So badly, Schmidt wanted to make his alma mater proud. “I think there were a lot of question marks and a lot of eyebrows that were raising,” said Schmidt of his hiring. All that mattered was that Concordia President Ralph Reinke and John Knight (VP over athletics) had put their trust in Schmidt. The ’83 grad did not disappoint in immediately leading the program to a winning season in 1989-90. Those who paid close attention were likely noticing that the roster had been stocked with considerable talent. The game changer in the fall of ’89 was the arrival of point guard Mike Works. The Lincoln Southeast High School graduate had begun his college career as a walk on at the University of Nebraska before deciding he wanted an opportunity for playing time.
Works helped the Bulldogs go from 7-23 in 1988-89 to 16-13 in 1989-90. The young roster was just beginning to come of age. It already included Matt List, John Puelz, Devin Smith and Todd Voss as building blocks while 6-foot-7 Kenton Birtell was the veteran of the crew. Said Schmidt, “When I took over, I had a lot of pieces but was missing a floor general. Mike was that missing piece. He turned a very good group of players into a championship team.”
The personalities were unique, to say the least. That’s where the relational aspect of Schmidt’s coaching ability came into play. Somehow, he knew how to push the right buttons. Said Puelz, “When Grant stepped in, it just seemed to be a great fit at the time. He knew how to deal with our team. We were a bunch of hotheads. Grant just knew how to put up with us and make us play together and play hard.” Playing hard and competing with an edge became a hallmark of Concordia basketball. In the minds of Schmidt and his players, the program was not respected by outsiders, but that was going to change. The rest of the NIAC was being put on notice.
As Schmidt told the Journal Star, “We made it very evident that there wasn’t a lot of respect given to Concordia’s basketball team, and rightly so. The players and myself made it our No. 1 goal to gain that respect. And if there’s one thing you do to gain respect, it’s to play harder than your opponent.” Essentially a walk on who began his college career playing football at Northern State University, Smith seemed to embody those sentiments. In the present day, both Schmidt and Smith can laugh about the times Smith was thrown out of practices. As Schmidt jokes of that early 90s crew, “These guys would fight in pickup games.”
That type of culture brought out the best in the group that would make history during the 1990-91 season. The class of teammates who had once struggled through a winless conference season found themselves in the NAIA District 11 championship game in early March of 1991. Rival Hastings stood in the way of Concordia earning its first-ever bid to the NAIA national tournament. It was a performance to remember for Voss, who led the team with 18 points while Works added 17 and Puelz and List chipped in 10 apiece. Hastings managed to cut a 13-point second half deficit down to seven before the Bulldogs won, 81-71, on the home court of the Broncos.
A week later, 23-win Concordia drew second-ranked Oklahoma City University in the first round of the national tournament at Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Missouri. The Bulldogs fought valiantly in what amounted to an 80-77 loss to the eventual national champion, starring former University of Kentucky player Eric Manuel, who stood 6-foot-6. This was simply the start. Said Schmidt at the time, “We never said that we’re going to get to Kansas City in a certain amount of years. We kept those dreams in the back of our minds, and the players believed that we could reach that goal. Our hard work has come to pass.”
That campaign set the stage for what would become one of the greatest teams in program history. The ’91-92 team said goodbye to Matt List, but it got a big boost from Wayne State College transfer Eric Priebe. Back in the fold were Puelz, Smith and Works. Each of those four averaged in double figures that season as Smith (16.1) led the way followed by Puelz (16.0), Priebe (13.5) and Works (11.4). This is the time when Concordia basketball became the “fire marshal’s worst nightmare,” as Schmidt put it. People packed into the cramped and dimly lit old gym to catch a glimpse at a program on the rise.
However, that season didn’t necessarily start out on a path to greatness. The Bulldogs were 3-5 after eight games and 8-7 after 15 games while barnstorming the country against top notch competition. Finally, they settled in and played their best basketball at an opportune time. Reflected Smith, “We took on a few losses in that first semester. It was one of those things where we were just out of sync. I think we had a lot of things going on in our minds. We all thought we were a better team than what we were. We didn’t find the right mix of scoring inside. Then we got into the second semester and the games were more spaced out and there was time to relax and refresh. Coach Schmidt had such an ability to make everyone compete in practice and prepare us for an opponent.”
Eventually, Concordia hummed. Works led the show with precision and consistency, Puelz bombed away from the outside, Smith did much of the dirty work and Priebe found his role as a transfer. It all came together for the Bulldogs to win the NIAC regular season championship and another NAIA District 11 title. In a new format with two divisions of NAIA basketball, the Bulldogs would get a more favorable national tournament draw (in Stephenville, Texas), although they still saw themselves as the underdog that was slighted with the No. 10 seed. Concordia reached the semifinals while taking out seventh-seeded Northwest Nazarene, 75-63, and second-seeded MidAmerica Nazarene, 102-90. An injury suffered by Puelz in the quarterfinals limited his effectiveness in the national semifinal loss, 95-89, to sixth-seeded Grace, the eventual national champion. Everyone on that team believed a national title was within grasp.
That loss aside, the narrative had changed. Said Voss, “When you look at those four years (1988-89 through 1991-92), it was just a total transformation. We go from basically being the doormat of the league to being really competitive our sophomore year. That was a huge leap.” Schmidt’s background as an alum had given him the perspective to understand what this meant. He was once told he should go play basketball at Concordia because it would be easy for him to get immediate playing time. Schmidt would not accept the idea that you couldn’t win big at Concordia.
Said Schmidt roughly 25 years after the 1992 run, “The most impressive thing that we did is we established a standard. I think that’s the hardest thing in sports to do. They showed you can win at Concordia. They were the pioneers. They proved that Concordia athletics can be an option for people to be involved in a great athletic program and get a great Christian education. It’s all sitting in Seward, Nebraska, for you here.”
Said Works, “We really were a team in every sense of the word. It didn’t matter who scored. Puelz and Smith were definitely our leaders in that category. Everybody had different games. I don’t ever remember a time when I thought anyone was a ball hog or anything else. We moved the ball really well and they trusted me to run the show. I was just proud that we were really a team and everybody rooted for everybody.”
No, playing Concordia was no longer a picnic, and Schmidt was here to stay. He had just been named the Journal Star’s small college coach of the year and the program was red hot. As Schmidt told the Journal Star that summer of 1992, “I don’t ever project myself saying I want to leave Concordia. It has always been a home to me. As a Christian, I feel very good about being involved in a Christian atmosphere. I can do that at Concordia. I can also be a father and still coach at Concordia, and that’s very important to me. It’s also very important to me that no matter what I do, I keep my commitments to my Lord and to my family above basketball.”
Decade of prominence
During the decade of the 1990s (1990-91 through 1999-2000 seasons), Concordia men’s basketball compiled an overall record of 229-99, made six trips to the national tournament and won a combined six conference championships. No longer the new kid on the block, Schmidt was becoming highly revered at this point in his career. People were beginning to recognize him as one of the coaching stars of the NIAC, just like Erickson, Schmutte and Trader.
