Jeff Pedersen Bringing Roller Coaster to End for Grinnell Pioneers
In his sixth season as head coach of the Grinnell Pioneers, Jeff Pedersen has already established himself as a bright and innovative young coach in the Division-III ranks. Bright goes without saying since he is a Grinnell College graduate himself, but he is looking to change a culture that has seen the Pioneers struggle on the gridiron, ending a pattern that has seen the school’s football program rise and fall much like a roller coaster.
In 2010, Coach Pedersen was named the interim coach of the football team, a title that would not take long before the “interim” part of it was removed. Prior to his arrival that team had endured five straight losing seasons, where they had suffered at least seven losses in every one of those years. It was a standard that the school was not willing to accept. As an institution with high academic standards, the Pioneers wanted their student-athletes to have the same kind of experience on the field that they were getting in the classroom. They pegged Jeff Pedersen as the man who could supply that experience.
Pedersen had graduated in 2002 from Grinnell College, and went to the University of Chicago his first season to work as an assistant there. He returned one season later, which was a time of great success on the field. During his time as a player and an assistant the Pioneers were competitive in virtually every season, including 1998 and 1999 when they won 10 and seven games respectively, and 2004 when, as an assistant, the team from Iowa won six games.
“It was an incredible time to be a Grinnell Pioneer,” as Coach Pedersen proudly points out. “I came in as a player at the right time. Coach Wallace and the previous staff and some of the other guys who were juniors and seniors before I got to here had really done a great job of building a program from pretty bad to just being on the cusp of being really good. Then when I got here as a freshman that was the breakout season, the 10-0 year, where all the hard work was paying off and I was just along for the ride. It was so great just to be around here at the campus and have everybody talking about football.”
After serving as an assistant for three years, Coach Pedersen’s wife, Jordan, got a job in Washington, D.C., so the family moved out east where the Coach found a job working at Catholic University. They remained there for two years, but he had the chance to return to their alma mater and, looking for a great location to start their family, they returned to Iowa. It was not long before the administration realized that they had their next head coach on their hands, and Coach Pedersen was pleased to see that he was in the right place at the right time.
“I had a chance to return back as an assistant. We wanted to start a family, and so we came back, and then a couple of years later the head coaching job opened up and I was hired. That was obviously pretty good timing for us, and very exciting to be back on campus with the chance to be the head coach.”
In 2009 the Pioneers won two games, but with the Coach at the helm they jumped to six in 2010. That may not seem like a huge number, but for a team that had won just six combined games in its previous three seasons, it was a remarkable achievement. That performance earned him Midwest Conference Coach of the Year honors.
What was most impressive about that season was the big wins that the team had. After losing by a combined score of 170-o to two-time defending conference champion Monmouth College in the three previous meetings between the two teams, the Pioneers stunned the reigning champs 17-15, and scored at least 31 points in five games. It was a remarkable turnaround.
The turnaround did not continue however. The Pioneers went 5-5 in 2011, then had back-to-back 2-8 campaigns, before going 3-7 last season. It has been a struggle to maintain a winning atmosphere considering that this is a team that is regularly fielding no more than forty or fifty players. This season there are just 34, leaving very little depth and requiring a brilliant, innovative coach (a Grinnell graduate) to be able to figure out how to build a tradition that allows the players to have as much success on the field as they do in the classroom.
The Pioneers were very successful in the 1960s, and again in Pedersen’s time as a player and an assistant early on. Something they were unable to keep going forward. It is the atmosphere around campus when the team was winning that he is most looking to replicate.
“That was pretty exciting, and that’s the goal we’re trying to get back to here. Obviously we got to that level but couldn’t sustain it, so we were trying to really rebuild things like we did in the second round.”
His early success as the head coach brought round three of success for Grinnell and clearly showed that he has the brilliant mind to be able to take this team to new heights. “My first two years here we had some really good talent and we were able to score some pretty good wins against nationally recognized teams, where some of those guys wound up being on NFL rosters. So to beat those guys was really special, but we weren’t able to sustain that and so now we are on round three.”
Grinnell is one of the more interesting places where a student can go to seek his or her education. The institution is built on a self-governing philosophy where students are empowered to take ownership for their own education and their own success. It is self-guided in their education, meaning that a student is only required to earn a degree, but the track they take to achieve that degree is up to them.
Coach Pedersen completely understands this mentality, being a graduate himself, so he has taken that same kind of philosophy and applied it to the manner in which he is running his team. “They have a lot of ownership academically, and so we try to gear that to the football experience. We want to make a place where we give them the opportunity to take ownership and give them the same type of opportunity where they have a lot of input.”
