No One Epitomizes Hope Better than Peter Stuursma

In his second season as the head football coach of the Hope College Flying Dutchmen, Peter Stuursma has his team competing for a conference title but, more importantly, he is guiding these young men to greater success in life and proving to be the epitome of what hope is really all about.

Introducing Peter Stuursma

There are those who believe in the idea of coincidence. That something happens simply out of chance or some version of luck.

Maybe that way of thinking works for the vast majority of people, however, there are circumstances where you look at an event and understand that there truly is no way that coincidence could actually play a part in the causation. The factors involved seem to be divinely inspired in some way, and the hiring of Peter Stuursma as the head football coach at Hope College is one such instance.

At a school whose very name inspires a belief in something bigger and better, its head coach has come to epitomize what that very word means. Coach Peter Stuursma is the very definition of what faith in something better is all about, and that belief has not only helped a group of players to become great young men, but a football program to rise to become one of the best in the country.

Coaching Simply Made Sense

Coaching is one of the kinds of professions that requires a lot of different skills to be successful. Not only must you be someone who can teach the Xs and Os of the game, but a coach must also be the kind of person who can inspire, mold, and build a team to work as one unit. This is where Peter Stuursma has established himself as one of the best that you will find.

Since his junior year in college, Coach Stuursma new that being involved in helping the youth of our society to grow into more successful versions of themselves is what really drove him. He wanted to be a difference maker, and found that coaching offered him the perfect platform to guide and impact the lives of others.

“I knew I wanted to be around people, particularly young people, and knowing that athletics, sports in general, is a tremendous platform for so many things in life.”

Coach Stuursma attended Hope College as a student, and starred for the Flying Dutchmen. He was one of the co-captains of the team during his senior season, but saw limited action due to an injury that limited him to only three contests. Despite this, he was honored by the team as the Allan C. Kinney award winner, recognized for being the student who best exemplified commitment and contribution to the program.

After graduating, the Coach spent time as an assistant coach, including serving as the Flying Dutchmen’s defensive coordinator in 1999. The school saw great success that season, sharing the MIAA conference title as the defense allowed just 18.1 points per game.

Serving the Youth of Grand Rapids

Peter Stuursma loved coaching, but an opportunity arose following the 1999 season that he simply couldn’t resist. The Coach would move on to become a middle school principal, while also serving as the head football coach at East Grand Rapids High School. Coach Stuursma loved his new position, cherishing the opportunity to guide and instruct. In fact, he may be one of just a handful of people you will come across who will tell you how amazing middle school kids are.

“They are just awesome. There is so much going on in their lives and to see them, the energy, the smiles, I just loved, loved, loved my time at the middle school. I was totally energized by the people I was around. Those kids are just awesome. I was very fortunate to be around them.”

While Coach Stuursma was enjoying the way that kids were impacting his life, he was also having a great deal of success coaching football at East Grand Rapids. During his 16 years at the school, the Pioneers made 13 trips to the state playoffs, and he won titles in seven different seasons, including 2002, 2003, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, in 2010. During his tenure the team went 162-34 and he was named the Detroit Lion High School Coach of the Year in 2008, and the High School Coaches Association Division III Football Coach of the Year in Michigan in six different seasons, including most recently in 2010.

Clearly, Peter Stuursma was the kind of man who not only was able to teach and guide young men and women to greater success in life, but he had a style and understanding of the game of football that made him a success wherever he went. That is why it was no surprise that in 2016 Hope College would ask their former star player to return to the school to become its next head coach.

“I went to Hope and played here at Hope, and it was an opportunity to be at a place that is tremendous when it comes to the academic opportunities for young people and it just seemed right because I didn’t expect to leave the place where I was coaching at the time. I was at East Grand Rapids and had been there for 16 years, was the middle school principal and truly enjoyed that, the community. It was great timing and this is a great institution, great people.”

The Flying Dutchmen were coming off a tough season in 2015, where they finished 2-8 and 0-6 in the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association (MIAA). The administration knew that Coach Stuursma was the right man to replace Dean Kreps, who had a 20-year career of great success at the school, but who opted to step down to focus more on other professional pursuits.

“Coach Stuursma has a track record of providing transformational experiences and competitive excellence as a head coach and an administrator,” explained co-director athletics Tim Schoonveld at the time. “He possesses the qualities we identified when we began the process of finding a new leader for our football program. We are thrilled to welcome Coach Stuursma and his family back to Hope College, and we are excited to have him lead our student-athletes.

Following a Legacy of Greatness

The 2016 season did not get off to the start that many had hoped when Coach Peter Stuursma was hired. After just four games, Hope College was 1-3 and it looked like it may be another down year for the school. However, the Flying Dutchmen responded with six straight wins to close out the year, finishing 7-3, second best in the MIAA.

It was clear that the program was on the rise, as Hope actually began the 2017 season ranked in the top 25 in the preseason coaches poll. There was no doubt that the talent of the team and the exceptional coaching of Peter Stuursma made many recognize that this is a program destined for even greater success under their second-year head coach.