When names like List, Puelz, Smith and Works were no longer listed in the starting lineup, Schmidt went to work on building the next great Concordia teams. By the 1994-95 season, Schmidt, with the aid of assistant coaches Micah Parker, Tom Scott and John Sickels, constructed a roster, that according to Grant himself, was the most talented, 1-through-12, that he ever coached. During that 1991-92 run, the Bulldogs added a transfer mid-season that was about to blow up. His name is Darin Engelbart, a 5-foot-11 point guard out of Lincoln Northeast High School. Engelbart had initially chosen to play at the University of Nebraska Omaha, an NCAA Division II school at the time. As Schmidt put it, “My system relies on a good point guard.” Schmidt had been truly blessed as Works passed the baton to Engelbart.
Engelbart family ties to Seward were a major reason why Darin considered Concordia out of high school. Engelbart called his visit to Concordia a “courtesy” in the fall of his senior year. Said Darin of his conversation with Schmidt, “He said what he had to say and he kind of left it at that. It was up to me.” Something that struck Darin was how open Coach Schmidt had been to discuss the faith aspect of Concordia. Darin didn’t land at Concordia initially, but the interaction left an impression upon him. After one semester at Nebraska-Omaha, Engelbart found his way to Concordia while joining in on the ’92 run.
By the new standard that had been set, the ’92-93 and ’93-94 seasons were solid, but not spectacular, with respective records of 17-12 and 19-11. The 1993-94 campaign was forgettable for Engelbart, who had been coming off the bench and then missed 25 of the 30 games because of injury. The injuries were a theme for that squad, which still managed to score at a very high rate, 88.6 points per game, behind five double-figure scorers: Ryan Elrod (15.6), Jason Glines (13.8), Ryan Kness (13.4), Joel Wallschlaeger (11.2) and Scott Ernstmeyer (10.1) (Matt Hoffart averaged 9.9 points). The Bulldogs went 5-7 in the NIAC and then lost a tight conference tournament semifinal game, 74-73, at Doane to end the ’93-94 season. The team’s ceiling had been limited to some degree as Engelbart, Brandon Bonefas and Josh Eggold were each sidelined.
Heading into ’94-95, the Bulldogs were loaded – yet they were picked second to last in the NIAC, according to Engelbart’s recollection. Engelbart returned from foot surgery with a vengeance while realizing a starting position wasn’t guaranteed. Said Engelbart of the team’s preseason positioning, “None of us liked that at all. Nobody saw what we knew about ourselves. Our goal was, by the end of the year, to make sure people knew what we knew about ourselves and that we were winners.”
The 1994-95 Concordia team was chalk full of star power. Ryan Kness put together one of the best single seasons in program history while averaging 19.7 points and 8.0 rebounds to go along with 66 percent shooting from the floor. Detailed Schmidt in breaking down that roster, “Darin was just outstanding with his ball control and his ability to penetrate. He was a very physical offensive threat when he got in the lane – and just a phenomenal passer. He was such a threat. Bret (Walter) was one of the best 3-point shooters that ever played for me. Bret could stay on the perimeter, and if you collapsed, he burned you. If you didn’t collapse, Darin burned you. Scott Ernstmeyer was one of the best players that I coached as well. Here he was a 6-5 guy who could play any position on the floor, except point guard. He could defend anybody. We were pretty fortunate because he was one of those players who could have played at a higher level. Then at the center position, we had this kid out of Grafton, Nebraska, named Ryan Kness, that in his senior year might have had the best single season of any player I coached. He was so statistically sound. Then to back him up was one of the best recruits we ever had, Glen Snodgrass. I believe he’s the only player that played in four straight national tournaments. He was so intimidating and defended the paint better than anybody in the league. Up and down the line, ’94-95, from player one through player 12 was the most talented team I coached.”
Engelbart dished out a school record 286 assists while Walter knocked down 111 treys. The stellar inside-outside game allowed the Bulldogs to shoot 54 percent from the field while looking like a team capable of winning the whole thing. Concordia rose to No. 2 in the NAIA Division II coaches’ poll during the storybook ride. The Bulldogs swept Nebraska-Iowa Intercollegiate Athletic Conference regular season and postseason championships, won CIT and put themselves in position for a deep run at the national tournament. Schmidt had a confident bunch. As Schmidt said then, “We’re in position to win the tournament. We feel we have as good a shot as anybody to win it. Early on, I’ll be surprised if we see teams as good as our conference teams were this year. With that in mind, we believe we can win it.”
The Bulldogs breezed to the quarterfinals with wins by scores of 90-69 over Loyola of Louisiana (28 points for Kness) and 100-84 over St. Ambrose (29 points for Engelbart). Then came disappointment as Concordia fell flat in a 91-68 upset loss to William Jewell in the national quarterfinals. Another of the most thrilling seasons in school history ended with a 30-4 overall record. The ’94-95 team initiated a run of four straight appearances at the national tournament.
The 1995-96 squad went 24-6 and won the NIAC regular season title while the 1996-97 and 1997-98 teams both captured NIAC tournament championships. All the while, Schmidt kept integrating new stars into the lineup. A young coach in his own right, Micah Parker found the “perfect mentor” at a young age. Parker fondly recalls the times when he and fellow assistant coach Devin Smith would grab tacos from Amigos and watch VHS film at Schmidt’s house. Parker observed how Schmidt kept coaching the same way, whether it was a tie game, or his team was up 20 or down 20. Said Parker, “People would marvel at how hard Grant’s teams would play. There were always other teams with better players and more depth of better players. Somehow, we would beat them. Grant was a really good coach that knew how to get the most out of his players. It was a fun time for Concordia basketball.”
Plenty of fun was had on December 2, 1995, when the Bulldogs took it to NAIA Division I ninth-ranked Oklahoma Baptist, 90-73, in Shawnee, Oklahoma. As the final seconds ticked away, one of the refs told Schmidt that he had never officiated a home game for Oklahoma Baptist that it lost. Schmidt wryly responded that the official really messed this one up then. Concordia was off to a 10-0 record for the best start in school history to date. The Bulldogs did so behind their three star seniors in Engelbart, Ernstmeyer and Walter. Each of whom put up 20 points or more in the win at Oklahoma Baptist. The ’95-96 Concordia team went on to go 10-2 in NIAC play for a repeat championship. It peaked as high as No. 2 in the coaches’ poll and entered the national tournament at No. 5. The only downside was the early exit in the national tournament in Nampa, Idaho, where the Bulldogs were beaten by the tournament host, Northwest Nazarene, 74-66.
The conclusion of 1995-96 marked the end of another era as the program graduated the aforementioned seniors. Engelbart earned NAIA Second Team All-America honors in his final season. It wasn’t an easy goodbye for Engelbart, who came to understand why he ended up at Concordia. Coach Schmidt had a lot to do with it. Said Engelbart, “He almost did dances in the locker room after wins. It was like a victory dance type of thing. He did that in Orange City one time when we won up there. He did it at Oklahoma Baptist. He just got excited. It was like he was on the floor with us. Practices were competitive because he was competitive. He knew what it took to get us prepared.”
If you were a Lincoln-bred Bulldog, the games against Nebraska Wesleyan just meant a little bit more during the era of the 1990s. That was certainly the case for the Engelbart brothers. The two rival schools even paid close attention to the quotes from either side that made the newspapers. When Schmidt had said that Concordia “stuffed” the Plainsmen guards in the first meeting of 1994-95, a Bulldog win, Nebraska Wesleyan hung the quote in the locker room and later got revenge and upset a No. 2-ranked Concordia team. Three years later, a 23-6 Bulldog squad went into Snyder Arena (packed with 2,500 fans) in Lincoln and defeated 23-0 Wesleyan, which was rated No. 1 in NCAA Division III, by a final score of 73-68. Plainsmen forward Chad Ideus was quoted as saying, “We probably made their damn season today. They can lose the rest of their games and they won’t care because they beat Wesleyan.” Call it a shared ‘sports hate.’ Those were just a couple of examples of the boiling rivalry.
