Head Football Coach Mike Emendorfer is in his 19th season at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, where he has turned the Pioneers into a national powerhouse, but it was a change in focus that helped to turn a good program into an elite one, and has the team reaching new frontiers.
Introducing Mike Emendorfer
They say that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, and that saying may be no more true in relation to football coaches than with any other person on the planet. Once a coach has developed a scheme or idea of what they believe will be successful, it is very difficult for them to embrace new ideas, especially if success has accompanied their strategies and schemes.
However, the fact remains that if a coach is truly going to be successful then he needs to adapt, sometimes making dramatic changes in the way that he runs his program, deals with his players, and even the approach that he takes to life in general. This is what happened to University of Wisconsin-Platteville Head Football Coach Mike Emendorfer, who found himself completely reevaluating what really mattered to him as a coach, and the success that has arisen as a result speaks for itself, as he has led the Pioneers to new frontiers, as they are one of the most formidable teams in all of Division-III football.
Following in the Pathway of the Influential Men in His Life
Mike Emendorfer was faced with a rather tragic circumstance early on in life when his father passed away, leaving his mother as the lone parent to care for him and his three sisters. She did an amazing job, not only providing stability and support for the family, but also ensuring that the Coach and his sisters had the right kind of influences around their lives.
One of the most important for Mike Emendorfer was the coaches who helped to guide him through the some of the most important years of his life. They became more than just coaches, as they helped him to develop a love for sports and a desire to help others in the same way that they had looked out after him.
“My father passed away and so there were three sisters, my mother, and the youth coaches who were sort of father figures in my life. I looked up to them and so that intrigue me. I love athletics. I love the connection I had with many of my coaches through my journey and I know that they made a difference in my life and that’s what intrigued me to get into coaching. At an early age I started thinking that this was something that I wanted to do.”
A Statesman an d a Scholar
After graduating from high school, Mike Emendorfer went on to play college football at William Penn University. He became the school’s all-time leading receiver with 158 catches, a record that remains to this day.
After graduating, Emendorfer wanted to take the lessons he learned from previous coaches and help young men to be able to grow through the same kind of lessons he had learned. It was those coaches whose lessons he wanted to teach to others, but they also influenced him and how he would coach.
“I think early on as a coach when you first start out in your early 20s you’re going to look back at your high school and college coaches and see how they did things and as time goes on you sort of get to know who you are as a person as you mature and go through this journey, but early on there was no doubt that Paul Vosburgh, Doug Cooper, and many of my former coaches I took the lessons that I learned from them and tried to copy them. As time goes on, I had to find who I was as a man and as a person, as a coach. I think that is normal with most coaches as they go through the journey.”
The Coach would take on the role of passing coordinator at Grinnell College before moving on to become the offensive coordinator at Quincy University. His next stop was to become the offensive coordinator at Hanover College, a role he would fill for eight seasons. However, in 1999 the Pioneers were looking for a new coach, and Coach Emendorfer was hired on to take the job.
The new Wisconsin-Platteville Coach had no false ideas about what was ahead of him when he arrived at Platteville. He knew that the Pioneers had been struggling, what typically happens before a school decides to turn to a new coach.
“Typically if the program is in great shape then the former coach got a new job and they typically hire from within. When they hire from the outside they are usually looking for someone who comes with new ideas and I was fortunate to come in. They wanted to change the culture and the image of Platteville. They were a Wing-T offense, but my background was in the spread offense, throwing the football quite a bit. Back then, even in 1999, people had their doubts about can that operate in the state of Wisconsin, but more and more teams have gone to that offense. It was an attraction as far as building the program. They were 1-9 three or four straight years before I got here, not a lot of success. You can’t fix it within a year or two when you’re taking over a program. It’s just a constant each and every year trying to build and add to it to make it better.”
Making Changes and Then Making Changes Again
Mike Emendorfer came to the University of Wisconsin-Platteville not only looking to change the culture of the program, but also looking to implement an entirely new offense. The school had run the Wing-T with its prior coach, but Coach Emendorfer intended to run a spread offense, not something that was widely seen in the Badger state at that point, at least not at the college level.
Coach Emendorfer knew that changing the offense and handing players a new playbook may have been the easiest part of the switch. The difficult part came with finding athletes and recruits who could help implement the new system.
