In his second year as the head football coach at Iowa Wesleyan University, Michael Richtman has already helped to improve the Tigers on the field, taking the team from one win in 2015 to three last season. He is helping to greatly improve the school’s football program, but is also helping to guide his players to a greater degree of maturity to ensure that they are more successful in life.
Introducing Michael Richtman
Every year, millions of parents across the country send their child off to college. Whether their student is attending a major university or a small community college, the hopes are that their son or daughter will not only mature and gain an education that prepares them for life, but that their experience at the institution will be one that will be enjoyable and impactful.
Sadly, it seems that too often we hear that students walk away with a huge student loan debt and not much else. Left to their own devices, students can easily be led astray and may spend a significant portion of their time on unproductive endeavors.
At the larger institutions this is a common tale. Because there are so many students, the young man or woman becomes nothing more than a number, and their failure is merely a statistic. However, at Iowa Wesleyan, they believe that each student’s ability to succeed is as vital to the institution as it is to the student him or herself. It’s a model that has helped to make this school one of the finest in the country, and has found an active advocate in its head football coach, Michael Richtman.
Wanting to Make a Difference
From the time that Michael Richtman graduated from college, he knew that being involved in education was his ideal career path. He saw himself as an educator from the start, not only wanting to provide valuable lessons in the classroom, but wanting to make as big of an impact in athletics as well.
Coach Richtman spent 15 years teaching in Lewiston, MN, working as a social studies teacher. He also coached softball, baseball, and his beloved sport of football. While he loved teaching, he found that athletics provided a special kind of opportunity for him to be able to teach.
“I think of athletics as kind of an extension of the classroom so to speak, where you can learn things from the sports that you participate in ways that you can’t inside the walls of the classroom. Some of the lessons about teamwork and perseverance and things like that the athletic fields are just better suited to learn from.”
Bringing Academics to the Field
After 15 years teaching in Minnesota, Meg Richtman, the wife of the Coach, received an excellent opportunity in Iowa, and so Michael Richtman resigned his position to follow his wife to the Hawkeye state. While not knowing exactly what he was going to do at first, the opportunity arose for him to be able to coach at Iowa Wesleyan, and so Coach Richtman seized on the opportunity right away. It was an excellent opportunity for the Coach, not only to stay involved in football, but to have an educational experience of his own.
“I got involved in the program right away and it’s been kind of interesting because the community down here is quite different from what I was used to in Lewiston. It’s more diverse, and that’s a really good thing for me and my family, just to be in a setting that is a little different from small town Minnesota.”
For nearly a decade, Coach Richtman served in a variety of roles with the team, including as the Tigers’ offensive and defensive line coach as well as becoming the special-teams coordinator in 2013. They were roles he greatly enjoyed because they provided him the opportunity to build relationships, the most significant reason why he got into coaching in the first place.
“The interaction with the players. To me that’s the most enjoyable part of it. The wins and losses, you want to win as many games as you can and be as successful as you can, but those kinds of things come and go. It’s the relationship with the players that’s the key.”
To the Head of the Class
In 2016, the opportunity arose for Michael Richtman to take on a more prominent role as he was named the 49th head football coach in Iowa Wesleyan history. It was an opportunity that he welcomed, but understood that it was also going to change the kind of close relationships that he had with his players.
“I think as a position coach you get really close to your players and in some senses you’re kind of an advocate for them. In my role as a head coach, I have to be a little bit more of a father role where at times it can be kind of a tough love thing. Ultimately, the decisions about you’re sitting out this game because you’re not going to class, things like that, ultimately come down to me so I think there is a little bit more of a distance between me as a head coach and me as a position coach. Frankly, I think a lot of the skills that I’m finding that I’m using now as a head coach aren’t necessarily the same ones that I used as an assistant coach.”
This was surely a negative. However, coaching at Iowa Wesleyan opened his horizons and gave him a greater education.
“This is an ethnically diverse school. I think we are a pretty small campus but we have people from all over the country, even on our team. We have a couple of guys from Australia, a guy who says he’s German but he’s lives in Austria, so there is quite a bit of an international flavor, so to speak, on our campus. We have guys from all over the country on our team. I think we have 16 or 17 different states that guys come from, so it’s all different backgrounds. So, for me, it’s just a really interesting opportunity for me to know and get to work with these young men who are coming from everywhere.”
Making Sure IW Was the Perfect Fit
There was no doubt that coaching at Iowa Wesleyan was the perfect opportunity for Michael Richtman, but he understood that this was not the experience for every person. Because of how important a college education and experience are to a student, he wanted to make sure that each student was getting the absolute maximum value out of their education, even if that meant that they would be best served going to another institution.
“The first thing that we asked them are things about them. What do you want to do for a career, what do you see as your life goal, why do you want to play college football? Then we try to structure what we talk about in terms of how can we, at Iowa Wesleyan, help you to accomplish those things. We want to get student athletes where it is the right fit for them. If they come here and they are not happy, then we have done them a disservice and it hurts our team as well., So we are really trying to get kids that are the best fits for us.