It seems Darin Engelbart even has to force himself to hold back from saying exactly what he really felt for the other side. One of his more memorable games was a 27-point outburst against eventual NCAA Division III national runner up Wesleyan in January ’95. There was also Darin’s 32-point performance in a 72-65 win over Wesleyan in the old gym during the ’95-96 season. Darin’s younger brother Derek Engelbart and his teammates referred to the rivalries with Doane and Nebraska Wesleyan as the “triangle of hate.” Derek laughs when recalling how Doane students used to bring their own furniture into the fieldhouse in Crete and sit directly behind the opposition’s basket.
Said Derek, “We got wound up for those Wesleyan games mainly because we were Lincoln kids. You had a lot of former teammates or opponents from high school that were playing for Wesleyan. If I looked at a rivalry, it was them. Of course you had Doane too with them being so close. There was always kind of a rivalry too with Hastings between Grant Schmidt and Mike Trader. Those conference rivalries were unmatched, and it was high-caliber basketball.”
The culture of winning had been created to a point that Concordia believed it always had a chance, even when it entered the 1997 NIAC tournament having placed in a tie for fifth in a seven-team league during the regular season. The Bulldogs proceeded to win three-straight road games to reach the national tournament once again. The postseason victories came over Dana, 101-99, Hastings, 73-68, and Doane, 75-73, in the championship. The under-Dawgs then came close to shocking sixth-seeded Urbana (79-76 overtime loss) at the national tournament. Said a confident Glen Snodgrass heading into the following season of 1997-98, “Everybody was totally surprised about what we did last year except us. At Concordia, we expect to go to the national tournament every year. We’ve been there three years in a row, and we expect to make it four this year.”
Snodgrass had blossomed into a star alongside other standouts such as Josh Dahlke, Ben Limback and Scott Schmidt (no relation to Grant). Dahlke became the leading scorer at 16.2 points per game in 1997-98. As for Limback, he was like another coach on the floor. The Cedar Falls, Iowa, native developed into Coach Schmidt’s latest floor general who would go on to become the program’s all-time leader in steals. Initially a junior varsity player as a freshman, Limback quickly gained the respect of the head coach. In turn, Limback respected how Schmidt gave an honest assessment about the veterans in front of him in the pecking order. Said Limback, “What I appreciate most is how he ran a program.” Both Limback and Snodgrass would go on to join the coaching profession. Said Snodgrass, “Coach Schmidt was a big part of my life. He really taught me a lot about toughness and discipline. He was definitely a winner.”
As a senior (1998-99), Limback was named the small college basketball player of the year in the state of Nebraska by the Omaha World-Herald. As for the 1997-98 squad, it built upon the previous season’s postseason success and won 26 games while again landing the program inside the top 10 of the NAIA Division II coaches’ poll. In the NAIC tournament, Concordia defeated Midland in the semifinals, 115-83, and Northwestern in the championship, 76-66. The season ultimately ended with a 65-54 loss to Holy Names in the first round of the national tournament in Idaho. Said Limback in reflection, “Coach Schmidt motivated us to improve each and every day and throughout our career. There was a culture of development … when he had a team that was really good, he wanted to play the best. I always appreciated that challenge.” Said Schmidt, “Ben doesn’t know this, but back in 2005 I was asked by the president (Brian Friedrich), if you ever leave, who would you hire? I said first on my list would be Ben Limback.”
A review of the 90s wouldn’t be complete without mention of the CIT championship game played on January 30, 1999, in Mequon, Wisconsin. Said Schmidt, “I think that was the most incredible last second play I’ve coached.” Josh Dahlke sank a 3-pointer from near half court to break the hearts of Concordia Mequon, 83-81, in overtime. To this day, there are disputes as to who was supposed to take the last shot. Devin Smith recalls tossing his clipboard in the air because of the confusion in the huddle. In the end, Schmidt beat his old college teammate, Pete Gnan, then the head coach at Concordia Mequon.
The teams of 1998-99 and 1999-2000 fell short of reaching the national tournament, but there were new Bulldogs ready to emerge and make the program a national contender like usual. Into the program came Derek Engelbart as well as others such as Tim Schroeder and Travis Wischmeier. There was always a crop of talent in place to make up for departures that came in the form of names like Dahlke, Limback and Snodgrass at the close of the 90s. Schmidt was about to make a significant change in terms of his offensive system (away from the typical motion offense), but the formula for how to win would remain in place.
The secret to his success
Successful high school basketball coach Jim Weeks (then at Beatrice) made a visit to Concordia basketball practice in the early 2000s. While looking on, Weeks asked assistant coach Marty Kohlwey, “How do you get your players to work so hard?” Kohlwey didn’t have to think long or hard about the answer: “it’s the practice structure.” Top assistant coach for Schmidt from 1999 through 2006, Kohlwey has an idea as to why Schmidt’s teams won so much, particularly from the period of 1990 through 2005.
Said Kohlwey, “I attribute Grant’s genius to his practice development and practice structure. We had the light blue and the dark blue (practice jerseys). Light blue was the JV and Grant would teach and train by competition. Practices were grueling, and he demanded so much of the varsity. He would purposefully give light blue the calls and they would get more offensive possessions. They would have to beat each other up in order to get out of a situation. We weren’t dropping ‘f bombs,’ but there was an expectation that you had to play hard to get through practice. I loved it. That was the secret to his success.”
It was just the type of program that Schmidt had envisioned when he took it over in 1989. He vowed to recruit tough players who were leaders and would play with chips on their shoulders. No matter the circumstances, Schmidt would figure out a way in which his team was slighted and use it to motivate. He wouldn’t lose because the other team outworked him. When Ben Limback was introduced as the new Concordia basketball coach in March of 2013, he wisely reached out to Schmidt. Limback wanted to know how Schmidt built the program from the ground up.
In recalling that conversation, Limback said, “I’ll never forget. He said he looked for teachers – guys who wanted to be teachers and coaches because they had to be team players. They clearly weren’t in it for the money. They were used to working hard with very little. That really stuck out to me. That, to me, was recruiting and just overall how to run your program. Even today, we run on that philosophy: we’re team-oriented and we’re built on hard work. I don’t think you always see that as a player, but then you look back and there’s such a huge connection with the alums. I think it’s because he built that team atmosphere.”
Indeed, the fierce competition at practice became the stuff of legend. Said Devin Smith, “He could somehow make you practice at such a high level that it translated into game intensity. When there was a sense that we were the underdog, he was at his best. It wasn’t until my sophomore year that we started chipping away at some of these juggernaut programs. We just had to outwork them and be a little craftier.”
Few were as competitive as Smith, who helped establish the foundation in those early years of Schmidt’s coaching tenure. Smith would call himself a “high-wire act” for his own emotional outpourings. Sometimes it led to Schmidt kicking Smith out of practice (or played a hand in a postgame dust up with rival Hastings), but deep down, Schmidt had to be pleased with the competitive level he saw brewing within the program. It was a good sign when the best players on the team were setting the standard. When you entered the program, you learned to practice hard – or you left.
