NOTE: A version of this story first appeared in the winter 2013-14 edition of Concordia University's Broadcaster magazine.
By Jake Knabel, Sports Information Director
Fifth-year Concordia head football coach Vance Winter stood before the Bulldog Booster Club gathering the Tuesday following the conclusion of the 2013 season unfulfilled and unsatisfied – albeit for much different reasons than the ones that caused feelings of emptiness after the 2008 campaign. “I’m not ready for it to be over,” Winter said just a few days after pummeling Briar Cliff to close the 2013 year with a 7-4 record.
The disappointment set in because Concordia came up, in all likelihood, two wins and perhaps just a few plays short of securing its first appearance in the NAIA playoffs since 2001. But proper reflection yields the realization of just how far the program has come since Winter received the promotion to head coach prior to the 2009 season.
At that time Concordia was coming off a rough 1-9 season – the last under 19-year head coach Courtney Meyer (the program’s winningest coach). Winter, a four-year assistant under Meyer, understood that the program would have to endure additional growing pains when he officially took over on Dec. 16, 2008.
“We knew it would take a little time because we were a long ways from competitive in 2008,” Winter said. “We were obviously hopeful that (the turnaround) would happen sooner. I was a part of that 2008 season as defensive coordinator and I knew firsthand how far we had to go to become a competitive program.”
Since going 11-24 in his first 35 games as head coach, Winter and the Bulldogs are 12-7 over their last 19 games. This season they raced out to a 6-0 start and peaked as high as No. 14 in the NAIA coaches’ poll. Five years after being regularly stomped on by the big boys of the conference, the Bulldogs were biting back and sat tied atop the league standings.
“This was a very long and slow process, and credit for this year's team can be given to players and coaches as far back as 2010,” said senior defensive lineman Dylan Heithoff. “I would say the two main reasons for Concordia's rise is the change in attitude and work ethic that was instilled by the players and coaches when we entered the program in 2010, and the level of talent that the coaches have been able to recruit over the past four years.”
The plan Winter and his staff had laid out prior the 2009 season had come to fruition. They had been successful in pulling in recruits who were eager to work hard and ready to buy in.
“We have been very intentional since the start in creating a culture of family, accountability, unselfishness and work ethic,” Winter said. “These four things have been the staple of our program every season since we started in 2009 and are just as significant in our program now. As our overall team depth and talent has improved the wins and the competiveness of our program has also improved, but we are a family first and foremost.”
Of course, putting a plan into thought or writing is one thing – putting that plan into action is another. Winter had been given the controls of a team that lost many games by lopsided tallies in 2008. These scores weren’t lost on opposing coaches who went up against Concordia in recruiting battles.
In his honesty, Winter admits that talented recruits were going to have to take a leap of faith and look past those struggles. That did not stop him from making a push for talented, high-character young men from far and wide.
One of the team’s most important recruits in recent seasons hails from The Sunshine State.
“During my recruitment process I didn't really care about the team's previous records,” said junior quarterback Von Thomas. “I wanted to meet the coaching staff. We stayed in contact for a while which was a good thing. It showed that they were interested as much as I was. Our coaches were very approachable. They made me feel welcome on my visit which is hard for someone from Miami to adapt to.”
There have also been plenty of key additions from within the state, such as Heithoff (Elgin, Neb.), electrifying returner Derek Blessing (Ogallala, Neb.), offensive lineman Josh Powell (Kennesaw, Neb.) and tight end Josh Slechta (Kennard, Neb.).
The likes of Blessing and Heithoff saw past the won-lost records. Something special was being constructed.
“We all knew that the football team was struggling and was in a rough place,” Heithoff said. “But Coach Winter remained optimistic, claiming that the only way to go was up and that big changes were being made during the season and offseason. The positive energy from all of the coaches was contagious, which allowed me to become sold on the direction of the football program.”
Concordia saw immediate, but gradual progress in its results on the field. Winter’s first team (2009) went 3-7, followed by records of 4-7, 4-7, 5-6 and 7-4 in 2013. The major turning point seemed to come on Oct. 13, 2012, when Concordia upset then No. 11 Northwestern, 17-16, on homecoming in Seward for the team’s fourth-straight win.
The momentum spilled over into 2013 with the Bulldogs bursting onto the national scene. They hosted an NAIA national game of the week, garnered the GPAC’s Defensive Player of the Year (Darnell Woods) and brought back memories of the glorious 2001 season.
“They bought into the challenge of turning a program around and making a difference,” Winter said of his 2013 seniors. “We sold these guys on the quality of the education, the special campus community that Concordia is, and the opportunity to turn a program around. I am grateful to each and every one of them for their commitment and loyalty throughout the process because there have been moments of doubt.”
Doubt no more. Concordia football is back.
Said Winter at that same Tuesday booster club outing, “I don’t think there’s any doubt about where we’re going.”
Vance Winter: When former player Derek Rodine passed away this summer, I was blown away by the way our entire football family came together. It was the toughest time period I have ever had as a coach and also was the most proud I have ever been to be their coach. We had guys from every class, current players and former players, supporting the Rodine family and each other. Guys flew in from all over the country to be with their brothers and talk about Derek. It showed me the amazing brotherhood that we have here and how it transcends more than just wins and losses. It is special to be a part of and we’ve been blessed to work with great people. That brotherhood is something that is so special about here and our guys are a close bunch. I am proud of that.
