No Scot-oma at Macalester College – Coach Tony Jennison Has Clear Vision for Success
The guy on the sidelines coaching the Macalester Scots football team may look more like a pastor or college professor, but make no mistake, Tony Jennison is a football coach and a darn good one. In just seven years, Coach Jennison has turned around a program with a long history of losing, and in the process has inspired a group of young men to believe that they can win on any given Saturday, something that wasn’t believed at this institution for nearly half-a-century.
Prior to Coach Jennison taking over as the head football coach, Macalester football had only two things that made them recognized. In 1972 they became the first predominantly white college to hire a black head football coach. While Don Hudson didn’t have much of a winning mark with the team, none of his predecessors had one either, and none that followed did much to change the culture of the program.
Hudson’s last season as the Scots coach began the longest losing streak in college football history. The team lost 50 straight games from 1974-1980, including a 97-6 loss to Concordia College in 1977. The record losing streak earned the team the title of the second worst college football team of all-time according to ESPN. The team finally broke the streak in September of 1980, which prompted a story in People Magazine entitled, “At Macalester College, Losing Wasn’t Everything, It Was the Only Thing.” The struggles became so bad that the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) dropped the Scots from conference play in football, making them independent.
A culture of losing had come over the program, and while national media outlets were unkind in their critiques of the school’s football program, the local media seemed to openly disregard Macalester outright. In 2009, Joe Bickal of Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) said of the school, “Macalester College in St. Paul has a reputation for rigorous academics and a commitment to internationalism, but not for football.” The school had become the Rodney Dangerfield of college football, getting no respect at all. Truthfully they had not earned it. That is until Coach Jennison arrived.
In 2006 Jennison returned to Minnesota and came to Macalester to become the school’s defensive coordinator. The Scots had not had a winning season since 1986, and were one of the poorest defensive teams in the country. That changed quickly.
Coach Jennison instilled a different culture on defense, and his players took to the philosophy right away. His vision for how a defense should play was grasped by his team, and they were able to put his vision into action. In 2007 his defense averaged 3.2 turnovers per game, the first time in over 20 years that the school averaged better than three turnovers a contest.
In 2008, Glenn Caruso decided to leave as head coach of the Scots to go to national power St. Thomas as the leader of the Tommies program. That opened the door for Jennison, and it didn’t take long for the school to realize that he was the ideal replacement.
The 2008 season began with Coach Jennison patrolling the sidelines as the head coach rather than sitting in the press box calling plays as coordinator. The coach acknowledged those early years were not easy. “I didn’t know who I was as a coach at first. So you try to be coaches you’ve had in the past, or coaches you have read about, trying to be someone you think you are supposed to be.”
Being what others expected him to be was not working, and in the first two years the Scots took a step back, going 4-6 in 2008, but just 2-8 in 2009. That is when Jennison made a decision. “I needed to be true to myself. I needed to be Tony Jennison, and do things that are me, and not what other coaches would do,” he explained. “We do things around here that other programs don’t do, but that is what works for our program, and that is works for me as a head coach.”
Being true to himself achieved the exact results that Jennison and the program itself were looking for. In 2010 the team rebounded to go 6-3, their first winning season in 24 years. The record was even more amazing considering that the team had lost their first game of the season, and in the second game of the year the Scots lost starting quarterback Trevor Miehe for the season. In most years a double-whammy like that would have sent the team into a tail-spin, but not these Scots. These Scots embraced the vision of their coach and rallied to win six of their last eight games. “I really believe the attitude of the team was tremendous,” Jennison said. “We pushed them hard and challenged them to give their best, and that’s exactly what they did all season long.”
Getting more out of his players has become a hallmark of his time as coach at Macalester. His players rave about the guidance he has provided. Senior CB Konnor Fleming called his coach the “single most genuine, understanding and honest coach I have been around,” and Senior QB Samson Bialostok added that the trust and confidence he shows in his players inspires them to want to reward their coach. “When your coach has confidence in you, even after you have made mistakes, it makes you want to produce, to come through.”
While his players praise the job he has done, he brushes aside the acclaim like his star running back Zandy Stowell stiff arms would-be tacklers. In addressing his role in changing the culture of the football program, Jennison shuns his own impact and instead points at others. “It’s really the administration that has made a difference here. It starts with (Macalester President) Brian Rosenberg, who has created an atmosphere for excellence. Whether a student has passion about chemistry, music or football, they get the chance to reach the goals they are seeking here.”
At the same time, the Coach bristles at the MPR characterization of the program. “I wouldn’t agree that Macalester is not committed to football,” he began. “I believe Macalester is committed to every student who steps onto this campus to help them achieve and reach the goals of whatever they are passionate about.”