There was an obvious method to Schmidt’s madness, even while some may not have understood it in the moment. Opposing coaches couldn’t help but respect the way that Concordia teams played the game. Head men’s basketball coach at Northwestern beginning with the 2000-01 season, Kris Korver came to understand what his Red Raider squads would be up against. Said Korver, “I just remember him as a fierce competitor. I think he wanted his teams to be fierce competitors. He didn’t ask anything from his teams that he wasn’t asking from himself. He desperately wanted to compete and he desperately wanted his teams to compete at a really high level. His teams were physical and fundamental – they were really good. They would wear you down.”
It always started with practice. Said Darin Engelbart, “It could be nasty and a little dirty. We played rough because everyone wanted to move into somebody else’s spot. We beat each other up.” At the same time, Engelbart and his teammates ate it up. Though the daily routine could be a grind, Schmidt seemed to know when the time was right to bring out his playful sense of humor.
In the new era of the Great Plains Athletic Conference, Jon Ziegler would find stardom under Schmidt’s tutelage. Said Ziegler, “You had to have thick skin to play for him, but he made you a tougher player and person.”
Thriving into a new millennium
Grant Schmidt remained at the head of the program as Concordia joined with the newly formed 11-team Great Plains Athletic Conference for the 2000-01 season. Within the last couple of years, Schmidt had tweaked the offense and was now running the swing, a system popularized by Bo Ryan, a four-time NCAA Division III national championship coach at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville during the 1990s. It was also the preferred style of assistant coach Marty Kohlwey, who reunited with his former college roommate in 1999. Kohlwey returned to Concordia after 14 seasons as head boys basketball coach at Lutheran High School in Rockford, Ill.
In the final year of the Nebraska-Iowa Athletic Conference (1999-2000), the Bulldogs finished 14-13 overall and placed in the middle of the pack in the conference. The sharpshooting Tim Schroeder of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, averaged 17.8 points per game while knocking down 81 3-point field goals (the previous season he had shot 48.6 percent from beyond the arc). That ’99-00 season was setting the stage for a thrilling run that would follow over the next five years. In came the swing offense – and in came Hastings transfer Drew Olson, a Millard South High School alum who joined the long line of standout point guards.
Schmidt was convinced that the swing offense was the right fit for his personnel. The philosophical change showed Schmidt could adapt and evolve as coach. Explained Schmidt, “Bo Ryan had the best small college basketball program in the country, and I wanted to find out what he was doing. His swing offense was attractive because it would empty the low post and backscreen your guards and forwards into the block. It caused problems for the defense to defend screens and would create instant mismatches or defensive mistakes, as well as put opponents into foul trouble because of those mismatches. I felt it complimented our personnel and it continued to allow for the ball to rotate around the perimeter and isolate mismatches in the paint or open up shooters on the perimeter.”
By the 2000-01 season, the players within the program were growing more comfortable in the system. That squad returned seniors in Schroeder and Derek Engelbart and junior guards Ryan Bredow, Travis Wischmeier and Dan Jarrett. The headlining newcomers were Olson (who redshirted in 1999-2000) and freshman Rick Dietze. Ultimately, a return to the national tournament depended upon the team’s performance at the conference tournament. Largely overlooked nationally, the Bulldogs earned the auto bid to nationals by way of reaching the GPAC tournament championship game, which resulted in a 91-83 loss at Northwestern. Wischmeier had scored 15 in the 83-78 quarterfinal win over Dana and Schroeder put up 19 in the 74-59 semifinal victory at Dakota Wesleyan.
This Concordia team (not even receiving votes in the national poll) was much better than any of the outsiders understood. The Bulldogs went on to pound ninth-ranked Cardinal Stritch, 88-70, in the first round of the 2001 national tournament. They also owned a 63-53 second half lead over No. 11 Cornerstone with a chance to get to the national quarterfinals. The Golden Eagles finished the game on a 32-14 run and eliminated Concordia, 85-77. It was the end of the line for Derek Engelbart, who joined his older brother Darin in the program’s 1,000-point club and was named Team MVP for 2000-01. Over a 10-year period, there was an Engelbart on the roster for nine of those seasons. Wrote Schmidt as Derek’s career was winding down, “The Engelbarts have definitely left a mark on this program that will be remembered and respected for many years.”
The respect was mutual. Said Derek 20 years after his playing career had concluded, “The more you look back on it, you feel Coach Schmidt’s influence. It was about playing for each other and having pride and playing for the guys who came before you. He had a passion for not only the sport of basketball but for Concordia in particular. I think that was contagious. He made things enjoyable. As intense and passionate as things could get at times, there were so many fun moments. I could remember him, Devin (Smith) and Micah (Parker) laughing uncontrollably at times on road trips and the light moments in practice that would happen. He would always be there for us.”
While the chapter was closed on the Engelbarts at Concordia, the winning tradition carried on with a roster still laden with talent. As the next standout point guard, Olson was ready to take on an increased leadership role and Dietze, a Lincoln East graduate, was in the process of rising to stardom. The nucleus at the time also included the likes of Wischmeier (1,335 career points), Bredow, Jarrett and a bevy of 6-foot-6 frontcourt role players in the form of Brent Broberg, Jared Calver and Daryl Werner. Hopes of a return to the national tournament in 2001-02 were thwarted by Northwestern, the reigning national champion. The Bulldogs’ postseason run was halted by an 88-76 loss to the Red Raiders in the GPAC tournament semifinals. Just on the horizon was one of the more thrilling runs in program history.
While a freshman at Hastings during the 1998-99 season, Olson saw Concordia as a team that played well together and “wanted to be part of that.” Drew’s older brother Jarrod, who had starred at Doane, first recommended he give Concordia a look when the decision was made to transfer. When Olson visited Concordia, he and Schmidt talked one-on-one for more than two hours. Said Olson, “You never really know his full side until you are around him. He’s a fierce, fierce competitor and hated to lose. You wanted to make sure you didn’t lose because it wasn’t fun. That was a great thing – he held us to a really high standard. That’s something that I took from him. As a coach, you have to hold your team to that standard. He also had this funny, goofy side to him. When we were in those van rides, we got to hear stories from him and Kohlwey about each other. It made him more human. It made you want to play really, really hard for him.”
The ’02-03 season didn’t necessarily transpire the way Olson and his teammates would have scripted. Heading into the month of February, Concordia sat at 13-8 overall and had gone 2-5 over its last seven GPAC outings. A 76-70 overtime win over Concordia Mequon in the CIT championship game helped lift spirits, but the Bulldogs weren’t looking like a team that would play deep into March. As Olson admits, “We were not good for a stretch of the season, and then we got super hot at the end of the season. We had some games we did not think we were going to win. We had no business winning the game at Sioux Falls (GPAC semifinals), and we did.”
Beginning with an 86-65 rout at Dana College on February 1, the Bulldogs rattled off 12 straight victories as the team meshed. After averaging 8.5 points per game as a sophomore the previous season, the 6-foot-4 Dietze exploded while increasing his scoring average to 18.9. Dietze rose to the status of Team MVP with the help of his ability to score inside and out. This was also the beginning of another stellar career. Former Nebraska Cornhusker walk-on football player Jason Jisa became eligible and averaged 10.4 points and 5.3 rebounds.
