Harry S Truman once famously said that “the buck stops here.” At Macalester College they have a little different way of looking at it. For the Scots the “buck starts here,” with here being school President Brian Rosenberg. Since Dr. Rosenberg has taken over the school as its President he has created an atmosphere where students can excel in all pursuits, and there has been no area that this has been seen more predominantly than with the Macalester Scots football team.
When Dr. Rosenberg was hired the football team was in a state of flux. They had left the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) in football, and were seriously considering actually shutting down the football program all together. “The discussion to cancel football was most serious in the year before I took over,” he explains. “Eventually the decision was to leave the MIAC and continue football, but on an independent basis.”
During Dr. Rosenberg’s first three years at the school, the issue of shutting down the football program continually arose. The team was 2-25 his first three years there, but the lack of success on the field was not his primary concern. The possibility of canceling the program was bantered around for much more important reasons.
“There were times early on when I questioned whether it could survive. We were having trouble with recruiting and there were times when we were questioning whether we could field a competitive team. Football is a sport where if you don’t have the right athletes and the right number of athletes they’re in physical danger, and I don’t want to put a student athlete in a situation where they are in physical danger, so there were questions about its survivability.”
A change in direction was needed if the program was going to survive. Having only 30-35 players on a football team may sound like a great story for a movie, but it is not a feasible option in real life. Scots Head Football Coach Tony Jennison describes that Dr. Rosenberg wanted a change in focus on how all parts of the college were viewed. “He wants Macalester to provide an environment where a person can excel no matter what the endeavor they are interested in, whether it’s music, chemistry, or even football. He believes students should have the chance to participate in a great experience and have the chance to excel no matter what.”
Creating that kind of environment was exactly what Dr. Rosenberg set out to do. “I think it begins with a sense of pride. We should aspire to be excellent in all that we do, particularly in those areas that are important to our students. One out of five of our students is an intercollegiate athlete, which means it is really important to all of them. Therefore, since it is important to them, it must be important to us.”
Macalester College is one of the finest institutions in the country academically, it is easy to garner a sense of pride about one’s education from there, but they had seen little success on the football field. There were immediate challenges that the school faced if they were going to “excel,” and Dr. Rosenberg was well aware of what had to change if he was going to reach a whole new level of success.
“History is the biggest challenge. When you have a long history of struggling in an area, particularly in an area like football where you need a lot of players, history tends to be self-replicating, so schools that have great history of success can traditionally recruit much easier than those who have struggled.”
History was the biggest factor. It is extremely tough to convince young men to buy into playing at a program when that program has seen what most people would view only as failure on the field. It is hard to convince people that the program could turn around. This is where Coach Jennison thinks the Macalester President has made the biggest difference.
“He gave us a story to tell when we go recruiting. When all there is that you can talk about is academics, that is not always going to help you reach the young men you need. He gave us a story to tell athletes about how they can reach personal success in all areas.”
To create that story Dr. Rosenberg knew there were two areas he had to upgrade if he was going to make that story a reality: his coaching staff and his facilities. “You try to put the right people in leadership, and then give them the right things so that they have the ability to succeed. Much in the same way you build a great chemistry department, it begins with an outstanding dean and great professors; that is what we needed here as well. We needed the best coaches to turn our program around.”
Next came a $50 million upgrade of the Macalester athletic facilities, including a new field and state of the art indoor facilities. Coach Jennison points out that the upgrades make Macalester the third best Division-II or Division-III school in the country according to the Princeton Review. Great coaching and facilities have made the school one of the best places for young men to play, and this is making a major difference on the field.
That difference is producing major results not seen at the school in its 121-year history of playing football. The Scots entered the NCAA Division-III playoffs Midwest Conference champions. Their 9-1 record was the most wins in school history and the best winning percentage the football team had ever had. Clearly history was being rewritten and the credit is being placed at the feet of the school’s President.
“Brian is the kind of guy who really inspires people. He created a culture here that allows us as coaches to teach success,” Coach Jennison explains. “He won’t accept that kind of praise for the job he has done, but he has made this a different place to play sports and coach in.”
Dr. Rosenberg’s commitment to excellence has done more than just improve the efforts on the field. The rapid improvement of the team this season has changed the attitude of many around the college. “You are always looking for things that can build community and school spirit. This team has done just that. It is such an amazing story, and it has brought the students, the alumni, and the faculty together like nothing I have experienced.”
And how are other presidents around the community accepting Macalester’s new found success? “By and large they are quite pleased to see us succeeding. No one likes to see a program or an institution struggle. All the feedback I have received has been positive or good natured ribbing.”
Dr. Rosenberg has long wanted the students at Macalester College to have a positive experience in any activity or vocation they select. To those ends he has created an atmosphere where student athletes can thrive and gain great success on the field or court. “Athletics should be a positive experience,” he says. “I want them to look back on their time at Macalester and say that this has been a very positive experience in their lives.”
Because of his vision, this year’s football team will be able to look back and revel in the thought that they are the winningest team in school history, and the first from the school to make the NCAA playoffs. He has helped to provide them an experience they will remember for the rest of their lives. He has set a foundation for them and thousands of future Macalester Scots students that they can dream big and make those dreams a reality at the school. Dr. Brian Rosenberg has helped to write a new history at Macalester, one that will likely last for years to come.
By Robert Pannier