Players echo that sentiment, but they acknowledge that it is the passion of their coach that helps to keep them focused and inspires them to give their best, even in practice. Adds Bialostok, “Yesterday (Tuesday), at the end of practice he kind of put us in check. He pointed out that we are 2-1, but we could have easily lost this last game, that we made it harder than it needed to be. A lot of coaches may have been satisfied with the win, but not Coach. He wants us to realize that if we are satisfied with our performance then this is not the team we should be playing for. He wants more from us, and we want to give that.” Clearly he has inspired his own level of passion in his players.
The Macalester Coach has embraced the challenges that his team has faced and this season there is a new one to rise against. For the first time since being dropped by the MIAC the Scots will play conference football, this time in the Midwest Conference (MWC). Macalester faced their first conference game last weekend when they beat Grinnell on the road 21-16, and will have their first home conference game against Knox College this Saturday.
The challenge of playing in a conference provides great opportunity. “Before we had to run the table and then get a few things to go our way to qualify for the playoffs, but now we have a new chance to advance by winning our conference championship.” While that is a great opportunity, Coach Jennison also points out the challenges this brings, “We also understand that every game matters. Last season if we lost, we just lost, but now every game matters in terms of position. It’s a challenge and we are excited about that challenge.”
Over the past four years Macalester has gone 20-18, and this year they are 2-1. This year’s team is 1-0 in conference play, and is currently in second place in the North Division of the MWC. It is a team that is hungry to open their inaugural season in the conference by making a statement about how they are going to be legitimate contenders year-in and year-out.
These two terms, hungry and legitimate, are the two words that Coach Jennison felt best described his team. The work that the Macalester Coach has put in to turn this program around is earning the Scots respect from their opponents, something that couldn’t have been said ten years ago. They are a legitimate threat to win any game now, and are proving to be a real threat to win their division in their first year competing in the MWC.
There is a hunger at Macalester that the players all feel, and it is inspired from their coach. It not only comes from his commitment to them, his genuine concern for their well-being, but also in the honest approach that he takes with his players. Safety Jole Miller told a story of when he came to the campus on a recruitment trip that the coach told him, “Ok, I am going to talk to the guy you are staying with here, and if he doesn’t think you are a good fit, we won’t be recruiting you.” Players understood quickly that the coach expected the best from them on and off the field, and anything short of that was not acceptable.
Stowell spoke of how the Coach’s honest approach with the team has built up a level of trust where they can speak with each other with complete frankness. “He is always honest with us, and he will tell us ‘Hey, guys I am telling you there is a problem, because we need to find a way to fix this.’ He not only coaches us and helps us to improve ourselves, but he includes us and our ideas.”
While honesty is a quality that the players all agree is one of the most important characteristics of Coach Jennison, for some the genuine concern for them as people has been the most important attribute of all. Konnor and Ryan Fleming came from Vermont to attend Macalester and have no family, other than each other, in the community. Coach Jennison has become like a father to both of them, constantly checking with them to see how they are doing in class, how Ryan’s chemistry test went or how well Konnor is doing on his performance of a new song. “He tells us he is not here to be our dad, to help us fix our schedule or to make sure we are going to class,” Ryan begins, “but he does check to see how things are going in our lives, how we are doing in class, how we are doing in general. He is a father figure to me.”
Coach Jennison may not be a pastor or a college professor, but in reality he may be those and a football coach all rolled into one. He points out that his job is much more than being a football coach. “I am realistic that wins are important for me to keep my job, but there is a responsibility to make better husbands, better fathers, better men and that is where my main focus lies. That is what I want for these great men that play for this team.”
Challenges. That is what may be separating Coach Jennison from his predecessors. Not to insinuate that previous coaches were unable to meet the challenges of turning the Macalester program around, but simply put Tony Jennison has proven that he was the right man to do the job. The Coach has built a family with this program that includes parents, students, faculty, coaches and alumni. He has turned a fledgling football program into one that is feared by opponents on Saturday. He has helped teen boys arrive at Macalester and leave men. He has brought pride to a school that hasn’t been seen in a half-century.
One of the most inspiring aspects of Coach Jennison is not the abilities he has shown, the wins on the field, the way he inspires or how he helps guide men to maturity. It is the humbleness of his spirit. He constantly deflects credit to everyone else but himself, he seems openly uncomfortable discussing his own accomplishments, and he may even feel a little awkward when the limelight is pointed in his direction. This isn’t false humility by any stretch of the imagination. It is what all his players say – genuineness. This is truly a genuine man doing a tremendous job where many before him failed.
Coach Tony Jennison may never win national championships. He may never have teams that go 10-0. He may never be Coach of the Year or set records for winning streaks, but one thing is sure however. If the players he coaches are inspired to conduct themselves as he does, there is a bright future ahead for every one of them. Clearly, that is the vision he would be most proud of.
By Robert Pannier