Football is the kind of sport where you are all in or you simply shouldn’t be playing at all. The physical and mental commitment that is required to do well is unlike any other in sports, meaning that, if you are not 100 percent committed, you might as well golf. To do well, a player often has to forgo just about every other thing in his life so that he can study film, know the playback inside and out, and be as physically fit to perform as one can imagine. This can mean that social lives, family, and even an education moves way down the list of priorities.
The same can be said of coaching. There is a serious commitment that has to be made to be a success, which can mean that everything else in your life has to be secondary. There are stories all the time about coaches sleeping in their offices three and four nights a week preparing for games. It is what makes for a successful coach.
This means that the spouse and children are frequently having to make compromises for the benefit of the coach and his team. It means that there will be a lot of events at school that are missed, a lot of dinners that went cold, a lot of nights where the wife and children are not kissed good night. That is what is expected.
However, there is a coach that is bucking the system. He is a man who has chosen to keep his word above all things and to put his faith in something a lot more important. A football coach who sees that he can turn around a football program, yet still lead a life that demonstrates commitment to his wife, his children and, most importantly, to his God. That man is St. Olaf Head Football Coach Craig Stern.
No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.
– Matthew 6:24
Craig Stern grew up a huge fan of football. He loved playing it as a kid and wanted to stay in the game because of his love of the sport. He also loved the opportunities that coaching provided him.
“I think everybody wants to talk about how they want to impact kids’ lives, but the truth of the matter is that just about every football coach has a love for the game of football. As a result of that, you get on a path that puts you in a position where you can be impactful in the lives of young men.”
His experiences on the field had been life altering to say the least. He absolutely loved the game and found that he wanted to show players that they could love the sport as much as he did.
“The first time that they handed me the shoulder pads and all the gear in my first youth tackle experience I thought this was the greatest thing in the world. I just loved football from that moment. The idea that I get to share that love with people who also love the game and help them to be better football players really helped me to get started into the profession.”
The choice to become a football coach proved to be a fortuitous one from the start. The Coach had great success wherever he went and quickly rose to the top of his profession as a coordinator. He spent five seasons at the Concordia-St. Paul defensive coordinator where he helped the team to capture the NSIC title in 2003. He was on top of the world.
“I was a Division-II coordinator at Concordia-St. Paul when Shannon Currier was the head coach, and we took that program when it was just starting at the Division-II level helping to lead that team to their first NSIC title and winning the Mineral Water Bowl. We were having success and I was in my late 20s. So, I was feeling pretty confident in myself as a coach and in my abilities.”
All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.
– Matthew 5:37
In 2003, Coach Currier was offered a great opportunity to move to a more prestigious institution. It would mean more money, more scholarships, and a bigger opportunity to make his mark in the world of college football. It also meant those same things for his assistants who the coach invited to come with him. That included Craig Stern.
Coach Stern was being afforded the opportunity of a lifetime. He would make three times his salary, and it was a bigger conference that he would be moving to, so the prestige and salary alone made this an amazing opportunity. One that he referred to as a “no-brainer.”
However, it was not that simple. The Coach was about to be in the conundrum of his life. He had been dating his girlfriend at the time, now his wife, and had made a commitment to her. He would not ask her to leave her position so that he could chase his dream. Now was a time where he had to decide if his professional aspirations were worth more than his word. To Stern, the answer was an obvious one.
“Was I going to honor my word to my girlfriend and say that I told you that I would never ask you to leave your profession to chase mine but I also had this really great opportunity? So, was I going to go back on my word or I could have just say I said I wasn’t going to ask you but I didn’t say I wouldn’t go, thanks for the memories but I’m done? Or, be a man of my word and say I told you that I never would ask you to leave your profession to chase mine so I won’t chase mine? I knew what kind of man I wanted to be. I knew that if I went down that path that I knew what kind of man I was going to be and I didn’t want to be that guy.”
While not moving on with his head coach, he hadn’t been let go by Concordia. However, he understood that a new head coach would likely want his own coordinators and that is what happened. Coach Stern was out of a job and looking to start over at another school.