Heading into the 2003 GPAC tournament, Northwestern carried the No. 1 ranking in NAIA Division II and was expected to win the postseason title after it had gone 16-0 in GPAC regular season play. The hot finish for the Bulldogs had brought them up to No. 3 in the conference with a 10-6 final league record. Even so, most observers of the league would have expected a Northwestern-Sioux Falls championship game. However, the day of February 28 was a wild one of GPAC semifinal action as Concordia went on the road and upset No. 18 Sioux Falls, 87-79, and Dordt stunned No. 1 Northwestern, 92-84, in Orange City, Iowa. The Bulldogs were actually disappointed by the result on the other side of the bracket. A win for Northwestern would have guaranteed Concordia a trip to nationals. Now it needed to beat Dordt in the championship.
No need for the despair. The semifinal round of upsets gave the Bulldogs the chance to host Dordt inside a raucous PE Center Gym on an evening in which a blizzard made travel conditions treacherous. On the Monday of the game, Schmidt (who had also served as director of athletics) “scurried around the office” trying to get tickets printed, as a Journal Star article detailed. The hassle was worth it. More than 1,100 spectators saw Concordia rally to defeat Dordt in overtime, 90-82. Dietze went off for 23 of his 27 points after halftime while scorching the Defender zone. The starters (Calver, Dietze, David Ford, Jisa and Olson) were tasked with playing most of the minutes. Olson responded with 22 points of his own. It was an unforgettable day for all those who experienced it. Olson still keeps a photo in his office from after that game when he posed with his family, including his father Rich and mother Olinda.
That team that had to win the GPAC tournament to reach the national stage in Point Lookout, Mo., wasn’t done yet. The Cinderella ride continued with upsets of 17th-ranked Dominican (of California) and No. 3 Cardinal Stritch. There the Bulldogs were again – beating teams they weren’t supposed to. At that point, Concordia believed it could handle anyone. Unfortunately, the season ended with a 77-72 overtime loss to Bethany College (of Kansas) in the national quarterfinals. Said Olson, “We should have won. We should have been in the final four. I should have made a free throw – we should have gotten a stop when we needed it in regulation. It was just an incredible run though.”
The ’03-04 season marked the senior year for Dietze, whose game flourished once he began to rely more on his craftiness around the basket. The 2003-04 team was likely capable of winning games at the national tournament, and it rose as high as No. 7 in the NAIA Division II coaches’ poll, but it never got that chance. The Bulldogs wound up in a tie for fourth place in the GPAC and were sitting at 20-9 after a conference tournament loss to Sioux Falls in the quarterfinals. Concordia couldn’t get into nationals even though its profile included wins over three teams with top 25 rankings heading into the tournament: No. 3 Bellevue, No. 12 Northwestern and No. 22 Morningside. The snub would simply make the Bulldogs hungrier going into what would become the winningest season in program history.
Schmidt had piled up more than 300 career wins by the time the 2004-05 season beckoned. That offseason, league coaches picked Concordia seventh, perhaps due to the graduation of Dietze and the lack of size on the roster. But this was a squad with two of the all-time greats in program history: Jason Jisa and Jon Ziegler. Not only that, point guard Scott Beck was ready to take his game to another level and sophomore Wes Gehring and incoming freshman Benjamin Buhr were more than capable outside shooters.
On the interior, Schmidt had no choice but to start 6-foot-9 Marcus Wernke, a transfer from Phoenix College who had needed time to develop. Wernke was one of the super veterans on the team who were physically mature and strong. As Marty Kohlwey put it, “We had five-year players coming out of our ears.” Schmidt and his staff never left the door closed even as players like Jisa (University of Nebraska) and Ziegler (Concordia Mequon) went elsewhere to begin their college careers. When Kohlwey had driven to Arizona on a recruiting trip, he noticed Wernke and asked, “Who is that really tall kid over there?” Kohlwey was told that he wouldn’t want him. He replied by saying, “I’ll be the judge of that.”
Wernke became one of the missing links as a shot blocking dynamo. Meanwhile, the Lincoln Lutheran product Ziegler emerged as the team’s leading scorer, Jisa set the tone with his relentlessness and Beck averaged an astounding 8.2 rebounds per game as a 6-foot-1 guard. The group mastered the swing offense and became known more than anything for its tenaciousness defensively. Kohlwey marveled at the team’s “ridiculous wingspan” across the board and Jisa termed the team the “junkyard dogs.” As Schmidt would playfully say about this team, “when they strapped on their shoes, they didn’t lose.” Said Kohlwey, “The options looked pretty good no matter what you pulled out of your pocket. It was a deep team. We just had so many different weapons and they played so hard. They responded extremely well to Grant’s demands from them. I felt like Jisa was such a catalyst for how hard he played every possession.”
There was an early indication that this could be a special season when Concordia won on the home court of 11th-ranked Bellevue, 78-76, in the season opener. The Bulldogs jetted out to 13-0 and took up residence within the top 10 of the NAIA Division II coaches’ poll. Fast forward to the postseason and there Concordia was celebrating a second GPAC tournament championship in three seasons. The Bulldogs had defeated Sioux Falls in the title game, 62-58, in front of another spirited old gym crowd. The ride took Concordia all the way to the national championship game in Point Lookout, where Walsh University of Ohio seized the title behind eventual NBA Draft pick Robert Whaley.
Jisa and company had won a school record 32 games with the type of grit that allowed them to pull out the close ones at the national tournament. Jisa himself was a GPAC Defensive Player of the Year honoree and a national tournament “Hustle Award” winner. The Seward native Jisa gave plenty of credit to the head coach. “He always knew the best way to attack a game. He had a gameplan set in his mind. He knew that if we followed what he said we would get it done. Not once in my time at Concordia did we watch film on an opponent – zero times. We always focused on ourselves. The rest would take care of itself.”
Even as he was guiding Northwestern to two national titles early in his head coaching tenure, Kris Korver always knew it would be a tough and physical game when he took his Red Raiders up against the Bulldogs. The 2004-05 Northwestern team was beaten in the semifinals by Walsh, eliminating the possibility of an all-GPAC final. “They ran the swing offense and they were going to beat you baseline,” Korver recalled of playing those Concordia teams. “They were going to play physical defense and they were going to be tough-minded. You take on the personality of your coach most of the time. His teams definitely reflected his character and personality.”
The rebuild after the 2004-05 season was a bit rough in terms of results as Concordia finished below .500 in the 2005-06, 2006-07 and 2007-08 seasons. Ziegler still managed to provide plenty of thrills as he played out his junior and senior campaigns. The 6-foot-3 do-it-all wing averaged 18.8 points in ’05-06 and then 21.3 points in ’06-07. His efforts on February 17, 2007, became the stuff of legend when he poured in a school record 47 points in an 87-78 overtime upset of 11th-ranked Sioux Falls. He also moved past 2,000 career points and became the program’s all-time leading scorer in that same game. Ziegler barely rested a single second in that game because Schmidt never wanted him off the court. Led by Ziegler, the ’06-07 team made a run to the GPAC semifinals before being beaten by Sioux Falls in a rematch.