“You’ve got to attract athletes to be able to win the one-on-one matchups. So that was a challenge early on. I think that we now have established ourselves. You also have to find a quarterback that’s very savvy and has great accuracy. That’s a key thing, too.”
In his first season as the head coach, the Pioneers improved to 5-5. It was a significant improvement, but it would take five more seasons before UW-Platteville would reach their first winning season, going 6-4 and earning the Coach honors as the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (WIAC) Coach of the Year. For four more seasons the team would have success but not at the level that the Coach had envisioned. It was at that point that Coach Emendorfer had an epiphany of sorts, changing the entire culture of the program.
“Early on in my coaching career I thought it was all about schemes. I thought we’re going to outwork everyone and out scheme everyone and probably about 10 years ago I did some self-reflection and realized that culture beats schemes. I changed my outlook and focused more on the people in the program than the Xs and Os. We do a lot of attitude training, a lot of development with our young men. One of our philosophies here is that the person is more important than the student, the student is more important than the athlete. I don’t believe that academics are the number one priority here. I believe it’s the person, developing great husbands, developing great fathers down the road is our priority. When we made that shift we found out that our players were giving more effort in the weight room, doing a better job in the classroom, and we were able to attract the right type of people to give us that winning edge on the field.”
It was at this time that Coach Mike Emendorfer instituted what became known as the “Pillars of the Program,” a program designed to provide students with life skills that would carry them far beyond their time at the school. The program instantly gained acclaim, as it not only helped serve the community and improve the academic standing of the players, but it also led many alumni to return to the school and assist students who were or would soon be graduating in being able to find jobs.
Boldly Going Where They Had Not Gone Before
With a new approach, it did not take very long for UW-Platteville to start having significant success. In 2011, the Pioneers went 7-3, the start of six straight seasons where the team finished above .500. That 2011 season saw the team win five games in the WIAC for the first time since 1990. They also won four games in a row that year, the first time the Pioneers had accomplish such a feat since 1980.
In 2012, UW-Plateville went 8-2. The most wins by a team since 1976. The focus on the person above the athlete was proving to be a complete stroke of genius.
Not only was the record indicating success, but the team was putting up offensive numbers like they were playing a videogame. In 2012, the Pioneers averaged better than 41 points a game, ranked eighth best in the country. In his first 18 seasons, Mike Emendorfer’s Pioneers set 40 school records and 10 records in the WIAC conference related to offensive prowess. The success is one of the primary reasons why the Coach is sought across the country to come and speak to coaches and players, and he has several books out related to his offensive philosophy.
Adding to the excitement, the Pioneers went 9-1 in 2013, entering the NCAA Division III playoffs, where they would win their first contest before falling in the second round. Last season, the team went 8-2, only losing to UW-Whitewater and UW-Oshkosh on their way to their second playoff berth in four years. The Pioneers fell in the first round of the playoffs to St. John’s in one of the most exciting games anybody will ever see, 32-31, but it was another level of success, as the team has gone 48-15 since 2011.
The Building Blocks of Student Success
It is one thing to talk about wanting players to be successful, but it is an entirely different process that ensures that success becomes reality. Coach Mike Emendorfer not only wanted to make the students individual success a priority, but he knew that there also had to be tangible ways that that success could occur.
The first step towards this was modeling and demonstrating his concern for their success. These players became much more to him than simple athletes; they were part of his family, and he wanted to ensure that the players always felt that their coach was available to them.
“You’ve got to be a role model. I think people will pay a lot more attention to what you do what you say you will do, and so some neat things that we do at UW-Platteville is that we meet with our players, and one of the ways that we meet with them is that we walk and talk. We get them out of the office where, when you meet with a player in the office you’re in control, where it’s a power thing, and we go and walk. We have an indoor track I take players to, and take them for a walk and just chit chat. That allows me to get my walking in, but it’s something that I promote when I meet with assistant coaches throughout the year as well. Sometimes I just grab them and say, ‘Let’s go for a walk,’ and players will see me and Coach (Ryan) Munz walking around the track. We could be talking about football, we could be talking about life, we could be talking about the NFL game that just happened the night before. It’s finding those open opportunities and making sure that your health is the most important thing. You have to lead by example.”