The prospects looked bright however. After all, he had proven that he could turn a defense into one of the best in the nation and so it seemed likely that he would find another position quickly. He was young, he was bright, and he had a proven track record. Who wouldn’t want to hire him?
Sadly, it was everyone. Inexplicably, the positions did not materialize and so the Coach decided that he would get an academic advisor job and then volunteer to coach at a school so he could stay in the game. However, a position was not available, leaving Stern looking for anything he could.
With no position in education or coaching available he began applying for manufacturing jobs simply looking for something to be able to take care of his bills. Surprisingly, he was told time and time again that he was not “qualified’ for any of these jobs. With his severance package running out and no one willing to hire him no matter what kind of job he looked for, the Coach was humbled. This led him to turn to the only place he could to find the answer – God.
“I remember going home just totally dejected and just saying, ‘Hey God, anyplace you want to send me, whether it’s shoveling coal, steel mills, whatever, you just give me the job and I’ll go do it.’”
The experience was humbling, but it was also educational. He realized that his love for football was an idol of sorts and that God was showing him through this experience that it was time to get his focus in order.
“I recognize that for me I had been putting everything about my identity into football. When God wants to get your attention he’ll start to show you what’s the most important thing in your life. So He took football away from me, he humbled me so I would open up and realize that it was supposed to be about people more than things in my life. It’s supposed to be about God.”
A few days after opening his heart to wherever God would direct him, the Coach was given an opportunity to get back into coaching. St. Olaf called looking for a defensive backs coach and recruiting coordinator and, as Coach Stern puts it, “It was totally a God thing.” He went to talk with them and within a week he was signing a contract. He sees that this was totally directed by God.
“People can say it’s all about circumstance but, for me, it’s always going to be recognizing that this is where God wanted me. And it’s been a blessing in my life. The incredible people that I’ve had the pleasure and honor of being in contact with and just getting to know because of my time here. This is a very special place.”
Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and he will establish your plans.
– Proverbs 16:3
In 2004, Craig Stern joined the St. Olaf staff as its recruiting coordinator and defensive backs coach. The Oles were on the verge of something special in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC), posting a 5-5 record in 2002 and a 4-6 mark in 2003. A slight edge was needed and that came when Coach Stern joined the team.
In 2004, the Oles went 7-3 and followed that with three successive seasons of 8-2, finishing third in the MIAC in each of those seasons. Part of the reason for that success was the rise of the defense. In 2003, St. Olaf allowed 27.6 points per game. Within the first two seasons of Coach Stern’s term that number dropped better than four-points per game. The Oles also became an offensive machine and the team was becoming a powerhouse in the conference.
While the Coach was doing a lot to help the team improve, he was also learning and growing himself. Coach Chris Meidt was a great mentor to his coordinator and Stern gained a great deal of insight on how to become a successful coach while also being a great man of God.
“Chris Meidt was the head coach here, and he is such an awesome guy in how he is and how much he cares about people. For me, we won and I’d had a lot of success but I hadn’t had a lot of great relationships at the Division-II level because it was all about football, it was all about preparing for football. I was blessed that Chris Mike showed me that you can be a family man, you can be a man of faith, and you can be a football coach, and you can be impactful. You can have all those things be important to you and you can still have relationships with the kids. For me that was what it was all about. Me humbling myself, recognizing that I don’t have all the answers. I want to learn.”
With the success that Coach Meidt was having, it was only natural that he would capture a lot of attention, and following the 2007 season he would take a new job. Jerry Olszewski became the new head coach and Coach Stern would continue to mature as a coach under the new regime.
“Jerry had a lot of those same philosophical bases that Chris had and so it was a blessing in my life that I had an opportunity to work for those guys and they were able to mentor me on how to be a competitive, successful football coach with your eyes on the true prize every day. Knowing that it’s about serving your God, it’s about serving your family, it’s about serving the kids in your program, and taking care of those big ticket items knowing that the wins will come, then this experience will be special for everyone.”