“He was such a good basketball mind X’s and O’s wise,” Ziegler said in reflection of Coach Schmidt. “He was defensive-minded, intense and got the most out of his players. At the end of the day, he was still able to joke around about stuff off the court. He has that wittiness about him. He loves cracking jokes. Sometimes you didn’t know if the moment was right to laugh or not. I’ll remember it for the rest of my life, the times I had there, the good and the bad. It was always fun.”
In the latter stages of the Schmidt coaching era, Concordia remained a family atmosphere – in some ways literally. Grant’s son Brandon joined the program in 2005-06 and then by 2007-08, Schmidt welcomed in Ryan Shrum, a 6-foot-7 native of Allen, Texas. Little did Grant know that Shrum would eventually become his son-in-law. As for Brandon, he got used to razzing from opposing fans and chants like “coach’s son.” Brandon worked his way into the rotation by his sophomore year and was a four-year contributor. It was an especially emotional senior day in February 2010 when Concordia defeated Nebraska Wesleyan, 71-57. Afterwards, Grant told the Journal Star, “When you’re off teaching other people’s kids how to be good players and good men, you worry about what you didn’t provide for your own son. I got to watch every college game my son played, and that’s pretty special.”
Shrum was part of a group that helped push the program back up to 20 wins in 2008-09 (a team with another former player serving as Schmidt’s lead assistant, Anthony Elias). A February fade was the culprit in preventing a national tournament berth that season, but the GPAC quarterfinals on February 24 provided a lasting memory. Concordia trailed 26-5 out of the gate at Briar Cliff before becoming impossibly hot from long distance. Then freshman Tyler Byrd went 6-for-6 on 3-point tries and spurred a 101-97 overtime win in Sioux City. As a team, the Bulldogs were a preposterous 19-for-25 (76 percent) from beyond the arc. That ’08-09 team was paced in scoring by the likes of Tyler Bredehoeft and Dusan Veselinovic (both averaged 13.7 points).
The memorable win at Briar Cliff supplied a lifelong lesson for Shrum and his teammates. Said Shrum, “When your back’s against the wall and everything is stacked against you, you can quit or you can suck it up and fight harder. To me, that was always Coach Schmidt’s message and philosophy.” At some point, Shrum joked that he had to stop calling Schmidt “Coach.” While still a student-athlete, Shrum began to date Grant’s daughter Megan (now Ryan’s wife), who also attended Concordia. It could have been an awkward situation, but Shrum and Grant had developed a close relationship. Grant and his wife Deb even met Ryan’s parents on a recruiting visit to Dallas to sign the young Texan. Conversations between Ryan and Grant weren’t just about basketball, they were about life. Said Shrum, “He’s my favorite coach ever.”
Shrum can even laugh now about the time when Schmidt chewed him out during a free throw with Concordia playing at home for a lightly attended Thanksgiving break game. Shrum was standing in line ready to position himself for a rebound of the free throw when Grant called out, “Ryan, what did you do?” He replied, “Nothing.” Grant retorted back, “Nothing, exactly. Just like your effort on defense the whole night.” Shrum came to understand that was simply Coach Schmidt being Coach Schmidt. Making the situation even more comical, Megan saw Ryan afterwards and told him, “good game.” Ryan looked at Megan in bewilderment.
Considering he spent so many years coaching at a school known for its education curriculum, it seemed inevitable that Schmidt would one day go up against one of his former players. Schmidt had helped Ben Limback secure the head coaching position at Concordia Ann Arbor beginning with the 2003-04 season. In his new gig, Limback first matched wits with his mentor at CIT in Seward in January 2004. Schmidt got the upper hand, 75-68, as the Bulldogs continued to dominate the event. After an 0-2 start against Schmidt, Limback managed to defeat his alma mater in the 2006 CIT championship, 68-60, in Mequon. Schmidt hated losing, but he was happy for the success of Limback. Said Schmidt, “In all my years of coaching, I only had one coach apologize to me for winning – and it was him. It was genuine. He said, ‘I’m sorry, Coach.’” Of course, Limback would later follow Schmidt as head coach in Seward. Said Limback, “I appreciated how he ran a program. He was the first person I contacted to help make the connection at Ann Arbor. I’ve always asked him for insight every step of the way.”
The 2011-12 season became Coach Schmidt’s swan song without anyone having a clue at the time. It finished with a 13-17 record highlighted by the 94-75 upset at No. 14 Northwestern. Star post player Porter Birtell powered home 37 points in the surprising victory in Orange City. A much bigger shock came on October 17, 2012, the day Coach Schmidt officially resigned from the post he had been so proud to hold. There were likely a lot of alums with plenty of questions for their beloved coach. They cared because he cared. There were 445 wins, nine national tournament appearances and eight combined conference championships that accumulated during Schmidt’s 23-year reign. Memories of wins and losses fade over time, but not the feelings of shared joy and agony that come with them.
Said Schmidt ten years after the announcement of his resignation, “Who knew what God had in store? My faith has grown and I’ve grown as a person. I’m very thankful I’m in the position I’m in. I’m very thankful for the time I had as Concordia’s coach and athletic director. I’ll never forget it. I’ll always cherish it. My time with assistant coaches and the players was so special to me. I’m so thankful to God for it.”
The essence of Coach Schmidt
There is only one Coach Schmidt – and everyone has a Coach Schmidt story. He might call you out one day for what he perceived as a lack of hustle or effort on defense, but there he would be propping you up the very next day when you needed it most. If you wanted to speak with him, his door was always open, especially for his players, the people he cared for like they were his own family members.
Over time, there became an aura about Schmidt, but not because he wanted it that way. He carried himself with a certain swagger, something that likely made a difference when he broke into the head coaching ranks at an early age and jumped into the fray against more established coaches. As Ben Limback succinctly put it, “He shows up and the room is his.” Marty Kohlway referred to his former roommate and coaching mate as a “great public speaker.” Indeed, Schmidt always had the gift of gab. He became famous among his players for extended postgame speeches. Drew Olson smiled when talking about how he used to have an understanding with Coach Schmidt. After games, Drew would quickly go visit with his parents. Every moment with his mother (who battled ALS for 31 years) was truly precious. Drew would then make his way to the locker room where Schmidt would be on his “second or third version” of what took place in that particular game.
There may not be a more moving story regarding Schmidt than the one that unfolded in the mid-1990s. It would be easy to say that a coach cares for his players, but Schmidt truly showed it in his actions. On a winter road trip, Darin Engelbart and his teammates were riding in a van that hit a patch of ice, spun out and rolled into the ditch along Interstate-80. That frigid winter day, Schmidt, who was in a van in front of the one that lost control, came sprinting towards the scene to check on his players. Recalled Engelbart, “You could see the concern on his face. He was potentially putting himself in harm’s way to come check on us. Most people wouldn’t do that. It was a parental instinct probably for him.” Assistant coach at the time, Micah Parker said, “He was very concerned. Some of the guys were hanging in seatbelts. Everyone was okay, thank goodness.”
The road trips are a fact of life in NAIA basketball. As Parker joked, “We would always be making sandwiches. If we played well, Grant might take the team to Valentino’s.” Coach Schmidt became an important figure in the life of Parker, who went on to become a collegiate athletic director. While still a student at Concordia, Parker developed close relationships with classmates Devin Smith and others on the men’s basketball team. Parker aspired to become a basketball coach and had asked Schmidt if he could observe practice. It wasn’t necessarily part of the plan, but Parker quickly was thrust into a role as the junior varsity coach. Looking back, Parker remarked that Grant had given him “more responsibility than I deserved. I couldn’t have had a better mentor at that age.”