“Because college is a significant investment, we want to make sure that they are investing it in the right way for them. We would much rather have someone say, ‘You know coach, I just don’t think this is a good fit because I’m not sure that major is really going to get me where I want to go.’ We would much rather have that kid tell us that upfront and wish them well, because we really don’t want to have someone here who is unhappy, who is not going to get that return on their investment once they graduate.”
It would seem that this kind of attitude would be counterproductive coaching at a school that is in a fairly secluded area. Mount Pleasant is not exactly Denver or Chicago, but the Coach actually sees that as a benefit in helping these young men mature.
“I think part of the college experience, now more so than in the past, is that students want an adventure when they go off to college. We are finding that we hear from kids that they want to get out of California and see other parts of the country, and Iowa is certainly a big departure from California. I think Iowa Wesleyan gives all of our students the opportunity to have new experiences.”
Helping Students to Mature toward Manhood
Getting away from home and developing a greater sense of self is extremely important in the development of any man. It is one of the reasons why so many young men choose to go a long distance away from home so that they can spread their wings, so to speak, and see how well they can do away from their parent’s home.
Iowa Wesleyan Head Football Coach Michael Richtman understands that fully, and this means that his role at the school goes beyond simply teaching his players the Xs and Os of the game. Parents are expecting him to help these young men grow toward maturity, and he feels a strong obligation to do that as well. To reach that end, he has demanded his players discipline themselves in every aspect of their life so that they can succeed, and that includes in the words that come from their mouths.
“You don’t hear a lot of swearing at our practices. We try to keep that to a bare minimum because we want our players to be focused and disciplined. We were the most penalized team in the conference last season, and I think that comes from not being disciplined. It’s jawing at players after the play is over. We have committed this season to doing the little things that make you a more successful football program, a more disciplined person.”
Upholding the Creed of the Program
At most football programs across the country the head coach is responsible for the football program, and doesn’t spend a significant amount of time on anything else. We praise man like Nick Saban and Jim Harbaugh, but rarely do you hear of these icons of the sport speaking about the role they play in helping young men to mature. Their job is to win football games, and everything else is secondary in comparison.
For Michael Richtman, that simply doesn’t work. The Tigers Head Football Coach embraces the idea that he is far more than a football coach, and that is clearly seen in the mission statement of the program.
“Our goal is that they lead successful lives and careers. Our football mission statement at Iowa Wesleyan football is a brotherhood committed to leaving a legacy of success on and off the field. If we give them a great football experience but we don’t lead them down a path of personal growth and of professional growth, then we have done them a disservice. I want our guys to leave here having had a great football experience, but also being set up so that they are leading those productive and fulfilled lives.”
This is not only the mission for players, but Coach Richtman has ensured that his assistants are as equally committed to the policy as any other member of the program.
“Most important is that we (the coaching staff) are role models and that we are concerned about the players far beyond football. You want coaches that know how to teach the game, but they can learn that. It is more important that they know how to connect with kids and to do so in a way that impacts them positively. Coach Stubbs, our defensive coordinator, really does a great job of connecting with players from other places. He’s from Georgia himself, and came up here to play football and has stuck around to coach. He has a real connection with some of those kids who are from a long distance away. Certainly you kind of look for the knowledge, but you can teach some of that too.”
This kind of commitment to community goes well beyond Iowa Wesleyan and the surrounding community of Mount Pleasant, Iowa. With so many natural catastrophes occurring over the past couple of weeks, the football program has committed itself to making a difference, collaborating with the local high school to help those who have been tragically affected by Hurricane Harvey.
“We have actually partnered up with the high school here in town and are kind of working on an athletic shoe drive this Saturday at the game to try to get people to bring their new or gently used shoes. We are going to ship them down to Houston and try to give them to kids if they can use them.”
It is these kinds of attitudes that will help a lot of parents sleep better at night knowing that the coach of their son is dedicated in that way toward helping their child grow to greater maturity. However, the Coach isn’t giving himself the credit. He is simply embracing the policies and attitudes of a man whose leadership he has come to greatly admire.
“My inspirations come from those who really know how to lead, they really know how to make some tough decisions. They can do what is best for their organization. One of those folks is the President of our university here, Dr. Steven Titus, who I have known since my days back in Minnesota. He’s really done a phenomenal job of leading our university to a better place, a better interaction. I can see him as someone I pattern my own leadership after.”
Leaving a Legacy in the Men He Coaches
There is no greater honor for a coach than when players return years later to remind the coach of the impact he had on them. It doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about someone who has coached for a couple of years or someone who’s been in the profession for decades, the vast majority want to know that they have helped boys turn into young men who are successful professionals, good husbands, and even better dads. No one could echo that sentiment better than Michael Richtman.
As the Iowa Wesleyan Tigers take the field Saturday afternoon against Crown College, they will be looking to earn their first win of the season, and eventually surpass last season’s record of 3-7. It is undeniable that it takes a great deal to turn a struggling program into a successful one but, with a man like Michael Richtman at the helm, there is no doubt that a lesson he will soon be teaching his players is how to be celebrate like conference champs.
Images Courtesy of Iowa Wesleyan Athletics
By Robert Pannier