Mark Stein Builds Martin Luther College Football with Principles True to the Faith
If you search through the annals of successful football coaches, it is the number of victories and championships that determine the legacy of that coach. It is this type of legacy that have made legends of men like Vince Lombardi, Bill Walsh, and Nick Sabin.
However, there is often one factor that is left off the list when determining a coach’s greatness – the positive impact they had on those they coached. You see, a coach can be a great leader of men on the field while also being a great teacher about being great men all at the same time. That is what Martin Luther College Head Football Coach Mark Stein has made his focus, and that philosophy has helped build the Knights into a football team thriving on and off the gridiron.
Taking Charge on the Fly
“Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved.”
Since his time in college, Mark Stein knew the coaching was going to be the pathway for his life. The opportunity arose for the Coach to coach fifth and sixth grade basketball during his collegiate career, and he was hooked.
“I really enjoyed working with the fifth and sixth grade boys and it was kind of a bug that got me. Just having that interaction with those kids back in 1991 really got me thinking about teaching and coaching as seriously as anything. That was a key moment.”
After graduating, the Coach began to coach football at the high school level, eventually becoming the head football coach at Shoreland Lutheran High school (1999-2011). He served in that role for 12 seasons, helping lead the team to a conference championship in 2005. This was the first of seven consecutive seasons where the team reached the state playoffs, the longest run in school history.
His success at the high school level caught the attention of the coaching staff at Martin Luther College, and he joined the school as the Director of Admissions in 2011 as well as joining the football team as an assistant.
The Knights had success in recent history, earning seven victories in both 2008 and 2009, and finishing 5-4 in 2010. However, in his first few years on the coaching staff the Knights struggled, finishing no better than 4-6 through the first three seasons.
Just 10 days prior to the 2015 season, the head coaching position became available and the school turned to Coach Stein to take over. It was a dream come true, an opportunity to coach at the college level, but taking over just prior to the season beginning was less than ideal. There was one person he needed to consult before making the decision.
“The day that President (Mark) Zarling asked me to be the head coach of the college, I said, ‘Well how long do I have? Do you need an answer right now? He told me I could let him know the next morning which was good because I thought I should talk to my wife. He told me I should I definitely talk to her. When I got home that night, I said, ‘You know this is what happened and I said what you think I should do?’ She goes, ‘I don’t even know why you’re asking me that question, cause you already know the answer.’”
A Challenge to Rebuild
“Pray, and let God worry.”
The Knights had finished 2-8 in 2014, but the lack of success on the football field was the least of Head Coach Mark Stein’s worries. There were only 27 players on the team when he opened his first practice as the new head coach and had just 37 by the time the season began. Somehow, he was able to get a 2-8 season out of the team, a truly remarkable accomplishment for a group that often fielded less than half of what opponents had on their roster.
The Coach recognized that his primary focus needed to be in building the roster, so he made recruiting the top priority.
“As soon as the season got over we hit the road recruiting. We ended up with what we felt was a good class. We came away with 27 freshman that first season and were comfortable with the number of players.”
Recruiting is not a simple matter of finding people who want to play football at the Division-III level. Martin Luther College is a school dedicated to teaching future pastors, ministers, and church staff members, and finding the right players who fit that mold comes with its challenges.
“Our pool is pretty small because we can’t just cast a big net and say, ‘Hey, why don’t you come to Martin Luther College and play championship football?’ We target young men who are interested in the teaching, preaching or staff ministry programs. I start with asking if there is like a one-percent chance that they are interested in this because you have really been encouraged to do this, you’re on my list, you’re pastor or your teacher has reached out and said you’d be a pretty good staff minister, or pastor or teacher. We have 27 high schools from around the country and I recruit those very heavily. We listen to our churches around the country asking them if they have any young men who are thinking about doing that, and that they’d be good fit and that they love football, too.”
With 27 new freshman for the 2016 season, the Knights took a step backward, finishing 0-10 in his second year at the helm. It was not surprising to the coach that the team had its struggles, as he points out that “playing a bunch of freshman, sometimes that’s not the best thing for your program.”
However, despite the struggles, this group was embracing the philosophy of the program. They played harder and dedicated themselves more to the success of the team and to each other with each passing week, something that was not lost on the coaching staff.
“I’ll never forget one of my friends from coaching staff said in Week 10, Hey Coach, have you noticed that the kids are still getting after it and we were 0-7?’ Our best weeks of practice were weeks eight, nine and 10 and we finished 0-10.”
A year later, Martin Luther College finished 5-5. The season would have likely been more successful, but an injury to their star quarterback was devastating to the offense. Still, it was the first non-losing season for the team in six years. It was clear that good things were on the rise.
Trust in One Another Established
“Everything that is done in this world is done by hope.”
Mark Stein had been at Martin Luther College for seven seasons, three as their head coach when the 2018 season began. He had spent a great deal of time building on his relationship with his team, developing a culture dedicated to three principles – service, trust, and winning. They were the three primary goals at MLC in general, and the team was buying into this. They were recognizing that incorporating these goals as a vision for their life went far beyond the gridiron.
“That week leading up to the first game as the head coach we came up with three primary goals – serve, trust and win. Those three goals are what we do here at the college. We train pastors, teachers, and staff ministers for the church. Those things are very important, not only for football, but they are important to being a pastor, minister, or staff member down the road and these are essential to the success of their lives in whatever path they follow.”