This senior class is very special. This class came to Concordia knowing full-well the challenges that were ahead of us as a program. They took a chance on us and stuck with our program when many didn’t and I am very grateful to them. They also stuck through some difficult times and transitions and became such a close-group. What I appreciate most out of this group is their loyalty to each other, their teammates, and coaches. Another thing that stands out about this class is their selflessness. These are guys that consistently put others needs and team needs above themselves. We have had such awesome people come through our football program in my time at Concordia and each class is so special. I wish that the other classes could have experienced the type of season we had this year because they were all deserving and I hope all of the classes feel some ownership on this season because they laid the groundwork in terms of work ethic and expectations for this class.
This is a tough league in all sports. There is great competition. It is amazing to see the athletic ability from teams around this league. Every year we have been getting better, but so has our competition so our improvements on the outside have seemed subtle. We knew within our building that we were getting better and we knew that we were closing the gap, but we had to take the next step. Most notably an obstacle for us early in our program’s development was our inability to consistently move the football versus the good teams in our league. We were really good defensively overall, but really struggled a great deal offensively. The gap between the offense and defense productivity was especially apparent in the 2010 and 2011 seasons. Coach White’s hiring as offensive coordinator in the spring of 2012 has been huge for our football program. He came here with a system that has proven successful and our offense is leaps and bounds better than it was two years ago.
There is a sense of pride in knowing how far we have come as a program, but there is also great disappointment in that the season is over. We are only a couple plays away from being a playoff team and that is disappointing. When the season was over, we were all not ready for it to end. As a coaching staff, it is disappointing because we would have loved to coach this team another couple games because they were very fun to coach. The next step for us is consistency. We need to be a consistent football team week in-week out and play the type of football we are capable of weekly. I am excited about the talent we have returning, but they all have to put in the time this offseason and buy into our core beliefs for us to take the next step.
Dylan Heithoff: The cliche' phrase, "You can only go as far as your weakest link" really comes into play here. On both sides of the ball, there has to be a level of trust and faith in each other to get the job done, otherwise a snowball effect of unwanted events will ensue. As far as defense goes, I've seen this team quit and give up in prior years when adversity came up throughout a game. I can honestly say this year that this defense and this team as a whole never quit on each other. We definitely ran into some adversity and we definitely played our share of bad games, but we always fought to the end and "emptied the tank" until the final whistle. That's because a strong family doesn't quit on each other, even when a part of the family makes a mistake. We pick that person back up, forget about the mistake, and go out and make a play the next opportunity we have. It's definitely important to attain a family atmosphere, a locker room of brothers, and I think this year was the strongest family we had since I've been here.
I also believe it is important to note the addition of offensive coordinator Curan White in 2012, who in his two seasons as OC, has turned our offense into a dual threat attack that is now respected by the rest of the conference. Combined with our traditionally solid defense ran by Patrick Daberkow, the team has come together quite nice as a whole and really turned into a well-oiled machine this year.
Langston Jones: The coaches were the initial selling point in getting me to commit to Concordia. Once I was around the team, I realized that I wanted to commit not only to the coaches, but to my newfound brothers as well.
We knew that our previous years were not the best but everyone was always striving forward to make themselves and the person next to them better. We found a solid core group of guys and gave leadership to people younger than us to work just as hard. It is easy to work hard when everyone around you buys in to accomplish the same goal.
It was a great feeling to start the season (6-0). I felt that it was long time coming for everyone who has been involved with the football team. We were finally seeing our hard work pay off in the long run. I felt that people on campus were very supportive and wished us the best on the field. It was a great feeling to have people support you in the stands and on campus.
Von Thomas: The most important factor in the improvement for the offense has been our attitude. We stopped complaining about things and just got the job done. That has a lot to do with Coach (Curran) White and the system he runs. We knew what we were capable of. We just had to put the work in, buy into the system and play confident.
Coach Winter's honesty with me is a trait that he has that means a lot to me. He’s always positive about things, which gives me the motivation and confidence to do well on and off the field. Their attitude hasn't changed since I've been here. If you do the right things, our coaching staff will be there for us whenever we need them.
Darnell Woods: My brother Derrick Woods played a big role in my decision to become a Bulldog during the recruiting process. Despite not having much success during his football career at Concordia, he had nothing but great things to say about the university. A friendly community and campus environment, a brotherhood on the sports teams, the people and relationships he made and professors caring about students succeeding in the classroom were things he mentioned when I asked him why he liked Concordia and how he enjoyed his college experience there.
Going into the fall of the 2011 football season as a sophomore transfer, I knew I had to compete for a starting spot because I knew there were guys ahead of me in the program who had earned their positions from the previous season. Head coach Vance Winter addressed to the whole team during the first practice of two-a-days that he was looking for guys that were going to step up and compete for their positions. It sparked a fire inside me instantly when those words came out of his mouth because I knew right then the type of coach I had and his character. I said to myself, “It’s time to go to work.” Day-by-day and week-by-week I showed great effort on special teams and relentlessly competed like crazy hoping the coaches would notice. Sure enough Coach Winter and Coach Daberkow called my number and started me at the cornerback position Northwestern in 2011.
It’s very satisfying and rewarding to have helped Concordia become a respected team in league. It is also a feeling of gratitude. This program has been through many trials and tribulations over the years seeing very little success since 2001. To have the season we had this year with 17 all-conference honors is a very humble reward for our program and the seniors. This program is headed in the right direction thanks to the coaching staff, the senior leadership and the growing recruiting classes that have helped the depth at every position. The losses were hard but I was happy we ended the season with a win. With the great group of guys coming back I see nothing but greatness and positive things for the upcoming years for the Bulldog football program.