In his third season as the head football coach of the Lakeland University Muskies, Colin Bruton has turned his team into one of the top teams in the Northern Athletics Collegiate Conference (NACC). The Muskies have been the top fish the last two seasons, earning trips to the NCAA football playoffs in both of his seasons at the helm, the first time in the school’s history that they have had consecutive playoff appearances.
Introduction to Head Coach Colin Bruton
The muskellunge, also known as the Muskie, is a fish that is indigenous to the freshwater lakes of North America. While not a common fish, it is one of the largest, able to grow to lengths of nearly four feet, making them one of the largest fish on the continent.
The Muskie is much like many of its close relatives, like the Northern Pike, in both look and behavior. One such area of great similarity is in how aggressive and intelligent they are in the way that they ambush predators. This fish will lure those that attempt to make a meal out of the Muskie and then, when they have lured them to the place of greatest vulnerability for the predator, vigorously attack with their flat head and elongated bodies, doing a significant amount of damage to many different kinds of predators, including wolves and bears.
It takes a special kind of fish to be classified as a Muskie and many of the students at Lakeland University are finding that being a part of the Muskies’ football team is equally as special. The Muskies have become the top dogs of the NACC, winning the conference title in each of the last two seasons, and that has come because of the intelligent and aggressive style of play that has been implemented by Head Coach Colin Bruton.
Football Is in the Blood
Colin Bruton headed off to college believing that the law would become his career pathway. However, halfway through his stay at the University of Illinois, Bruton realized that he wanted to stay involved in football. He had loved the coaches and the comradery that only time on the gridiron can generate, and decided that coaching would be the new avenue he wanted to follow.
“I think the opportunity to stay involved in football was why I became a coach. The opportunity to give back to kids. I had a lot of great coaches growing up from youth football through high school and college. I just didn’t feel like I wanted to get out of the game at that point.”
After graduation, Bruton headed to the University of Wisconsin-Plattesville where he was a graduate assistant with the football program. The experience gave him the opportunity to get his feet wet in the coaching world and a year later Lakeland was looking for a new defensive coordinator. The Coach decided that this would become a golden opportunity for him to be a part of something truly special.
Establishing a Successful Resume
After just one year in the coaching profession, Colin Bruton became the defensive coordinator at Lakeland University. He was just in his mid-20s, but former Head Coach Kevin Doherty believed that Bruton would be the perfect fit to run his defense.
The Coach would serve eight seasons as the defensive coordinator, helping to create the Muskies mystique, as he developed an attacking, aggressive style of defense that would surely have made the Muskie fish proud. The style of defense he implemented led to success right away. The team was second in total defense in both 2008 and 2010, and in 2011 they lead the conference in both scoring defense and total defense.
While the play of the defense had been solid since his arrival, 2014 became one of the most special seasons for Lakeland. That season, the Muskies were ranked in the top 25 in all of Division-III football in 10 different defensive statistical categories, including ranking in the top 10 in seven. They were third in the nation in defense against the run and red zone defense, and were eighth in total yards allowed, number of sacks, and number of tackles for loss per game. It was a truly remarkable season that gained great recognition for Coach Bruton, as he was nominated as one of the six finalists for the Coordinator of the Year award.
The Biggest Fish in the Lake
After serving as the team’s defensive coordinator for eight seasons, Colin Bruton was offered the head coaching position in 2015. The Lakeland Muskies were coming off a 6-4 season, where they were 5-1 in the NACC and tied for the conference title. The school clearly wanted to ensure that the success of the program continued, and the Coach became the ideal candidate.
On March 4, 2015, Colin Bruton became the 16th head football coach in school history. At the press conference to name Bruton as head coach, Lakeland Interim Director of Athletics April Arvan explained, “We are very excited to promote Coach Bruton to the position. His accomplishments as defensive coordinator, as well as commitment to our student-athletes in every aspect of their lives, make him a great fit for our program.”
Coach Bruton had helped to make the Muskies one of the best defenses in the country and the team was greatly benefitting as a result, but that was just the tip of the iceberg. In 2015, Lakeland finished 8-3, and concluded the regular season with a seven game winning streak. It was the most wins by a Muskies team since 2005, and earned the school a trip to the NCAA Division-III playoffs. They took on Wheaton, who was nationally ranked in the top 10 that season, falling 55-6, but quickly proved that they had what it took to become a regular participant in the playoffs.