After five seasons, Olszweski would move on as well, and the school was looking for a person who could lead the football program back to the upper echelon of the conference while still maintaining the values the program had always been known for. Craig Stern became the perfect choice.
“We’re excited for our football program,” Athletic Director Matt McDonald explained at a news conference naming Stern as the school’s 11th head coach. “Craig has been an integral part of our success over the last decade and he is ready to lead.”
A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for a time of adversity.
– Proverb 17:17
When Craig Stern was looking for someone to take a risk on him, St. Olaf had given him a great opportunity to remain in a game that he loved so much. Now he was the team’s head coach, and that meant a whole lot of new responsibilities. This meant that his plate was quite full, he is not only the head football coach, but a whole lot of administrative duties come with that title and he has found that those responsibilities can take away from the time he has with his players.
Despite this, the one thing that he has made a concerted effort in his fourth season is to ensure that he is maintaining relationships with his players. This is the part of his job he has always loved, not only helping the men on his team to become better players but also helping them to be able to more successfully navigate life.
“I coach football so that I can be impactful and help them to navigate the choppy waters of the college years, to help them grow as young man and to help them grow as lifelong learners. You quickly realize that if you are going to help them grow as football players you can’t do that if you don’t have the relationships.”
This has become so important to him because these men are much more than just players to him. They are a part of his family.
“I look at all of these guys who have played for me, and I know that they are young men and not kids, but I look at them like they’re my sons. What I would want for them as my sons, I would want them to do the things that would lead to them having a chance to be successful in life.”
Part of what he wants to do is to teach his “sons” how to be better men. We live in a society that has a negative image of masculine related things, and makes it near criminal to act as a man should. The Coach is not afraid to help them to be in touch with what God expects from them.
“I think it’s a really challenging time for the young men in college because of what they have been told for the last decade, that because they are boys they are not good enough; that they should be more like girls. It’s unfortunate because were trying to make them into something they’re not. Something that they’re not capable of being. As a father of two boys in elementary school I see it much more vividly because I’m living it right now. I’ve got two active boys, their active boys. We don’t, as an educational system, as a society, embrace that.”
Coach Stern is in his fourth season and it has been a growing process so far. However, the team’s head football coach is pleased with the results he is seeing. His coaching staff is now all his own people, and he has recruited a very talented group over the last three seasons, players which are now beginning to make contributions. It only seems a matter of time before the team is in the win column seven or eight times a season.
“Our last couple of classes have been pretty special. If you look at the stat line you’ll see that most of our dynamic playmakers are our juniors, our sophomores, our freshman. All of them are doing pretty good things.”
She brings him good, not harm, all the days of her life.
– Proverb 31:11
A little over 10-years ago, Craig Stern was one of the hottest coordinators in Division-II football. He had created one of the toughest defenses in the NSIC and the skies seemed like the limit.
His love for his then girlfriend, Tara ,changed the direction of his life drastically. He gave up a golden opportunity and moved down a level in the NCAA so that he could keep his commitment, a commitment he made to a woman who was not even his fiancée at the time. It was a very dramatic moment that many would have understood if he had backed out of his commitment to keep his word. Some may even say he was crazy to have done so, but the Coach has not regretted it one bit.
“My wife is the most amazing person I know. She has been an amazing mom and a great part of this program as well. I would not be where I am today had it not been for her. Not just because of my decision to keep my word but, also, because of the way that she has stood behind me. I wanted to be a good man of God, and part of that was to be true to the things I say. He has blessed me by giving me a wife that is more amazing than I deserve.”
The St. Olaf Oles are still looking to get back to that elite level and, with the young men that have been joining the team over the last few seasons, it seems like they are right on the verge of attaining that success once again. The team has a great group of young men and an amazing coaching staff committed to the team and to God. As Proverbs 20:7 says,
A righteous man who walks in integrity – how blessed are his sons after him.
Knowing what an incredible man of integrity St. Olaf College Head Football Coach Craig Stern is, does anyone really think that it will be long before his “sons” on the field become an incredible blessing to the Oles’ faithful?
By Robert Pannier