Known for his emphatic dunks during the string of 1990s national tournament appearances, Glen Snodgrass speaks glowingly of his former coaches. Snodgrass had been ready to sign at the University of Nebraska-Kearney when Schmidt and Parker happened to pay a visit in the middle of a rainstorm. Schmidt and Parker made a huge impression upon Glen and his father. Then that freshman year when Glen’s father passed away, Glen knew he was at the right place. Said Snodgrass, “I remember my freshman year in the conference championship basketball game against Hastings. My dad passed away the night before. I’ll always remember this day. It was very difficult. He passed away the night before the game. Coach Schmidt told me he would totally understand if I didn’t play in that game. I should be with my family. I kind of knew that my dad would want me to play that game so I decided to play it. I played quite a bit in that game and I remember the support. We had a moment of silence before the game, and I remember the support from my coaches and teammates and the whole crowd – really the whole college. It made probably one of the most difficult days in my life (a little easier).”
When Coach Schmidt earned his 200th career victory at the very start of the 1998-99 season, members of the team wanted to make sure that Schmidt felt appreciated. They bought their coach a milkshake and a card while on a road trip in Vallejo, California. Said Derek Engelbart, “You don’t get that unless guys care and have a bond with their coach.” Ben Limback recalled writing “200” on the outside of the shake and presenting it to Schmidt. As someone who helped Schmidt reach that win total as a player and assistant, Smith called Schmidt one of the five male figures in his life that he never wanted to disappoint. Said Smith, “He inspired me, motivated me and held me accountable, and I feel responsible (as Concordia Director of Athletics) to make sure this place thrives.”
What Schmidt did so remarkably well was establish a standard not only for success on the court, but also in the way his players conducted themselves. Schmidt ripped into Mike Works back in the early 1990s for showing up a bit disheveled for an interview with a Lincoln TV station. It wasn’t how a Concordia basketball player was supposed to look, Schmidt would tell him sternly. Works took it as a lesson. Said the former star point guard, “He was famous for never cussing. He stuck to it. I never heard him cuss. He would say ‘good grief’ and slap both legs all the time. Coach was wonderful to me. Grant was just a great guy. He really took care of us and wanted the best for everybody. His family was always around. His kids were young back then and they were a blast.”
Playing the point could mean added pressure from Schmidt. Drew Olson learned this soon after he transferred following one season under Mike Trader at Hastings. Explained Olson, “We were playing down in Arizona and something happened, and he yells at me for it. In the moment I’m thinking, I had nothing to do with that play. What is this guy yelling at me for? I ended up snapping back at him. We were playing against a tough team and we were losing. I was frustrated, he was frustrated. It was the heat of the moment. After the game he pulls me aside and says, ‘Look, there are times when I’m going to yell at you because I can’t yell at the other guys. I need you to take it and take responsibility for it.’ At that point on, I got him. I understood what he was doing. It made me mature. It made me handle the criticism a lot better. As I research more coaches, it reminds me a lot of Geno Auriemma.”
Years later, Schmidt jumped at the chance to hire a wet-behind-the-ears Olson as Concordia’s head women’s basketball coach. Olson had called Schmidt to see if his former coach could put in a good word for him for another position Olson had applied for. Schmidt didn’t follow up because he wanted Olson back in Seward. Wrote Schmidt after Olson had reached his 300th career victory, “All I needed was an opportunity to hire him. His faith, his commitment and his passion all outweigh his great ability as a leader and a coach. This was an easy decision for me regardless of how old or experienced he was.”
Schmidt had shown his loyalty towards someone who had given it everything during his time as a Bulldog. That’s all Schmidt really would ask for. The rewards came in the shared celebrations of significant wins. When Olson and his teammates won a game at Sioux Falls, it inspired Schmidt to excitedly jump up and down on a hotel bed. It was a scene witnessed by Kohlwey and some of the players, much to their delight and perhaps even bewilderment. Said Kohlwey, “Grant was always giddy after big wins.” During the run in 2004-05, the locker room used to sometimes blare with an O.A.R. song called “Dareh Meyod” that included the lyrics: “Tuesday’s coming.” Schmidt wasn’t a listener of O.A.R. but he had heard the team playing the song. After the 74-67 GPAC tournament semifinal win over Morningside put the Bulldogs in that upcoming Tuesday’s conference final, Grant instructed Jason Jisa to “turn on that Tuesday song!” The locker room erupted as one might expect.
It seems fair to say that none of Schmidt’s former players know him as well as his own son Brandon and son-in-law Ryan Shrum. Now rooted in Nebraska himself, Shrum calls Schmidt “the most competitive person I’ve ever met.” At the same time, Shrum routinely sees the softer side. He sees the grandfather that so lovingly cares for his grandchildren. Said Shrum, “When Preston, Brandon, Grant and I are together, we can talk – and the women hate it – we can talk about sports forever. Grant and I will just talk about random stories. At our wedding, he told stories that I was shocked he told because they were so funny. My kids just light up when they know they’re going to visit Nani and Papi (Deb and Grant). To know him for some of the speeches in the locker room and during timeouts, for some of the butt chewing and knowing him as that person, seeing him now as a grandfather is crazy. He had an effective way of communicating with young adults and he has an effective way of communicating with young kids.”
Of course, people also got a kick out of watching Schmidt’s interactions with officials. The tall and lengthy Schmidt could make a scene with his intimidating presence, but he knew how to toe the line without crossing it. He once got a technical from an official who mistakenly thought Schmidt had been yelling at him. In the contrary, Schmidt had been voicing frustration with his own player. Comically, Schmidt admitted that he even once lost the heel of his shoe while kicking the wooden bleachers in that old gym. As part of his Concordia Athletic Hall of Fame speech, Schmidt made several jokes about referees. Said Schmidt, “You know what happens to a person when they start losing their sight? They become a referee.” Schmidt once made a wise crack to an official who told Schmidt that he was a Lutheran but not the same synod. Retorted Schmidt, “That explains why you can’t interpret anything out there.” As Ben Limback would joke, “He certainly had a passion for officials and their interpretation of the game.”
Before there was a transfer portal, Schmidt made a habit of reeling in big fish that had first tried their hand elsewhere. This phenomenon could also be thought of as part of the secret to his success. Some of the best players to ever play at Concordia had started their careers at another institution. The collection includes names such as Jon Ziegler (Concordia Wisconsin), Devin Smith (Northern State), Ryan Kness (York Junior College), Darin Engelbart (Nebraska Omaha), Mike Works (Nebraska), Jason Jisa (Nebraska), John Puelz (Nebraska), Eric Priebe (Wayne State) and Drew Olson (Hastings), to name a few. Schmidt never took it personally when players he recruited chose an opposing school. He gladly waited for the rebound when talented players such as the aforementioned examples came circling back to Concordia. There’s no real explanation for the transfer migration to Seward other than that Schmidt had built a program that became attractive for some who initially didn’t think they wanted to play NAIA basketball. Said Schmidt, “There were opportunities they tried out and their heart was saying, I don’t want to just be a guy that sits here. I want to finish my career playing and being a leader. They proved it. That’s where they belonged. They belonged in a school and in a program where they could lead.”