A season later, the Lakeland Muskies went 7-4, including 5-1 in the conference to share the NACC title. Since Lakeland had defeated Aurora during the regular season, they entered the NCAA playoffs for the second straight year, a first for the school.
In the playoffs, the Muskies took on national powerhouse University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and played an exceptional game, finally falling 45-27. While the score may have seemed a bit lopsided, UWW jumped out to a 28-0 lead, but Lakeland never quit in this contest. They trailed 31-7 heading into the locker room, but scored 20-points in the second half of the game, including the last two touchdowns. It was the kind of gutty display that a fish could truly appreciate.
The Transformation Continues
While Colin Bruton has had a great deal of success in his first two seasons as head coach at Lakeland University, the truth remains that a great deal of that success is due to the fact that the Coach understands that he is a work in progress as well. While he has a great deal of coaching knowledge to share, no one truly understands and knows it all, and so he has undergone a great deal of transformation over the years so that he can to make the Muskies a top-tier program.
“I think with all of us coaches you’re not very good initially. I look back at some of the things I did my first year at Lakeland in 2007 and some of the things we just did schematically and we weren’t sound. We weren’t doing things the right way. I just look back and I think you just get better as you do it more. I think you’re constantly just trying to improve no matter what sport or what level. You’re just self-evaluating on both your program and yourself and what your role is.”
It also means that the Coach has had to grow with the times. We live in an age where social media dominates the landscape of America, and coaches need to grow with that as well. Coach Bruton wants his players to be smart in the decisions that they make when using the Internet and social media, but he has also embraced the ideal that this can be an avenue he can use to promote the program and to recruit perspective students.
“We give our guys a lot of freedom. I’m not going to be a coach who tells them that they can’t use Twitter, they can use Instagram, you can’t be on social media. I don’t think that’s the right way to handle things. Instead, we try to educate kids on what are good decisions to make with your social media accounts. As coaches, we have to realize that social media is not going away and is one of the primary ways that our students communicate. They communicate with each other, they communicate with the people back home, so we want them to be smart about it but not restrict their ability to use it, and to use it in a way that they find fun and enjoyable.
“We are also a program that embraces social media from a marketing standpoint. This year, for the first time, we hired a student who works with us just for social media. Her name is Sarah Judge and she does a great job of managing our social media platforms and is at almost every practice taking video, taking pictures, so we have embraced social media and tried to market our brand of Muskie football through Twitter, through Instagram, through Snapchat, and all those different means.”
A Program Built for Success
Entering his third season with Lakeland University, Colin Bruton has established himself as one of the bright young minds in all of college football. The Muskies Head Coach is not even 40-years-old yet, has two playoff appearances under his belt, and a 15-7 record.
It is an impressive start to his head coaching career to say the least, but what makes what Coach Bruton is doing at Lakeland really special is that he has built a team that goes far beyond stats and wins. The Coach has created a culture that he highlights as one of the most significant parts of why a student would want to come to the university. It’s enabled him to have success in recruiting athletes from all over the country.
“Number one, we just try to sell our culture and the family atmosphere in our program. We try to sell the competitiveness of our program, the fact that we’ve been competitive and that we’ve won conference championships. That we’ve had success. We have kids from 17 different states. Four or five years ago, our roster was made of players from Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois. Now we’re recruiting more nationally.”
While culture plays a significant role in the success of the program, if a coach is not recruiting top talent, success is going to be limited at best. The Coach has made it a staple of the program to reach out to top recruits knowing that Lakeland University not only has a great football experience to offer, but an education that many schools would find it hard to beat. This has enabled him to chase after and succeed in persuading these young man to come to Lakeland University for their college experience.
“We’ve had some really talented kids and that helps. It’s part culture but you do need talent. I think now that we have developed that culture a little bit, it’s created a situation where the more talented kids want to come. One of the things that kids have done is that we’ve embraced competition. We compete all the time in practice, we are probably a little more physical in practice than a lot of programs. We try to create competitive situations all the time. Then we just continue to increase expectations.”
Getting top talent and creating a culture for success have been keys in making the Muskies an up and coming program, however, the fact remains that high school students need to be sold on the idea that Lakeland is the school for them. This is where he is giving his assistants a great deal of credit for helping to draw these exceptional athletes to the school.
