In his 14th season with Carleton College, sixth as the head coach, Bob Pagel has committed himself and his team as a program dedicated to excellence that will eventually see the Knights win their quest for the MIAC title.
Introducing Bob Pagel
While there are many characters in the history of humankind that inspire hours of daydreaming, none is more captivating than that of the knight. These men were the epitome of what every young boy dreamed of in terms of the great adventure. After all, what is better than riding on a horse all day in a suit of armor, battling the forces of evil, and protecting damsels in distress?
A great mythology developed around the knight. Not only do we have such tales of King Arthur and his sorcerer Merlin (some of which is true but much of which is pure fantasy), but tales of knights battling dragons and giants are still legends that Hollywood finds too tantalizing to ignore.
Adding to the mystique were the codes and values of these men. The ideas related to chivalry came from the knights, and there were codes of fairness and ethics that arose over the centuries. While not perfect in anyway, these men and women have inspired the young centuries later who still long to live out the life of one of these heroic and legendary figures.
These characters of ages long past are gone for the most part, but there is a group of Knights dedicated to a code of excellence that harkens back to those historical days. A group of men who are not only brilliant academically, but who are committed to excellence on and off the field of battle. Young men who have embraced the ideology of their leader, who has sought to make his Knights men of integrity who give our society a hope for a brighter future. That leader is Carleton College Head Football Coach Bob Pagel.
Wanting to Make a Difference
Maybe comparing the head coach of a football team to medieval leaders such as King Arthur seems to be hyperbole to the extreme, but it truly is not. While the men and women who serve in our military are the ones who are our country’s most important warriors, football players are no less passionate or committed about donning their armor to go to battle each Saturday.
In fact, there really are a lot of similarities to the knights of old and these Knights of Carleton College. At 15, a young man or woman who wanted to become a knight served as a squire, an apprentice if you will, looking to learn what it took to become a great warrior under the tutelage of a proven knight.
These Knights have chosen to do the same thing, putting their trust in Head Coach Bob Pagel to not only assist them to become better football players, but to also help develop them into young men who are prepared to go into the world, equipped to be great fathers, husbands, neighbors, friends, employees, and business executives. It was how former coaches had committed themselves to his development that led the Coach to this profession and is why he still enjoys being a coach today.
“I was really influenced by Bob Nielsen. Bob Nielsen was the head football coach at the University of South Dakota. My first interaction with him was early in my career and he influenced me heavily. When I saw the influence he had it was like, ‘Hey, I want to do that for other young people as well.’ So that’s what got me propelled into this profession.”
Coach Pagel attended Wartburg College (Iowa) where he earned a business degree from the school. After graduating, he took a job on the staff of his alma mater before moving on to the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. During his three years at Wartburg, those Knights went 27-3 and went to the Division-III playoffs twice.
In 1998, Coach Pagel moved onto St. Cloud State University before joining the staff at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. He spent five seasons with the Bulldogs, acting as the team’s recruiting coordinator as well as the defensive backs coach. During that time, the team had one of the best defenses in the country and that helped to lead them to the school’s first trip to a bowl game as well as a trip to the Division-II playoffs.
Loyalty Is a Foundation
After five seasons at UMD, Bob Pagel joined the Carleton College football staff. The Coach served in a variety of positions over the next nine seasons, including defensive backs coach and defensive coordinator. In 2010, Coach Pagel became the team’s assistant head coach.
Two years later, he would add another title. With the head coach position available, Coach Pagel knew that Carleton College was where he wanted to be and so he put his hat in the right to become the Knights new head coach. To the Coach, this seemed like a total no brainer.
“I like a challenge. I think people that know me will tell you that. This is not a job for just anybody. I have been here as an assistant, I have worked for two different head coaches here, and I thought that this was going to take a little bit different approach, a little bit different mindset.”
The most important part of this for Coach Pagel was that this was where he wanted to finish his career. Even if other opportunities presented themselves, it was the atmosphere of Carleton College that made this a very special position and he didn’t see himself even wanting to go to another place.
“I think one of the things that was different for me was that this was not going to be a steppingstone job for me; this was going to be my last job. I wasn’t looking for greener pastures. I committed to this program and this school and that’s kind of how I have lived this ever since I’ve taken over as the head coach, and that’s what I continue to do. This is a very special place with the academic demands and expectations that it has and I think that there is a place for competitive football here. I really do. We can continue to grow our program and build our team to give ourselves a chance in an awfully difficult league. That’s kind of what keeps me going is those challenges, and that’s why I get back in the saddle every week to do it. Some people might get discouraged; I’m not. I’m staying true to our plan and trying to get it executed.”
The Pastures Are Pretty Green
While Carleton College is not known for its excellence on the gridiron, it is one of the finest academic institutions in the country and that was appealing to Head Coach Bob Pagel for a variety of reasons. Maybe most important of all, it gave him an opportunity to coach and develop young men who came from all over the country and who came from a very diversified background.
“This is a place of world-class in academics. The experiences and opportunities you’ll get while you’re here as a student and upon graduation with graduate school and jobs, it’s unparalleled. We’re truly a national program here because we cap Minnesota enrollment at 20 percent and we haven’t even gotten to that the last couple of years. We got to find kids from around the country that are looking for this experience, both as students and as athletes, and that gives our players the chance to meet others from all across the country.”