Relationship Building for Success

The history of sports has a long list of tales where coaches and players simply did not get along well at all. It is said that San Francisco 49ers great Joe Montana could not stand his head coach, Bill Walsh. Yankees great Reggie Jackson hated manager Billy Martin. It’s one of those situations, even seen today, where two geniuses at what they do can easily lock horns.

For many, this is perfectly acceptable. It is the results on the field that matter, so if player and coach don’t get along no one really bats an eye. All fans want is success.

However, this is not how Peter Stuursma sees it. The coach not only expects to have a positive relationship with his players, he recognizes that the only way that he is going to have success is if such a strong relationship has been established.

“I think you have to invest in them as young people, to know what makes them tick. I think that inevitably young people, in particular, understand where they are in relation to their role and their level on the team. They realize that we’re making decisions every day for the betterment of our program. I think by us getting to know them as young people makes them realize that this is not personal about who’s going to start, but is about what is best for the team. We all talk about pushing the rock in the same direction, because if we all push it in the same direction then it is easier to get it to roll downhill.”

Those relationships are more important than anything to Coach Stuursma. While he wants to win, the impact he is having on his players mean so much more to the Hope College football coach. When put in that context, the wins and losses are really secondary in importance.

“At the end of the day football doesn’t mean much. It’s just a game and we must remember that. We have three players here who lost close family members in the last year (Read Story). These are amazing young men who shared their story and that is inspiring. Football just doesn’t mean that much when you put it in that kind of context.

This is one of the areas that really separates Coach Stuursma from many in the college ranks. He is inspired by how young men and women strive to succeed during challenging times, and understands that they are going through difficult times that make football menial at best. The recent hurricane calamities are such an example.

“We played a team from Defiance, Ohio last week who had some players who were impacted by the hurricane and I had the opportunity to talk one of those young men, and I just told him that we were thinking of him and his family, we know it’s a tough time, because being a young person away from home and not knowing, I think the unknown is the toughest part for young people and I think that’s a challenge no matter what team you’re on.”

There Is Truly a Lot More to Life

Anyone who is the head coach of a college football team will tell you that it is a year-around job. Because of recruiting, preparing for games, practice, keeping up with players, boosters, and alumni, there is a whole lot to do, and that can become overwhelming.  Coach Peter Stuursma is thankful that he has someone to help him balance that all out – his wife Amy.

I’ve always said that only about 15 percent of what I do in my job is about being a football coach. I’d say 85 percent of it is all the other stuff that goes along with it, so I think it’s all about being balanced. I married my best friend, and I married way above my head, so she helps keep everything in check.

That balance is important, a message that he wants his players to take to heart. He also wants them to get that it is not just the coaches and players that make the Hope College football program a success. A whole lot of people play a part in that, and this was a message he wanted to drive home with the leadership council for the Flying Dutchmen.

“They had to go around campus and take pictures with the support staff, the people on our campus who help us, who do things each and every day to help support our campus. They have a direct correlation in the support of our program.”

That kind of recognition of all who play a part in the program extends within the football team as well. At the vast majority of college and university programs you will come across, the freshman are the tackling dummies of the team in so many ways. They go through hazing, get all the crummy assignments, and are generally treated as if they are anything but a member of the team. To the Coach, that is not just wrong, it is completely unacceptable.

“I don’t believe in the traditions where, ‘Oh, you’re a freshman, so you pick up all of the dummies and the blocking sled and all that stuff, or that you’re going to go last in line.’ I’m the opposite of that. I want our program to be known for that if we have stuff that needs to be done then we’re all going to do it. We start at the top. If someone is going to be first at meals then were going to start with a freshman. We are going to help our younger players because I think that’s how you build culture. I don’t want young guys picking up; I want them to treat our freshman, our younger kids like absolutely the best that they can be treated, so that when they are seniors then they will reciprocate.”

The Culture of Hope

It wasn’t very long ago where football coaches yelled out orders and players obeyed like a dog responding to its master. Where a coach barked at his players like a drill sergeant and demanded that they push themselves to the absolute limits and gave everything that they have to football and to football alone.

East Grand Rapids Middle School principal Pete Stuursma exits Reeds Lake triumphantly Tuesday morning after fulfilling a promise he made to his students. (Press Photo // Jon M Brouwer)

That may work for some coaches, but what makes Peter Stuursma such a success and why his players find it so enjoyable to play for him is that he asks one simple thing from his players.

“We have a slogan of our program: Get 1 percent better every day. I feel very lucky and very fortunate to be around these young men. I recognize that when you have players who want to learn, who want to be motivated, who want to have fun, they want to smile, they want to laugh, then you can get better every day. When they have tears or doubt you have to pick them up.”

With a coach who inspires with that kind of love and passion, it is easy to see why there is a whole lot of hope for fans of Flying Dutchmen football. Peter Stuursma is molding and helping to develop young men who are not only exceptional football players, but men who are going to be great dads, husbands, businessmen, and neighbors. Best of all, in an age of partisanship, hatred, and bigotry, he is giving hope to a nation that the young men coming out of Hope College will be those who can transform a nation for the better. Thanks to Coach Peter Stuursma, we all have something to be hopeful about.

By Robert Pannier

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