It was either in late 2001 or early 2002 when I eagerly googled up a listing of email addresses for the Ball State University football staff. I fired off a quick note to running backs coach and recruiting coordinator Keith Otterbein.
I asked the former Hillsdale linebacker, Hillsdale assistant, and Ferris State head coach if he had been contacted by Hillsdale College about the head coaching position recently vacated by Dave Dye. Otter responded “not yet” but that he sure would welcome the call.
At that point I crossed my fingers that Hillsdale would seize the obvious opportunity to bring home a proven Division II coach who had taken a Ferris State all of the way to the national semi-finals not too long ago.
Nine years later we Charger fans find ourselves cheering the number 9 ranked team in the country with Keith Otterbein at the helm.
I told Charger radio and tv announcer Dan Bisher this today, “Dave Dye (Otterbein’s predecessor) is one of my favorite people ever associated with Hillsdale College but it hurt to see the program drop off. The rest is history with Otter and this is what we all hoped for, but deep down only half expected it.”
When Coach Dye left there was talk fueled by a Collegian article that Hillsdale belonged in Division III. That conversation lingered on as Otterbein’s first 3 teams went 3-5 for 3 straight years. Those like me who disagreed thought it was waving the white flag of surrender and argued that Charger football would be at an even deeper disadvantage without athletic scholarships. Those 36 grants-in-aid are the biggest equalizer in Division II. In Division III there are no athletic scholarships, but believe me when I say that those football players still get attractive financial aid packages. A lot of those are funded through federal loans and grants, money Hillsdale refuses.
The other argument was that Hillsdale was destined to be the Northwestern or Stanford of Division II and have a cute little overachieving season here or there but couldn’t consistently be a top GLIAC team unless they lowered academic standards for athletes. Hillsdale has done just the opposite of lowering academic standards and coincidentally has also continued to improve on the football field.
Luckily for those of us either patient enough or crazy enough or whatever enough to believe that Otterbein could return Hillsdale to consistent prominence, the reward has been well worth the wait as we are seeing that actually happen.
With 2 more wins, Hillsdale will clinch its 4th consecutive winning season. No class has come to Hillsdale and had 4 consecutive winning seasons since the group that played during the 1992-1995 seasons. Incidentally, that 1992 group was the last team to be ranked in the top 10 before this one.
Last year I had the opportunity to hear Hillsdale College president Larry Arrn speak on two occasions, once at the Charger football banquet and once at a reception hosted by the college in Grand Rapids. At both events he beamed with pride over the recent triumphs the Hillsdale program was achieving both on and off the field. He talked about Hillsdale’s fit in Division II and how it provides a balance between top-notch athletics and stressing the importance of being both a student and an athlete. He also said to never view balance as compromise. Hillsdale will not compromise either excellence on the field or in the classroom. It is Hillsdale’s goal to be a great example of these principles to other athletic programs and institutions.
Somewhere back in the midst of the three 4-7 seasons and the following two 5-6 seasons, I asked Otter if he could win with these types of kids. His eyes lit up and with the most conviction I have ever seen he told me that he wouldn’t want to do his job with any other kind.
“Sure,” he said “It’s a little harder to find the right kid that fits, but I am telling you we can do amazing things with bright kids that have a tremendous work ethic these guys. We’ll get there.”
Yep Coach, you have.
I am just bursting at the seams to see what else this guy, his staff, and one determined bunch of Chargers still have in store for us the rest of the way. It’s only week 6 and we have a lot of football left to play.