To Coach Pagel, that diversity is one of the primary selling points of coming to Carleton College. Many colleges and universities push how rigorous their curriculum is or how distinguished is their staff. However, the Knights Coach believes that the students do just as much teaching as any professor.
“I think our guys, I think everybody on this campus would say the education happens here just as much outside the classroom as it does in it. Carlton prides itself on its diversity, and they have done an awesome job in creating this environment. We get a little subculture on our football team because we’re together so much, it’s just how football is, how you practice and live, but then it radiates out into the rest of campus. This is a lot different than other campuses and I think that’s awesome.”
Gaining His Own Education
When you are coaching football in arguably the toughest conference in all of Division-III, the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) the challenge to succeed is tough enough on its own. However, when you add the challenge of trying to recruit top athletes who are also exceptional students the task seems almost daunting. This means that building a program that is successful on a regular basis takes patience and a great vision. To accomplish this, Coach Bob Pagel has had to learn along the way as well.
“I’ve gotten a lot more patient, and sometimes I got to remind myself of that. There used to be lots of things that bothered me, but now I ask myself if that really should bother me and most of the time I say no. I think being a parent with young kids has really helped me change in my coaching. Just trying to be more of an educator. As smart as our guys are here maybe in the classroom and in certain areas, that doesn’t necessarily radiate to football. So, I still got to teach the game and teach the fundamentals of our scheme, and I find that very rewarding to take a kid and help them work on some techniques and see them continue to grow and develop. I think that comes with patience, and I believe I have become more patient and steady this year than I was last year and every year that goes backwards.”
He has also had to change his style of coaching to a degree. Technology hasn’t only made the classroom experience different, but has adjusted the way coaches teach as well.
“What I think has changed over the last 15 or 20 years is where you used to be able to tell somebody or give them a piece of paper with something on it and they could take that and translated it out on the practice or the game field. I think that’s different now. I think you have to do more with technology, more electronically, and for us old guys that’s why we hire young assistants to help us navigate that. I think what gets their attention and what makes sense to them has changed a little bit.”
Driven to Develop
If one is truly honest about it, most don’t believe that Carleton College will compete for the MIAC title with St. John’s and St. Thomas every season. With a smaller roster and a very select student body, success is not going to be measured in terms of wins and losses, but in how successful the program is at educating young men to be successful once they leave the campus.
That would be too much to bear for most coaches, who would rather spend a day having their teeth pulled than lose a football game, but Bob Pagel sees the big picture. He wants a successful football team on the field, and is driven to see that happen but, more importantly, he wants to see these young men go out and battle for their own personal success while also being great dads, husbands, and members of society.
“Just seeing kids grow, and not just on the football field, to grow to be young men. They come here in a pretty good way, everybody has a little bit different story, a different background, but is just fun to see them mature and really start to spread their wings. They come here maybe undecided on a major and then they leave here and they say, ‘Hey Coach, I’m premed or I got accepted to this graduate school. It’s just how they conduct their business, how they handle themselves, and how they handle their underclassman teammates. I find that to be the most rewarding thing here at Carleton, just watching our kids grow, I cherish the great relationships with those guys upon graduation, too. I get invited to weddings and stuff like that and that does a lot for me.”
Coach Pagel wants to see his players succeed and gets that he and his staff play a big part in making that a reality. Dedication has to start at the top for this program to become a competitor in the MIAC, and it has to be modeled at the top as well.
“I’m not willing to change it, we’re staying on course, it’s been slow, maybe slower than you’d like, but it’s going and I believe in that. I feel like our guys deserve the absolute best that they can get from us, and that’s what we try to do for them here. They need to see that we are committed to seeing Carleton as a winner. They need to know that we care about them beyond football.”
The Battle Never Ends
There are a lot of myths related to the knights of old, many of which are nothing more than pure fiction. However, there are a group of Knights that are battling dragons and giants, it is just that they are called Tommies, Johnnies, Royals, and Cobbers. It would be easy for this team to just expect to lose, but as long as Bob Pagel is the head coach at Carleton College that will never be the case.
“I tell them to don’t give up, don’t sacrifice, stay true to what you believe in and commit to it. You’re going to get thrown adversity whether you’re looking forward or not. Sometimes it comes at the most inopportune times, but I think that’s when you really find out who you are. Can you overcome this, can you add this on to your already full plate and make it all work? I think that’s one of the things here that happens in our program. This is not an easy place to go to school, it’s not an easy place to play football at, but if you graduate from here and play four years of football, I think you can tackle just about anything that comes your way. At least that’s what I hope, and that’s what I believe. They may not recognize it right away but hopefully somewhere in their young working career they will look back and say, ‘Hey, I learned a lot from this program, I learned a lot from Coach Pagel,’ That’s my hope.”
There may not be a need for medieval knights any longer, but Coach Bob Pagel has prepared his team to confront the giants, dragons, and enemies that will come across their path, maybe even save a damsel or two. These young Knights are prepared for every situation that comes their way, and thanks to their time on the Carleton College football team they have learned the most important lesson of all. You may not always win, in fact you may rarely do so, but as long as you work to make a difference in the lives of others you will also be a winner. Maybe that is why Head Coach Bob Pagel is the biggest winner of them all.
By Robert Pannier