Habit. When many of us think of the word the more negative connotations of the definition come to mind, such as a person has a smoking habit or a habit of biting their nails. That is one way to look at the word, but another definition says that a habit is the manner in which one conducts him or herself. When thought of from that perspective it is easy to see why the Gustavus Adolphus football program is on the rise with one of the most dynamic offenses in the country. They have a coach who understands how to teach good habits.
Coach Peter Haugen took over the Gustavus Adolphus football program in 2009, and he had some challenges to face. The Gusties were a competitive team, finishing at or above. 500 in each of the three prior seasons, but this is a school that has one of the highest winning percentages in Division-III football history (.580) and has won 22 Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) titles. Competitive is great, but the expectation at GAC goes way beyond that.
Coach Haugen had proven himself to be a guy who could take a program and turn it into a force. During his 15-years at Washburn High School he turned around a program that had just 35 players in his first season and turned it into a powerhouse that had 110 players in his final season at the school. He had one of the best league records in the school’s history (76-8), and left Washburn with a career coaching record of 111-44. The Coach had great success there and honestly thought he would retire from the school, but when Gustavus Adolophus came calling, he knew it was the right position for him. “I honestly thought I would retire form the Minneapolis School District, but I had lots of friends that had gone here (to Gustavus Adolphus) and I knew it was a fine school. It was just the perfect fit for me.”
In his first two seasons at the school the Gusties went 4-6 each year, but the next two seasons saw the team struggle through a time that star safety Jake Forcier described as “growing pains.” A 2-8 record in 2011 was followed up in 2012 by a 3-7 campaign. Coach Haugen was developing a system that was taking some time, and although he had a lot of experience in coaching, the college level posed some new challenges and he had to make some adjustments. “You have to stay true to who you are as a coach and what your principles are when you first began, but it is a learning process. I continue to constantly learn and develop habits that make me a better coach and make my team better players.”
Ah, there is that word. Habits are the foundation upon which Coach Haugen has built his program. As he puts it, “A huge emphasis we put on our program is to be men of good habits. Are you the same young man on the field that you are in the classroom, that you are on campus, that you are in the community. We want men of character and we don’t want someone who is inconsistent in their character. We challenge our students to be great leaders, great students and great men in the community.”
The team was heading in the right direction, but as with the creation of any good habit, or breaking any bad one for that matter, it takes time, and Coach Haugen was the right guy to instill habits into his team, and make them see the reality of what they could accomplish if they would buy into his credo. “Coach Haugen is a really great guy,” senior defensive lineman Andrew Lonneman begins. “He cares about us and really helps us to become better players and better men.”
Senior defensive back Xavier Fust could not agree more. “He is the most kind-hearted person there is. His door is always open and you could tell he really cares about us more than just football. Football is actually not as important as helping us as men, and I have a lot of respect for Coach Haugen.”
It was clear to his players that they were a lot more than just players to him. Every one of them was a member of his family and their success in life was more important than what happened on the field. “I hope that when they have a problem and they need help that I am the first person they call,” the Coach explains. “I am always there for them.”
That is what separates him from many of the coaches that his players have played for in the past. Star wide receiver Gabe Boyce began his college at Concordia College in St. Paul, but transferred to GAC because his experience at the Division-II school was leaving a bad taste in his mouth. “It wasn’t what I was hoping for and there wasn’t the kind of atmosphere where I felt that I mattered. I am not saying it is all about me in anyway. I just wanted to feel like I at least had a role, and that didn’t seem like the case.” And now? “Coach Haugen really reinforces good character here, and if I had a problem I know he is there for me. He is always asking about my classes and it is a great place to play.”
Coach Haugen is fond of pointing out that if his team does all the little things right then winning will take care of itself. It is not emphasized that winning is the most important thing; instead he teaches that doing all the little things right will lead to big things going well. It is a message he has been reinforcing since his arrival at that the school, and last season all those “little things” finally manifested into results that could be seen on the field. His team finished the 2013 campaign 6-4, and had signature wins over St. Olaf and St. John’s. They were showing signs that the program was turning the corner. “I think we were showing some real progress. We were competing well against some of the toughest teams in the conference and had a huge win over St. John’s. It was a moment where we knew we could compete against the top teams in our league.”
This season the team has taken a giant leap forward under Coach Haugen, and he has done it by reinventing his team. Last season’s team was one of the best rushing teams in the conference, led by Jeffrey Dubose who was second in rushing and first in touchdowns. It was a pound ‘em, grind it out offense that won behind their big back, but he was in his senior season and the team was going to enter the 2014 without a true power back. Coach Haugen turned to his junior quarterback, Mitch Hendricks, to take the reins and to reinvent the offense. “Our skill set changed from last year to this year. We had a lot of really great seniors last year who helped us look a lot different offensively. This year we have a different skill set and so we had to make some adjustments.”
Adjustments is what he did to say the least. Haugen and his staff opened up an aerial attack that has quite possibly never been seen before in the MIAC. Hendricks leads all of Division-III in passing yards, touchdowns and yards per game, and his dynamic duo of brothers Matt and Gabriel Boyce are in the top-15 in virtually every receiving category in the country. It was a transformation that is like a vegetarian suddenly one day deciding he is only eating steak and chicken.
“The coaches came to me before the season and talked to me about being more involved in the offense,” Hendricks recalls. “They wanted to throw more and told me that they had all the confidence in the world that I had the skills and ability to make this work. When your coaches have that kind of confidence, you want to deliver for them.”
It is this kind of confidence in his players that has made it so his football team can develop the habits to become great men. Habits take time to develop and they take trust that when there is failure someone will be there to pick them up and help them get right back in the game, whether that game is a game against St. John’s or the game of life. The Gusties Coach has proven to be that man for his team, and they have responded with an outstanding season.
Coach Haugen spoke of how his team wanted to play really “significant games in November.” That is exactly what has happened. They are 6-1, and this week face conference leader Bethel University in a game where a victory would put them atop the conference lead. Following that they have games against Concordia, a team they are tied with for second in the conference, and then travel to St. Thomas, who is always one of the best Division-III schools in the country. Significant games? Most definitely.
This is the toughest portion of the Gusties schedule, and there is no doubt that Coach Haugen has created the habits that means his team can win against any one of these opponents. “How hard we practiced, how disciplined we played early on is now making it possible for us to be in a position where we are among the group of five teams that have a chance to play for the conference title. They have practiced hard for these big moments, and it is the continuation of getting them to practice hard so that they can play their best in these situations.”
The Gustavus Adolphus Gusties are playing big games now, with big moments lying ahead. They are playing for a chance to be conference champions this week, and there is no doubt that the habits of playing hard and being men of incredible character is now paying off just as their coach had planned. This is a team of character, perseverance, brotherhood and strength of mind. The Gustavus Adolphus Gusties are a reflection of one man; they are the perfect reflection of Coach Peter Haugen.
By Robert Pannier