The program’s all-time leading scorer Jon Ziegler, a Minnesota Vikings fan, used to go back and forth with Schmidt and Kohlwey, Green Bay Packers fans, over their NFL allegiances. Upon arriving at a hotel for a road game, Ziegler scurried to find himself in front of a TV to catch the end of a Vikings game. To his despair, the Vikings lost a critical game in heartbreaking fashion. Ziegler remembers reacting by ripping the alarm clock off the stand and throwing it against the wall. Said Ziegler, “Coach Schmidt just walked into the room. He was laughing hysterically. He came in there solely to rub it in. That was probably one of the funnier moments I’ve had with him.”
Ziegler understands the essence of Coach Schmidt. In tying it together, he said the following:
He's probably the best coach I’ve ever had in any sport. A lot of people probably don’t see him quite the way that I do. You really have to know the guy to know what his intentions are. If you just sat in on a practice, you would think he was just some mean guy. You really had to have thick skin to play for him. He is the reason that I ended up being the player that I was. It came down to how much confidence he had in me as a player. I hadn’t reached my full potential in basketball until I got here. When I transferred in as a freshman, I was just hoping I could make the varsity team the following year as a freshman and hoped that I could play at some point in my career. I never would have envisioned having the seasons that I did or that we would be in the national championship or I’d win a defensive player of the year award in the conference. None of that ever crossed my mind when I got here. As I look back on it, he was the reason I was able to do the things I was able to do. Him and Coach Kohlwey got me into the best shape I’ve ever been in in my life. For sure the last two years I was playing about 39 minutes per game. I was basically only coming out if I got into foul trouble. It really pushed me. He put a lot of pressure on me to be a leader, even that sophomore year. I loved him as a coach. He made me a better person on the court and off the court. I owe a lot to him. I think he deserves a lot of credit for the player I became. I’ve had a chance to tell him that a few times here and there and he kind of snickers about it. What made us so good together is that we all had that same competitive drive. Everybody wanted the same thing and worked so hard for it.
A lasting legacy
The legacy of Grant Schmidt carried on beyond his tenure leading the men’s basketball program – and will carry on forever at Concordia. He greatly influenced new leaders at Concordia like Director of Athletics Devin Smith and basketball coaches Ben Limback and Drew Olson. He also helped set into motion the creation and planning of the Walz Human Performance Complex (home to Friedrich Arena) that became a game changer for the entire athletic department. It was time for the old gym to be put to secondary uses, although Schmidt’s reign is the reason why so many remember that facility fondly. As Olson says, “I miss the feel you had and how the crowd is right on top of you.”
The bricks and the mortar pale in comparison to the legend of Schmidt himself – and the relationships he formed. Schmidt gave something to Concordia that everyone could rally around and be proud of. At the 2005 NAIA Division II national championship game, TV cameras caught Schmidt with a grin on his face just before the ball was about to be tipped off. Schmidt beamed with pride in being the one to lead Concordia into that seminal moment. He came up short of winning the whole thing, but he constantly won championships in life. As Devin Smith put it, “He was about relationships. The laughs that we shared – that’s life. He was someone I experienced my highest of highs and lowest of lows with, and I’d never change it. I’m just thrilled that he was honored as a Concordia Hall of Famer because he built Bulldog men’s basketball, and he built an athletic department and had visions for an athletic department that we get to enjoy today.”
It was a hard stop in 2012 when life changed course and there was no more game planning for the next opponent. Schmidt’s at peace with where God has guided him. Sometimes that means a trip to Haiti, a meeting with the president of Peru or a visit to the home of former New York Yankees closer Mariana Rivera. As part of his vocation as Vice President at Orphan Grain Train, Schmidt helped arrange for food to be delivered to orphanages in Rivera’s home country of Panama. As Schmidt said, “I found myself in a new era, a new life.”
Proverbs 16, verse 9 has helped Schmidt explain to others what led to these circumstances. As Schmidt would go on to say, “A man’s heart makes its own plans. God decides his course.” Schmidt had actually been approached by Pastor Roy Wilke about joining up with Orphan Grain Train immediately after Schmidt had given the commencement address at Concordia’s 2006 graduation ceremony. The time wasn’t right. As Schmidt had told the Journal Star back in 1992, he really never saw himself leaving Concordia or the profession as a basketball coach. It was essentially all he knew. It had been so long since Schmidt had gone through a winter without a basketball season as either a player or coach.
But there came a time when the coach – who had harbored practices that sometimes resembled “wrestling matches,” who had demanded all-out defensive effort and who made devoted followers of his players – had to hang it up. His players will never forget those moments together. They’ll never forget how he had their backs, like that time Coach Schmidt came running onto the court at Oklahoma Baptist after Bret Walter had been knocked down by an opposing player. Coach Schmidt even took his team off the court at an exhibition game after one of his players had been cheap-shotted. Coach Schmidt went so far as to ask for the input of the players. Said Darin Engelbart, “He put faith in us as individuals. He put his trust into us to go out and execute, with his guidance and direction. He believed we were prepared enough to make decisions out there that would be successful for our team. It took me a long time to understand that because I had different expectations from a coach. He was flipping the script and asking us questions. It was a unique approach.”
The approach worked. Year after year, Concordia was in the hunt for national tournament bids. Typically, when the Bulldogs got in, they were dangerous. Said Micah Parker of Schmidt, “He was such a good floor coach. Players just liked him as a coach. It would amaze me how far our teams would make it at the national tournament despite often being shorter and less athletic than our opponents.” It was only after he became a coach that Limback realized how difficult it was to produce the consistent results that Schmidt had over time. Said Ben Limback, “I love the way he did things and I wanted to do things similar. I always dreamed of having that moment to coach here. He certainly fueled that fire, and he still fuels that fire.” Schmidt had this to say for his former players turned coaches Limback and Olson, “It will be only a matter of time before they break any records that I set. My records are a target and both of them better be the ones that break them.”
Out of the spotlight of GPAC and national tournament arenas, a fire still burns in Schmidt. The Lord continues to direct his steps in ways that give him a different kind of joy. “After 2012, that meant a lot to me,” Schmidt said of Proverbs 16, verse 9. “Because I didn’t know what the Lord had in store for me. To be in the position of humanitarian aid and helping others is something that’s different from coaching and different from the athletic field. You’re not receiving awards. It’s about humbly helping others and that’s a 180 from what I was involved in. I loved what I did, and I love the opportunity coaching has for changing people’s lives. I’m in a life now where I can’t help but do good, and you may or may not be rewarded. The lessons I’ve learned on humility every day are invaluable.”
In coaching, teaching, administration and in his role at Orphan Grain Train, Schmidt has built a legacy worth celebrating. When Grant Schmidt finished his Concordia Athletic Hall of Fame speech in September 2022, the gathered crowd responded with a standing ovation. Schmidt left everyone with this message:
“Play hard. Be courageous. Be aggressive. Be passionate. Be nice to the referees sometimes. Give it your all. When you win, be humble in it. When you lose, be gracious. Be a difference maker by how you act. I thank God for my time at Concordia. I thank God for my players. I thank God for my family, especially my wife.”
Coach Grant Schmidt is Concordia’s Godfather of Basketball – and a whole lot more.