“My assistants have really done a good job of finding these kids, taking the time to develop relationships, and telling them the good things that we can do at Lakeland. A lot of these kids are just looking for a place to play ball and to get a good education and they’re willing to travel and they’re willing to buy into what our program is about so it feels like home for them. Our assistants build the kind of relationship where the student can trust that this is true.”
Players have also played a huge role in the recruiting process. Because of their own success at the school and the enjoyment that they have had on the field, they are reaching out to high school students to let them know that the Lakeland Muskies are an ideal location for students to choose. This has even helped to make the team one of the most ethnically diverse programs in all of Division-III football.
“We just have really good kids in our program. Our best recruiters have been our current players. They are a fun group. It’s a very diverse group. We have tremendous racial diversity, ethnic diversity. We have guys from all over the country who come from a lot of different experiences and I think that’s a cool thing about Lakeland. I think these guys get in our program and kind of experience guys who are very different from them in a lot of ways, but share the same goals within our program.”
Taking His Responsibilities Seriously
Each year, millions of parents send their children off to college not only expecting that their child will get a great education, but that those who are placed in authority over them will protect and nurture them toward maturity. Of all the positions at a university, few garner as much trust from parents as that of a football coach. Because we live in an age where concussions and other kinds of sports injuries are a great concern for many parents, coaches have to provide an atmosphere where their players can succeed academically and thrive on the field as well. This is an awesome responsibility that Colin Bruton takes to heart.
“Any concerns that parents have I want to know about them. I want to address them and to try to help their son in their time here. We get that, especially with parents from a distance that they are really entrusting us with their sons and so it’s a tremendous responsibility for us. From our end, we have to make sure that we do everything that we can to keep the parents informed and just let them know what’s going on in the program.”
That standard of care doesn’t just apply to players. The Coach implemented a policy where assistants no longer meet on Sundays because he wants them to have a chance to spend time with their family and to recharge their batteries. His point is that players on the team are expected wise decisions, so why shouldn’t the coaches?
“My expectation is that they’re going to watch the film at some point on Sunday, and then come in a little earlier on Monday. At Navy they are doing this because they have felt like it’s been really good at resetting the staff and recharging their batteries. I think there are a lot of staffs who get in at 7 AM on Sunday and are there until midnight on Sunday night. I think sometimes, as football coaches, there is a badge of honor saying that we were in the office for X amount of hours. I think quite honestly we’re asking our players to get rest, to manage their time properly, and that’s the kind of thing that we want to model as coaches as well.”
This new policy has also allowed Coach Bruton to spend more time with his own family. While his eight and two-year-old are frequent visitors to the team’s practice, he acknowledges that without the support of his wife, Brenda, the program would have minimal chances of succeeding.
“I’m fortunate that I have a very supportive wife who is a big part of this program. You spend a lot of long hours away from home as a head football coach, and a lot of responsibility is on her, but she has done an incredible job with our kids. I couldn’t do this and enjoy following my passion without her.”
Looking to Move to the Next Level
After two years of appearing in the playoffs, Head Coach Colin Bruton is looking for much bigger things out of his team this year. He knows that a winning tradition has been established at Lakeland University, but understands that simply making it to the playoffs isn’t good enough any longer.
“We have been knocked out in the first round in each of the last two years and so our goal is to win, not just to be in that game but to win a game; to continue to advance, and to continue to take the next step. I think we’re beyond the point where just getting into the playoffs determines it being a successful season. Our seniors have tasted it the last two years and they’re looking for more. They want to keep building this, they want to keep growing. We talk a lot about taking the next step as a program and, for us, that means being able to win a playoff game while understanding that in order to get to that game there’s a whole lot of other steps we have to take before that point.”
The first step will begin on Saturday when Carroll University comes to town. Lakeland University will be opening their newly remodeled stadium and will play their first game in school history under the lights. It’s the kind of atmosphere that is sure to have Carroll thinking that they are going to be the predators on this night. Sadly for them, Head Coach Colin Bruton is likely to have a scheme devised that is going to demonstrate how aggressive, intelligent, and talented his Muskies are. So get ready teams in the NACC, the Lakeland Muskies are likely to be the big fish in the lake once again.
By Robert Pannier