For nearly thirty years Bethel Royals Offensive Coordinator Greg Peterson has found himself on the football field at Bethel University. That journey first began as a player, then as the defensive backs coach, next to the position of wide receivers coach, until he finally became the Offensive Coordinator in 2003. In that time Coach Peterson has logged 290 straight games with the team, including the four contests from this season. A truly remarkable feat to be sure.
Since taking over the offense the accolades and achievements have been many and frequent. In 2011 he was the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) National Assistant Coach of the Year, and since 2010 he has mentored four MIAC (Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference) Offensive MVPs. In 11 of the 12 seasons he has been at the helm as the Offensive Coordinator, the team has led the MIAC in scoring, and they have been the top offense in terms of yards in four of those seasons.
Those amazing numbers show that Coach Peterson not only knows how to create an innovative offense that is hard to stop, but that he also knows how to put his players in the right position to succeed. He has a keen mind that understands how to stymy defenses and an ability to evaluate talent that few can surpass. However, this is not what the Bethel Coach is hanging his hat on. Coach Peterson is reveling much more in the way that he has helped to breathe life into a program that was less than stellar for years, and how that has afforded him the opportunity to have influence over young men, men that he has come to see them as a part of his own family.
Admittedly, when Greg Peterson stepped onto the campus of Bethel University as a student (it was actually Bethel College at that time), the school was not very good on the gridiron. The year prior to Greg coming to the college the Royals had gone 0-9-1, and the head coach who had actually recruited him to the school was let go. Phil Janaro was brought in to run the program in Greg’s first year, but this was clearly not a match made in heaven.
“They brought in a coach from out east, his name is Phil Janaro; a crazy, intense guy. I really believe he kind of shook this place a little bit with the administration and with what he thought was kind of needed for the program to be successful,” Peterson recalls.
While he may not have been the right fit for the school in the long run, the fiery coach did bring a culture change that Greg completely believes was necessary. “I think they were kind of at a point where they either needed to make a commitment to the program because it wasn’t working as it was. I really think Phil Janaro was good for one year. If you look at his career he’s been kind of a guy who’s there for two years or four years, bounced around a lot, so he was good for a year,” he explains.
The next season came Head Coach Steve Johnson and Bethel was changed forever at that point. “Coach J has been really good for the long-term building of a culture here, the community here. He is really creating excellence and the whole person growth.”
At the end of his senior year the stand out wide receiver remained at the college as one of its defensive assistants. For two years he was the secondary coach before moving back to the offense. In 1994 he became the team’s wide receivers coach under Coach Johnson, where he served until 2002. The following season he maintained his position as the wide receivers coach, but added the duties as offensive coordinator as well. Clearly the results since then speak for themselves.
Those numbers and achievements would be enough for a lot of coaches to hang their hats on, but not Greg Peterson. This is a guy who is worried about winning, but leading and mentoring young men to become better followers of Christ and better men in society is his primary focus. That focus has meant that he wants to teach these men to look beyond themselves, beyond their play on the field, and see that their team is much bigger than 90 or 100 guys who learn schemes and bust heads every day.
“We want to win, we want to create a culture where guys want to win and want to have success, but we also want them to see where they want to be a part of something a lot bigger. We want them to see when you have a group of guys who really love each other that makes things so much more meaningful.”
Sitting with Coach Peterson one can easily see that this a man who has a real heart for his players. There is not façade here in anyway. This is a completely genuine guy whose desire is to see his team do well; a guy who truly loves the 100 players who don a Royals uniform each day and the 11 other coaches who lead and teach those young men. The coach wants his players to feel a sense of achievement on the field, but he also wants them to know that they matter so much more as creations of God than they do as players who make receptions or key blocks.
“I really hope these guys have a good football experience and have success, but I would hope that they would say that they know they are cared for and loved by their coaches and by their teammates. That is really what this is all about.”
For those who have never experienced the atmosphere of the Bethel University football team, it is truly a sight to see. This is a team whose foundation is built upon their love for one another and for their coaches. No one exemplifies this more than the team’s Head Coach, something that Coach Peterson enjoys seeing modeled every day.
