It is the lifelong dream for many former players to return to their alma mater and either rebuild a once proud program or to keep the success of that program running strong. It is an exhilarating experience to take the success that a player had on the field and emulate that on the sideline and is one of the primary reasons why so many return.
The results are not always positive, however. Some coaches struggle to find the same kind of success. While they often have a very clear vision and a plan that should succeed, it is not always easy to emulate the results they experienced when they were players.
The Carroll University Pioneers decided five years ago that they would turn to one of their alumni to take over a football program that was on the rise. They wanted to keep that momentum going and knew that one man had the skill set to build a program that was destined to be one of the best in the Midwest Conference and, as a result, they are on their way to their fifth winning season during his tenure. It is a truly exceptional run that no one should be surprised by, that is if they knew Mark Krzykowski.
Coach Krzykowski was a standout at Carroll University after transferring from the University of Wisconsin. He had grown up just a short distance from the Waukesha, WI campus, and so transferring to the school that was so close to his home made perfect sense.
It was not that Wisconsin posed any challenge that he could not overcome. It was a decision that was based upon his desire to follow his pathway into education. Attending Carroll allowed him to coach at a local high school in the area when not playing football, giving him a leg-up on getting his professional career started.
Upon graduating, Coach Krzykowski taught and coached at the high school level, but in 2001 he joined Elmhurst College as an assistant. After five years there he returned to Carroll, this time as the team’s defensive coordinator. It was an opportunity that both he and his wife Jamie were enthusiastic about.
“My wife and I were happy at the different locations we were at, but when we found out we could return back here we were both very happy to be back. It was a perfect fit.”
A return to his alma mater gave the Coach a chance to implement the lessons he had learned as a coach and player elsewhere. It was the opportunity to really make a difference in young men’s lives, not just as an educator, but as a teacher as well.
What separates a good educator from a great one is that the great ones are more than just teachers; they are true students of the discipline as well. This is what make Mark Krzykowski truly exceptional as a coach. He really understands the Xs and Os of the game, but more importantly he knows how to motivate and inspire men on a personal level and this leads to great success on the field.
In his six-years as the defensive coordinator his squad was one of the best in the conference. In fact, in three seasons (2007, 2008, 2010) they ranked first overall in total defense, and were never lower than third in any other season.
He helped to build a program that was having great success and it showed in their record. In his first season as defensive coordinator the team went 4-6, but would not have another losing season in subsequent years. In 2010, the Pioneers went 7-3 as his defense continued to dominate the conference.
Near the end of 2010 the head coaching position at the school became available, and a nationwide search generated interest from 125 exceptional candidates. After vetting those candidates over a four-month period of time it was concluded that there was really only one choice that made sense and that was Mark Krzykowski. On March 1, 2011 the Coach became Carroll University’s 29th head coach in school history.
“We are fortunate and very happy that Coach Krzykowski has agreed to become our head football coach,” Joe Baker, Director of Athletics, explained at the time. “We believe he is the right person to mentor our student-athletes and that our football program will become even more competitive in the Midwest Conference and across NCAA Division-III. He has the full support of our student-athletes and is well respected campus-wide.”
Competitive is exactly what the Pioneers were. In his first four seasons as the team’s head coach, the Pioneers have gone 29-11, and never won fewer than six games. Twice they won eight games and they have ranked in the top three in both total offense and defense in all but one of those seasons.
Mark returned to Carroll with one goal in mind – to make the program better than how he found it. This was not intended to belittle the job that anyone had done before him but was, instead, a desire to set a high level of achievement. What makes Coach Krzykowski so successful goes way beyond developing game plans and locker room pep talks. He has gained the trust of his team and has developed relationships that allows him to get the best from his players. It is those relationships, in fact, that he is most proud of.
“The relationships. Wins and losses will come and go. If you do things right and take care of your players wins and losses will take care of themselves. I love seeing a freshman come in and then seeing how they develop four years later. Sometimes they will have problems and come into my office, and I am here to help them. You celebrate the victories and you are a shoulder to cry on when needed. It’s worthwhile and inspiring to make a difference in people’s lives.”
