Less than a month away from the first practice, new Whitworth University football coach Rod Sandberg has 45 new recruits headed to north Spokane as he begins the process of molding the Pirates in his image.
Whitworth hired Sandberg last December after the departure of John Tully, who roamed the Pine Bowl for 19 years and set a school mark with 100 wins compared to 83 losses.
“I hope to win that many games,” said Sandberg, who now guides the team that finished 4-6 and 2-4 in the Northwest Conference last year.
Earlier this year Sandberg, who spent the last 19 years at Wheaton College, said he would be happy to get 35 or 40 recruits. Since Whitworth is a Division III school, the university cannot offer athletic scholarships.
“I’m very pleasantly surprised by not only the quantity but quality of the recruits,” he said. “Whitworth is a special place. It sells itself.”
The team reports on Aug. 16 and practice begins on Aug. 17. The Pirates open with a conference game on Sept. 6 against Lewis & Clark at the Pine Bowl.
In addition to bringing in dozens of new players, Sandberg also hired Shadle Park’s Alan Stanfield to serve as offensive coordinator. He hired former Rogers coach Matt Miethe to coach the offensive line and he hired Adam Richbart from Wheaton College to direct the defense.
From the previous coaching staff, Sandberg retained Jay Tully as strength and conditioning coach and Jason Tobeck, who coaches receivers and will coordinate the special teams.
As for the players, the team returns starting quarterback Bryan Peterson, from West Valley, who started all or part of the last three years. Peterson got a late-season push by incoming sophomore Ian Kolste. Senior backup quarterback Michael McCune also returns.
Sandberg said he needs to upgrade the depth at offensive line and wide receiver, especially since Stanfield wants to bring a spread, up-tempo offense to Whitworth.
“He doesn’t want to go slow. (Stanfield) doesn’t want anyone to run any more plays than him,” Sandberg said. “If we change personnel, that slows them down. We will be running the same personnel packages.”
Because of that, Sandberg and Stanfield will be looking for running backs who can also play slot receiver. Or, they want receivers who can double as tight ends, depending on how the defense aligns itself.
“We graduated a pretty good senior class,” he said. “We’ve got some work to do. We are going to have to win with some younger guys.”
As far as recruiting, Sandberg said he always found receptive coaches at area high schools. It was a stark change from the Midwest where coaches from hundreds of schools target some of the same players.
Sandberg said he was the 67th coach to visit one Chicago-area school – on the same day, while recruiting for Wheaton College.
“Here, I was always the only guy there,” he said. “The high school coaches want to help these kids find a good place.”
He guessed that nine of the 45 recruits are coming from local schools. He also picked up some key junior college transfers from California.
“Of those 45, we really need 15 to be borderline Eastern Washington-Central Washington-Montana-type talent. Because, Linfield is getting those types of players,” he said.
One of the keys to recruiting to a school that can’t offer scholarships is to sell the academic support.
“I tell the kids, ‘Don’t come here to play football. Come here because of the school. If you have a career-ending injury, do you still want a Whitworth degree?’” he said.
With that many new players, Sandberg acknowledges that the Pirates may have growing pains in the upcoming season.
“I have to be realistic with who I have,” he said. “But, I’m going to try to win every game.
“It all comes back to philosophy. On game day, on game week, we will take the available talent and make the best team we can.”