“I think we’re different here in that all coaches are close to the players. I think we are intentional about getting to know them and I don’t think that coach J tries to be separate from them at all. He’s vulnerable and up there with them and I think all of us coaches are the same.”
That all of these coaches are not afraid to show their vulnerability with their players is something to behold. They will cry, they will grieve, and they will bleed just as much as any player on that field. That includes Coach Peterson. These are more than just his players. These are his kids. These are the young men that he is molding and who, he admits, are molding him as well.
“I listen to these guys tell me each year how I have affected them and I think that it is more the other way around. They really are amazing young men, and I know they affect me much more than I could imagine I do for them.”
Willingness to show that you care is one thing; actually going out and doing it is quite another, and Coach Peterson takes the time to get to know his players each season. He admits that with a roster of 100 guys that is not the easiest thing to do, but he knows that his interactions with his team are essential to the authenticity of his message about being good men of faith.
“With the hundred guys on the team I know guys on a lot of different levels. Some guys I know really well, while a freshman safety I may not know very well. I know him but I don’t interact with him on a very personal level. Each player I want to know. By the time they leave here I want them to feel comfortable talking to me about their lives. They need to know that they are loved and cared for by me.”
It is that genuine concern for his players that has the kind of positive effect that he is looking for. His team responds to him because they know that his love and concern for their success is completely authentic. Much like a sergeant can get his men to charge a machine gun nest because they know that sergeant puts their welfare as a major priority, Coach Peterson has gained the trust and confidence of his players so that they know his words to them are always from the heart.
His ability to interact with his players on a personal level gives him the ability to know them better, and to know what kinds of things make them tick. He is then able to use that to help them reach heights that they may not have known that they could achieve.
“It’s a process to know what’s going to push the buttons on somebody. For some guys that may mean pushing them a little harder; for another guy it may mean putting your arm around his shoulder. It’s a process to figure out how to relate, because I know you want to be fair, you want to hold everybody accountable, but you can’t do that equally. People are going to learn and be held accountable in different ways. That doesn’t mean you don’t care for them, you care for them and you love them, but that is going to look in different ways at different times. I think by knowing them in this way I can get them to see that what they can do today they can do even better tomorrow. I want them to see and have faith that they can reach a whole different level if they give a little more effort.”
Those are great ideals if one is trying to care for the sick as part of his or her calling from God, but Bethel University is not asking Pope Francis to lead their football team. They want men who love God and are true men of integrity, but they also want a team that wins games. No one understands this better that Coach Peterson.
“In reality I think that the Bethel program does a great job of creating a culture where that Christ centered piece enables us to be better than we really are, where we achieve. It’s not that we don’t have good players, because we have a lot of good players, but we are able to have growth from the football standpoint. The football culture creates such an interesting effect on the whole campus, and Coach J has been able to create that culture. This trickles down to other coaches, which has then allowed us to foster growth among the players. This allows us to really push our players, but they know that we really care about them as well.”
The reality is that the Bethel Royals are a much better team because the guy calling the plays on offense understands how to blend all of these ideals into a masterpiece of an offense on the field. It is a true blend of genius and love that comes together in such a special way to help a football team win games each Saturday, something that has been going on a lot at the school since Coach Peterson’s arrival as a freshman back in 1988.
So is it loving his players and having concern for them that makes for such a great team, or is it a great team that is loved and cared for by its coaches? The honest answer to that is yes. It is the beautiful cycle of love leading to success and growth which leads to greater love, which leads to more success and growth, and so it goes on. It is a beautiful philosophy designed by its chief architect, Coach Johnson.
However, a key piece to that equation is Bethel Royals Coach Greg Peterson, who has brought a true love of God to a group of men who will within the next few years be heading out the door to join the world. Those men will have a great degree from Bethel University, a foundation of Christ in their hearts, and a sense of brotherhood with 100-plus players whom many will be lifelong friends. They will also have one more thing – they will have a model of love, character and integrity to look back on. They will the image of who Greg Peterson is and what he stands for. The future of the world suddenly looks a lot brighter.
By Robert Pannier