Football 2015 began at Whitworth University under a choking shroud from the relentless August wildfires that chased the Pirates – and everyone else in this area code – indoors. Happily, “Up in Smoke” was resisted as a catchphrase for the season.
On Tuesday, as the Pirates were to open practice for their first playoff appearance in almost a decade, the wind returned without the sooty passengers but in gusts up to 70 mph that again sent the Pirates to cover, bringing down big timber all over a campus now festooned with yellow caution tape.
So what’s the forecast for the after-season banquet? Lava and ash spewing from Mt. Spokane? Seismic activity at the Pine Bowl? A downpour of frogs?
Whatever, it will be handled. Hey, in the middle of practice Wednesday, Pirates coach Rod Sandberg was informed that any of his players residing in dorms still without power would have to be evacuated. So let Ma Nature do her thing.
“College kids are pretty adaptable,” he said.
College presidents, too.
“At 7 a.m. yesterday,” said Sandberg, marveling at yet another show of community at Whitworth, “Beck Taylor walks into our staff meeting and asks, ‘Rod, what do you need from me?’ ”
He meant in the way of logistical support, but a trick play for the game plan wouldn’t have been rejected. Because let’s be frank – the Pirates can use all the help they can get Saturday when they play at Linfield in the opening round of the NCAA Division III playoffs.
This is usually the cue to bemoan the cynical approach to the postseason – in almost any sport – in D3. Anytime the Northwest Conference is a multiple-bid league, the inevitable reward is pairing the two representatives in a first-round rematch simply because bus rides keep down costs – the sort of thing that would induce national apoplexy if it was done in Division I.
Just don’t expect Sandberg to join in the chorus.
“The NCAA gave us a gift,” he insisted. “The more times we play Linfield, the sooner we’ll beat them.”
This is Sandberg’s on-field Everest. Linfield has won 39 of its last 40 games against NWC competition, including a 52-10 wipeout of Whitworth last month, the Pirates’ only loss in 10 games. And make no mistake, the second-year coach intends to make the climb, even as he attends to what he knows to be more important business.
“I have a captive audience everyday,” he said. “They love football and so they’re going to listen. So what am I using that platform for? If it’s just winning, how empty and hollow.”
This does not make him another “Coach Kumbaya” – his joke. Sandberg stepped into an awkward situation at Whitworth, the school having clumsily parted ways with John Tully after 19 seasons. When Sandberg laid down his expectations, “some players pushed back.
“I realize they didn’t sign up to play for me,” he said. “But we were not going to lower the standard. It’s not fun to tell a young man his choices will not allow him to be a part of the team. He’s still a person with a future and a life. And I’m in coaching to impact lives in a positive way, because that’s what coaches in my life did.”
That began at a little football factory in Geneseo, Illinois – “6,000 people in the town, 10,000 at homecoming my senior year and the best field in the state – the farmers took care of that field, baby,” Sandberg said. After that he was a “slow, weak” safety at Wheaton College, where he became his family’s first college grad and found a mentor in Mike Swider, for whom he served as an assistant for 18 seasons.
The emotional, sincere sendoff he received when he announced his departure for Spokane reinforced his notions about impacting lives. So did participating in an on-campus tribute last month for Whitworth legend Sam Adams, a timely reunion held before his death last week.
“This is 50 years after he coached and there are 80 people there,” Sandberg said, “and they’re reading these letters that say things like ‘saved my life’ and ‘kept me from prison’ and ‘led me to faith’ – all these amazing, humbling things.
“When you open the door for these young men, you have no idea what it might mean in their lives.”
Especially if they walk through. If Sandberg got initial resistance from a few players, a core of holdovers that are now juniors and seniors – 15 of them starters – threw themselves behind the change. After a 6-4 first season under the new coach, they set off-season workout records and in-season goals. Going 9-1 wasn’t one of them; having a team GPA of 3.1 was.
And Sandberg? He sticks to his own.
“When they leave, we want our guys to be better men,” he said. “I sure don’t think you have to compromise winning to do that.”
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