It is clear from talking with Coach Krzykowski that what really motivates him each day is the inspiration he receives from watching his players grow. He is bringing in 18 and 19-year-0ld men and watching them grow into young men that he grows prouder of each passing year. It is easy to tell when he talks about their progress that this is the most enjoyable part of being the head coach at Carroll University.
“It’s just fun to see them come in as graduating high school students and four years later they are graduating as young men. It’s fun to look back on and see how they have grown and matured. It’s even fun to see them come back years later as alumni and see their families and kids, and that is just part of what I really enjoy.”
Deep down, it must be remembered that Mark Krzykowski is foremost an educator. The Coach is most interested in developing the minds and souls of his players, and his lesson plan to help reach that goal is quite different than what most would encounter.
Coach Krzykowski is not just looking for great men and great players. He is expecting these men to be great leaders, and his expectation is that they will go into the world to make a difference, whether that is in their homes, at their jobs, or in their communities.
“We have more than just four leaders here. We actually vote weekly for captains. This is not just a one person job. There are not just four people that are going to be leaders. We have lots of people that are leaders on this team. I don’t want anyone to think this is a seniority system. You’re here participating, and we want you to be a good leader, a good student no matter what your age is. I want them to be young men of integrity who set a good example and who work hard to achieve.”
It is a true passion for leadership and for teaching leadership to his players that really drives the Carroll Coach. He recognizes that when you know how to lead and you do it successfully good things will occur. This is a message he wants his players to grasp and apply.
“I have a passion for leadership because I want them to be good leaders while they’re here on the campus. In addition to that when they go out there to get their positions, a lot of their promotions and other things they are going to do in their lives are going to come down to their leadership. We love football, it’s a passion and so enjoyable, but so much of it has to do with off the field education.”
Many coaches talk about how football is so unique because the sport is so perfect for teaching life lessons. It not only provides lessons on teamwork and doing your job to the best of your ability, but it helps to teach perseverance, the benefits of hard work, and that everyone has a role if they are willing to work hard.
Most coaches would be happy to just let those lessons sink in and take hold, but not the Pioneers Coach. He wants leaders, and to accomplish this he wants them to understand that while he can teach many lessons through football, there is so much more they need to know if they are going to truly be role models once they leave the campus.
“As part of our program we do a lot of leadership development, a lot of team building, which is kind of our own curriculum of different things we talk about and teach about apart from football. Everything from leadership to study habits. We even talk about finances. I think that is important for college age students to not get into credit card debt, which are things that you don’t hear talked about as much, but we need to teach and educate.”
Some may say that these kinds of things go way beyond what a coach is required or should do, but it is easy to see that Mark Krzykowski is not interested in what others think is best for his players. He is an educator. His desire is to help his players reach their personal goals in life and will do what he can to help them succeed.
“When they come here I want them to see this as a place where we can help them achieve their goals, dreams and ambitions, and when they leave here I want them to feel like we helped them achieve their goals, dreams and ambitions. That’s what it’s really about and that is a big part of that leadership aspects, where you’re helping people grow, you’re helping people achieve what they came here to achieve, whether it’s in the academic sense or the athletic sense, or even socially. We want to help them grow and mature and achieve their goals.”
One can quibble with the methods if they wish, but the results speak for themselves. He is not only helping to mold young men to be great leaders and exceptional members of society, but his team is having great success on the field as well.
This is a fresh approach to the game that is one of the unique aspects of Division-III football. Most often society lauds coaches for one thing – wins. We hear famous quotes like when Coach Vince Lombardi once quipped, “Winning isn’t everything, its’ the only thing,” and we let that be the standard for coaching.
Thankfully, there are coaches that see that the score on the field is only one aspect of their job, especially when that job entails leading the future of this nation. Fortunately, Coach Mark Krzykowski is the kind of man that clearly gets that, and it is men like him that give the rest of us hope for a bright future.
By Robert Pannier