Mike Yeager Embraces Challenges to Lead Carthage to Success
As Carthage College Head Football Coach Mike Yeager correctly points out, every assistant coach dreams of a day when they will be the head coach of a team. There is really nothing like being in charge of a college football program.
However, this is not all press conferences and accolades for getting victories. Not only is the coach tasked with finding an outstanding group of coaches, but he also has to recruit the right kind of players, teach them to play football according to his offensive and defensive schemes, and assist them in making good decisions that will reflect well on them individually, as well as on the football program and the college as a whole. Let’s face it, that may be the biggest challenge of them all as young men can be real knuckleheads at times. All of this you have to do, while still developing a winning program that will bring a greater sense of morale to the school and please boosters and alumni. Quite a challenge to say the least.
All of these parts of being the head coach can lead to a lot of sleepless nights and gray hair. This means you spend a lot of time away from your family, and you sit for many hours in front of a screen figuring out if your opponent’s defensive line is playing a 6-technique or a 7. It is more work than most would really consider.
These are all tremendous challenges, but those challenges are even more daunting when you are taking over a program that went from seven wins in 2009 down to three within three seasons. Where the flow of the football program seems to be heading in a negative direction and the college is believing that the football program’s best years may be behind them. That was the challenge that awaited Mike Yeager.
Led to Coach
Mike Yeager attended the University of Miami, Ohio, where he starred as a linebacker. He lettered three times at the university and was a dominate force as a senior. In his final year at the school he led the team with 116-tackles and 3-interceptions.
In 1999, he graduated from the school with a degree in Sports Organization and took a position at the College of Wooster. He would spend five years at the school, moving his way up the ranks of the coaching staff until he was named defensive coordinator in 2003. He would spend two seasons in this position and the team would excel under his tutelage. In 2004, the Scots finished 10-0 during the regular season and went on to win their first-round playoff matchup. In the second round, Carthage would end the Scots season, giving Coach Yeager his first look at the school he would one day lead.
In 2006, the Coach moved on to the University of Indiana, where he became the safeties coach. He would spend five seasons with the Hoosiers, coaching the safeties for three of those years and the linebackers for the final two. His time at Indiana was of special significance to Yeager, because it gave him the opportunity to learn under the late Terry Hoeppner.
“I learned so much from Coach Hoep, especially about player empathy. He taught me to really pay attention to and have empathy for what the players are going through.”
In 2011, Yeager took the defensive coordinator position at Carthage. There was immediate improvement on the defensive side of the ball. In 2010, the year before he arrived, the Redmen’s defense gave up an average of 27 points per game and 385 yards of offense to their opponents. In just one season, he helped to slash those numbers, dropping the points against to 18.2 ppg and the yards average to 305.5.
In 2012, the team continued to struggle and, seven games into the season, Coach Yeager was handed the reigns of the team. The team would finish 3-7 that year, average just 18 ppg on offense while yielding an average of 32.4-points. It was time for some changes and the coach was ready to lead the team back to where they had been in the mid-2000s.
One of his first moves was to institute a pro-style offense. Coach Yaeger got rid of the spread 4- and 5-receiver sets, and turned to a more pro-oriented game. He knew that it would give his team a greater chance at success, but also knew it was going to mean that there would be some growing pains.
“We went to a more multiple pro-style offense as opposed to a four- or five-wide receiver offense that they had before, so that was a tough transition. It was some work to get the good fullback, tight ends, the linemen that we needed. That’s kind of what took a few years to get rolling. It took us a couple of years to get to where we are now, where we are truly competitive.”
The Coach was right on both accounts. Not only was it going to be a tough transition at first, but his team would get on a roll and become quite competitive. In his first season as the head coach, the team averaged 15.6 ppg, but they have steadily increased that number each season since, averaging 22.4-points per game last year. This season they already put up 51 against Aurora in their first game of the year.
There has also been improvement on the defensive side of the ball, as the team reduced its points allowed per game by five from 2014 to 2015. Those are impressive numbers in and of themselves, but they are even more so when one considers that Carthage played the toughest strength of schedule in all of Division-III football in 2015.