That process doesn’t begin when an athlete reaches the campus. Coach Emendorfer wants to impress upon potential recruits and their parents that this is the culture of the Pioneers football program. He also wanted to ensure that the assistants that he hired fully grasped the philosophy of the program, and that these were men who were not only a good fit, but people of character as well. This required a very in-depth vetting process.
“I think early on most new head coaches lack in that area of understanding how to surround yourself with the right people. That’s very challenging especially at our level. A lot of times you’re hiring a lot of young coaches. I want to see beyond his resume. I want to see his family, I want to see his girlfriend, his wife, who he is as a person. There are a lot of coaches who can dial up the Xs and Os, but I want to know if he can relate well to the players, that he can connect to the players as well as being a great recruiter. I’ve learned that the Xs and Os are least important now in my opinion; it’s more about their people skills.”
The Skills of Life
Since the introduction of the Pillars of the Program idea, there have become key ideas that Mike Emendorfer has wanted to instill in his young athletes. There has also been a change in the way that he has coached and lived his own life. It started with understanding that he needed to dedicate himself to the other important parts of his life, finding a balance that would not only improve relationships away from football but also make his time at the office much more constructive.
“I’ve learned to balance that. I always felt like you had to stay in the office until 1 o’clock in the morning. It’s just about being able to manage yourself and take care of yourself first. I’ve seen a lot of coaches that have forgotten about their families, and when they do win that championship they have no one to celebrate with. I make it a point that I spend time with my family and we have family dinners and do different activities. This business can consume you, but you have to keep things in perspective and have balance. That’s very important to me and that’s something I’ve learned. The reality is that we’ve had success over the last six or seven years and I’ve worked less, I spend less time at the office, and I have better work life balance which allows me to be more positive and more outgoing at work because I’m also fresher when I come into the office.”
One of the primary skills that the coach finds to be absolutely essential is that of leadership. It is a quality that he demands of his seniors, expecting them to embrace the younger players on the team much in the same way that he himself was embraced when he first came to college, a moment he remembers to this very day.
“I talk to them about when I was a freshman, I remember that senior when I walked into the locker room who extended his hand, from Robert Blades to Vic Kessler. It was back in 1982 and I still remember those two or three seniors that extended their hand. That’s going to be their legacy, extending their hand to those freshmen and helping them make that transition from high school to college. I also want them to enjoy their senior year. It’s most likely going to be their last year of playing football in their life and I want them to enjoy the experience, enjoy the ride, while being a great role model, great leaders.”
Better Than A Championship
If you get down to it, the job of any coach is ultimately to win. It is the way that most are measured in terms of their success. Head Coach Mike Emendorfer has proven that he is a winner, taking a struggling program and making them a national powerhouse, currently ranked 10th in the nation after starting the season 2-0.
While these are things that are important to him as well, what truly matters to the Pioneers Coach is the effect that his coaching and his concern for his players are having on the young men that are charged to his care. He knows that coaching is an awesome responsibility, and so the success of a young man is the ultimate victory for the Pioneers Coach. Nothing demonstrates this more than an event that happened a week ago.
“I just had a moment this past Saturday. I had a young man who last spring he was headed in the wrong direction in life. Talented player and I never thought he would put himself in the right direction in his personal life. We did a lot of counseling, a lot of talking, and we were very blunt with him that if you don’t get your crap together you’re not going to be playing here. He came into camp in shape and I still had my doubts because he was a young man who didn’t show consistency in his first two years here. He has made a 180 turn around and made some big catches in our game against Hampden-Sydney. He was there with his mom and dad and I talked with them and I went up to him and I told him, ‘Thanks for proving me wrong.’ The smile on his face, that’s why I coach right there. It was that moment right there.”
There is a lot to smile about around the University of Wisconsin-Platteville these days. The Pioneers are having a great deal of success and find themselves as a legitimate contender for the WIAC title and maybe even a national championship. It’s the kind of success that the school envisioned when they hired Mike Emendorfer as their head coach and, thanks to his willingness to completely change the way he ran the program, there is no doubt that the Pioneers will continue to reach new frontiers.
Victories are commonplace at the UW-Platteville, but they are even more prominent in the lives of the players who graduate and head off into society each year. Those young men have helped to build the Pioneers into something that is really special and, thanks to the direction of Head Coach Mike Emendorfer, they will now help to give this nation a brighter future. There clearly is hope for us all.
By Robert Pannier