In the world of football, the public and media usually laud a coach who runs his team with an iron fist. A Nick Saban or an Urban Meyer run their teams as they see fit, seeing their vision and running with it. Coach Pedersen recognizes that he has a brilliant group of young men playing for him, and that he is going to have his greatest success as a coach when he leans on his assistants and players to provide him with their ideas.
“When we’ve had a lot of success that’s how it’s played out, because we’ve had really strong leadership. They’ve really done a great job of setting an example for the younger guys. While they are here they really need to take ownership and make this their team if we’re going to have that kind of success in the future.”
The Grinnell Coach admits that letting go is not always easy, but he also recognizes that coaches along the way have empowered him in this way, and he would be remiss if he did not give his players and assistants the same kind of opportunity he was given.
“I feel like I need to go back to how it was when I was an assistant for Coach Wallace, in the way he treated me. He gave me a lot of freedom to do what I wanted to do offensively and I really appreciated that, so I try to treat my assistants and the players the same way. The only way they can grow and learn is if they have a lot of input.”
The Coach even acknowledges that sometimes he has to put aside what he thinks is the best option and trust in the men he recruited and brought in to be his coaches. “It’s not the easiest at times. There is a points where if it’s a 50-50 call or maybe even if you feel it’s a little bit more toward the way you want it to be, you still have to allow them to have the input.”
Can you imagine Woody Hayes or Bear Bryant asking their players for input and, even though they thought their solution was better, deciding to go with what the player thought? I can see Hayes and Bryant rolling over in their graves at the thought.
That is not Jeff Pedersen’s style. This is a coach who understands that he has brilliant young men playing for him, and if he wants them to be on board with his philosophy he needs to trust them; he needs to treat them as he was treated when he was a student-athlete. He knows the mind of his players, and has used his personal insights to be able to teach and inspire his team.
“While recruiting kids or talking to my own players, I tell them that I have two little girls that are five and six and because I’m your dad and I said so, that’s a reasonable answer to them. But that’s not a good enough reason to these guys. If they ask why we’re doing something I have to be able to explain to them why we’re doing it and I better be open to changing. That may be a generational thing, but it’s really the way that their being taught in our classroom. They are taught to read critically and think radically and ask tough questions, not just accepting what the professor is teaching them, but engaging in the material and really thinking about it critically. So we’re trying to give them what they’re getting in the classroom in the football experience.”
Some may look at the results over the last few seasons and scoff at his methods, pointing to the record as the only indicator of his true “success,” but that would be an outrage to say the least. If one looks at the rosters of Carroll, Macalester, St. Norbert, Illinois College, and Monmouth they are at least twice the size of the team that the Pioneers Coach has to work with. To put that in perspective, how well do you think that a team would do against Notre Dame or Alabama if they had half the team size? Not well, wouldn’t you say?
Despite this, Coach Pedersen fields a team that competes and is in most games. Two of the team’s losses last season were by less than a touchdown, which says that one big play and they were 5-5.
Don’t get the wrong idea however. Jeff Pedersen is not content to be .500. He is looking to get his team off of the roller coaster of up and down seasons, and build a team that is winning every year. He has seen the accolades some of his predecessors receive when they come to campus and is striving to build his own legacy in the annals of Grinnell College.
That is the professional goal of Coach Pedersen, but one must understand that he is in the enviable position of instructing and working with some of the most brilliant minds in the country. Those minds he is looking to stretch to their limits to get them to go beyond simple Xs and Os in their understanding of the game. More importantly he is molding young men to be men of integrity and generosity, something he takes a lot more seriously than wins and losses.
“I just hope when people look at our team they see that our team is an asset to the campus and to the community. I want them to look at our kids and to see that there’s no difference between a guy on our team and somebody on the cross country team, a kid who’s never played varsity, or a kid who’s never been to an athletic contest at all. I want them to be viewed in the same light.”
He adds: “Hopefully they will take that experience and appreciate it, and at some point, at some time, be able to use it to give back to other people, whether that’s in whatever profession they choose or they have a lot of money and they are able to give back to charities. I want them to take advantage of the opportunities they will have to give back to others in some fashion.”
The Grinnell College Pioneers are 0-2 so far this season as they enter their contest against Macalester College. The roller coaster is slowly making its climb to the top of the arc again, as the team works to reach new heights. Whether that takes one year or three no one knows for sure, but the fact that it will occur is a near certainty. With Jeff Pedersen leading this team on the sidelines every Saturday you can be sure that this team is going to be competitive for a long time. So get your tickets now; this roller coaster ride is coming to an end.
By Robert Pannier