That culture quickly led to success on the field. The Knights went 9-2 in 2018, winning all eight conference games. The following season was identical, as Martin Luther College quickly became the top team in the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference (UMAC). The culture was producing the results that Coach Stein desired.
“One of those things that probably has turned the program around the most is just staying true to those core values of service, trust, and win and how they impact each day of practice, each class, each social activity, including the game of football. They are impacting our players across their lives and impacting those they interact with.”
A Life Dedicated to Service
“God does not need your good works, but your neighbor does.”
As future pastors, ministers, teachers, and church leaders, it was not surprising that the team embraced these principles. After all, service for Christ is what faith is all about. However, serving is not often viewed as a quality for a successful football team. At least, some coaches may view it that way, but not Mark Stein. Because of the rigors of Division-III football, he has made that dedication to service a core principle in the team’s success.
“They have to be selfless if they are going to do this, and put in the time that a Division-III athlete has to put in to be great. It takes a lot of work to be good, and you’re not getting any money for it. You’re doing it for the brotherhood, you’re doing it for the love of the game and that is what I love about Division-III athletics. You really got to love what you’re doing to play Division-III football. I know we have some very nice football players, but we also have some pretty average Joes and those guys really have to work hard to make themselves better, and by the time they are juniors and seniors it really pays off.”
That dedication to one another is even more important with such a small roster size. Martin Luther College usually has no more than 70 players, a number that many coaches would find far to few. However, he sees the smaller roster size as a greater opportunity for him to invest himself in the team and for them to invest themselves into one another
“We have between 60 and 80 kids and that is the perfect size. That allows me to provide personal attention to each of those kids and to know them. They need to know they are important to me and to the program. They need to know they are important to each other and that is what makes this team special.”
What Being a Christian Is All About!
“No great saint lived without errors.”
That investment into his players is one of the most essential pieces to being a coach for Mark Stein. He is coaching players who are away from home for the first time. Many are trying to develop a sense of identity as they move from a teenager to manhood, and it is important for the coach to help them navigate those influential years.
“These are young men. They are going to be our future leaders and I recognize that this is the most important lesson here at Martin Luther College. I want them to have great families, be great coaches, great members and leaders of their churches. I want them to come from an experience where it was great for them here.”
If you look on the Internet or at news sites, you often hear about football players committing acts that garner national attention. Coaches respond by immediately suspending the player, and universities and colleges even expel a student. One mistake quickly sends the life of 19- or 20-year-old spiraling in a bad direction.
To Mark Stein, that is simply not acceptable. Instead of pushing a student out the door, he looks at these opportunities as a chance for his players to redeem themselves and grow to become better men.
“They make mistakes. They do dumb things because they’re 18- to 22-year-olds, but it was something I heard (Alabama Head Football Coach) Nick Sabin talk about and it was really poignant. If you’re not going to give a kid a second chance, then what would you rather do? Have him out on the street? Would you rather have him drop out of school? I can discipline without cutting that kid. They know they might do something dumb, but they don’t always make the same mistake twice. This is a chance to learn and grow. So, I’ve really enjoyed helping them grow up to be the men, dads, and fathers they’re going to be someday and that has been such a blessing for me.”
Behind Every Great Man…
“Let the wife make her husband glad to come home and let him make her sorry to see him leave.”
Entering his seventh season as the Head Football Coach at Martin Luther College, Mark Stein had already developed an impressive legacy. However, it is important to understand that the success a coach has on the field is not often theirs alone. There are great assistant coaches that play a significant role, not only in teaching the X’s and O’s, but also in helping to build a culture of success. The Knights have a great blend making that a reality
“When I became the head coach, there were people on the staff already that were mature coaches. They were guys that had been in coaching for almost as long as I had. Then I brought back one of the old head coaches. Then there are the younger guys who were just local guys. They have been great at developing what Martin Luther College is all about and have really been a blessing with their talents and abilities to coach this team. We have an experienced staff that I can let them do their job. I get out of their way and they do a great job.”
Coaching is also about long hours and endless preparation. That kind of time takes its toll on a lot of marriages, and it takes a truly amazing wife to help a coach to be both successful and grounded. Thankfully for the Knights, the team’s No. 1 fan is as dedicated to the program as her husband.
“I’ve been blessed with a wife who has been a coach’s wife for 30 years. She understands that there is a lot work to be good at what you do, and she‘s been very supportive. We have those times where I will be practice planning or into game film and we will be having two different conversations, because she’s thinking and talking about one thing, and I’m not on the same page. It gets frustrating but she also understands how important it is for the kids in this program and she’s very passionate that they have a good experience. She is amazing at how dedicated she is to them.”
With principles rooted in faith, a culture dedicated to service, and a family committed to love and support, it is not surprising that Martin Luther College is a perennial playoff team each year. More importantly, thanks to Mark Stein, this is a program dedicated to building great leaders and followers of Christ that are ready to live out the principles taught by our Savior.
At a time when the world seems to be going crazy, it is good to know that a group of young men are graduating each year who are ready to help lead the world out of its despair. That may be the greatest legacy of all for Coach Mark Stein.
NOTE: It was Coach Stein’s wife Melissa’ birthday this past week. We here at the Minor League Sports Report would like to wish her a happy birthday! We know it is your birthday, but thank you for blessing all of us with helping to mold your husband into such a great gift for us.
All quotes in italicize are from the writings of Martin Luther.
By Robert Pannier