Those kinds of improvements were impressive, but there is really only one number that matters when it comes to football, and that is wins. Last season the Redmen saw a lot more of those. In his first season as the head coach, Carthage went 1-9. They would win three games in 2014, and finished 5-5 last year. Again, quite an achievement when one considers the schedule. This has led the Coach to only want to face the very best talent possible to show how truly great his team is becoming.
“The CCIW (College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin) is a great football conference; not a good one, it’s a great one. Last year, we ended up with the No. 1strength of schedule in the country so we have not backed away from our challenges, nonleague. You know, when you schedule a Bethel, nonleague, I think people know you’re serious about it when you put that on top of the CCIW. I think people know it’s going to be a challenge.”
Teaching Beyond the Gridiron
We live in a time when football coaches are revered as much as any figure in the country. Men like Urban Meyer, Nick Saban, and Jim Harbaugh are considered some of the greatest men alive because of their ability to turn a mediocre football program into an elite one. However, rarely, if at all, do you hear about how they molded their players into great men. In fact, often one finds that the players become more of a prima donna than a person of great character.
That may not be fair to assess these coaches in this way when they have hundreds of players on their team. Maybe one coach or even a set of coaches cannot spend the kind of time to mold young men into men of great integrity and value, but there is no doubt that this is one of the primary reasons why Mike Yeager got into coaching. Yes, he loves the sport of football, but making sure that young men become great citizens is something he values even more than wins and losses.
“We have a great national liberal arts school here at Carthage. There is a great education that is provided. I want out students to embrace that and to take advantage of the opportunities to grow as young men. At the end of the day most of these young men are not going to be playing football when they graduate, so they need to be great at the career pathway they have chosen. They need to be great husbands, great fathers. We want to teach them to be great football players, but we want them to be better leaders, better men.”
To accomplish this goal, the Coach recognizes that football can be a great tool for teaching his players how to succeed once they exit the college. There are life lessons to learn on the field and, if they embrace these ideals, they can have much greater success in life. It’s the lessons he learned when he was a player.
“It does prepare you, because you’re going to come up with physical, mental adversity in the game of football that won’t always come up in other situations in life as a young adult, and it prepares you to keep on driving on. You know, to find a way to overcome that adversity and still have success. Obviously, I was a young guy, I made mistakes in my life, and football was one of those things that helped teach me how to get things right in my life.”
Sometimes the lessons that the Coach impresses on his players are related to the traps that the world offers. It seems that every day that you go onto the internet you find a story about a college student who has been expelled from school or kicked off of the team because of a racy or inflammatory picture or statement that they have posted on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. Coach Yeager wants his players to see that they should be having fun, but that they also need to be careful.
“You constantly reiterate with them what their priorities need to be. You know No. 1 has to be their academic degree. No. 2 play football, and No. 3 social. You want them to have a good time but, at the same time, they have to be smart. They also need to understand that they have a target on them just for being a football player. They have to be smart with their social media, and they just need to get their priorities right.”
One of the things that makes Coach Mike Yeager so unique is that he understands that he can be teaching all the right things, he could be inspiring his players in the right way, and all of the people that the team recruits may be men of great character, however, there are going to be times when a few are going to do something silly or even criminal that is going to draw an unfair light on his program. It is sad, but it is part of the age we live in.
“The vast majority of our players are great young men. Sometimes I think football gets a bad rap, but you have to understand we have got on our roster 150 guys. You know if you got 147 doing the right thing, people tend to worry about the three that aren’t. But the vast majority are great kids. They know what is expected and you want people to see the 99 percent that are doing it right. That isn’t always how it works though.”
There is one thing that is for sure. Coach Mike Yeager and his staff are doing a whole lot of right things these days to turn this program into one of the best football teams in the nation. In a less challenging conference with an easier schedule, the Carthage Redmen could easily be 7-3 or even 9-1. However, the Coach is embracing and loving the challenges that he and his program have to face. He knows that it is not only making his team a whole lot better; it is also making his players much better men. If one looks back at this senior class 10-years from now, there is no doubt that these life lessons will make them some of the best leaders in whatever field they choose. It’s just what you expect from men coached by Mike Yeager.
By Robert Pannier