Entering his ninth season as Head Coach of the University of Dubuque Spartans football Team, Stan Zweigel has left no doubt that he was the right choice to lead the team to greater heights.
Introducing Head Coach Stan Zweifel
There are many cultures where the name that is given to a person is representative of some kind of characteristic or event related to them. The Native Americans were famous for naming their children in this way, a pattern that, sadly, doesn’t seem to go on as much these days.
This phenomena is not limited to the Native American culture, however. The Bible tells a story of a man who was literally named “Fool.” When King David asked the man for food, Fool refused, not caring who the King was. His wife profusely apologized to David, asking for forgiveness and explaining that the man had been a fool since his birth. Amazingly, the parents saw something in their son from the moment that he entered this world that led to them to believe that their son was not the brightest bulb in the box.
Family names can also be a representation of what the family became. Names like Baker, Taylor, and Gardner originally were given because a key member of the family or members of the family worked in these kinds of professions. The surname stuck and became the family name for generations afterward.
Clearly, some surnames really seem to fit the family, but one such case where it is wholly inappropriate relates to University of Dubuque Head Coach Stan Zwiefel. In German, Zweifel means “doubt” and, entering his ninth season, the Coach is proving that the decision to make him the head coach of the Spartans football team was not only insightful, but one that inspires complete confidence.
A Lifetime Doing What He Loves
Coach Stan Zweifel has been a football coach for nearly 45 years, taking his first job as the head football coach at Markesan High School. He was greatly inspired by those who had coached him and thought that this would make for the ideal profession.
“I really made my decision to get into teaching and coaching because of the high school teachers and coaches that I had. It was coaches like Mike Farley, my college coach at the University of Wisconsin River Falls, who is a Hall of Fame coach, who really inspired me and taught me a lot about what being a coach is all about. I liked the way he was able to shape people’s lives and to be involved in actively helping players.”
In 1980, Coach Zweifel moved to Minnesota State-Mankato, where he became the school’s offensive coordinator. That led to a series of opportunities to take on greater responsibility as he became the head coach at Yankton College, serving in that position for two seasons, before becoming the head coach at the University of Minnesota-Morris. In 1986, he led his team to the Northern Intercollegiate Conference title and was named the conference’s Coach of the Year a year later.
Ready for War
In 1990, Stan Zweifel became the offensive coordinator at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, one of the most prestigious football programs in all of Division-III football. He would spend 17-seasons with the Warhawks, helping the team to win the National Championship title in 2007.
UWW had an unreal run during the Coach’s tenure, going 119-50 and winning five conference titles. The success earned Coach Zweifel a great deal of recognition as well, as he was twice named an AFCA National College Assistant Coach of the Year finalist. He also coached 29 players who were named All-Americans, and seven of the players he coached moved onto play professionally.
He had done an amazing job with the Warhawks offense, but when he was not offered the head coaching position when it became available, he knew that it was time to take on a new adventure.
“At age 55, I had been the offensive coordinator and assistant head coach for 17 years and they had made a coaching change and I was not able to get that job. I wanted to get back into a head coaching position again, and kind of knew that it was not going to happen there.”
Finding a New Place to Call Home
With over 30 years of coaching experience under his belt, Stan Zweifel was looking for a new opportunity. While looking forward to a new opportunity, it was someone from the past who would open the door for him to become a head coach once again.
“The A.D. at Dubuque hired me for my first coaching job at Minnesota State-Mankato back in 1980. He called and reached out to me and we reconnected and I came here, and I really thought it would be a really good fit.”
The University of Dubuque provided the Coach with a great opportunity to make his mark, and the Spartans clearly needed a new direction. The team had just two winning seasons in their previous 11 campaigns, including 0-10 records in both 2000 and 2003, and they were looking for a coach who could really turn this program around. Coach Zweifel came to Dubuque with no delusions about what was going on in the program.
“They had struggled for a really long, long time. They had not been a very good football team and when I came over and visited the campus and saw the wonderful, wonderful facilities they which, which is one of the tops in the country, which is important, I knew this was the place. I think they had been a little bit dysfunctional in their football program. I’m kind of an old-school guy and I kind of thought that with a little discipline and a little bit of recruitment and some communication we could get this program going.”
A lot of coaches relish the opportunity to turn a program around. This is the ultimate challenge and they become passionate about the idea that they can be the one that made that kind of impact. Coach Zweifel wasn’t concerned about that at all. He simply wanted to make sure that the pieces were in place for him to have a chance to turn the Spartans into a consistent winner.
“I think people will tell you to not follow a real winning tradition, but I say there’s a lot of good things about following a winning tradition. I think like anything else you really make what it is because you can’t control the past. If you think you can, you really haven’t figured it out, so when I went there I saw the things that were in place that could help us win and that was the most important issue for me. Plus, our president was highly motivated to have a successful football program and boy is that important.”
The Process of Creating a Winner
Stan Zweifel had no doubt that he could turn the Spartans football program around. The Head Coach had the knowledge and had hired assistants that clearly knew how to coach and reach kids, and so it would be just a matter of time before they would have success.
In his first six seasons with the team, Dubuque was 32-29, going 9-2 in 2011 and making the NCAA Division-III playoffs. Over the next three seasons, the Spartans went 14-16 but, in 2015, the team went 8-3 and earned another berth in the post-season. They also went 7-0 in the conference, the first time a Spartans team had been undefeated in conference play since 1980.
In 2016, the University of Dubuque posted another stellar campaign, going 8-2. The 16-5 record over the two seasons was the best combined record since the 1979-80 teams went 17-3-1, and the football team has the opportunity to have three successive winning seasons for the first time since 1978-80.
It has been an absolutely incredible run for Dubuque, and Coach Zweifel is enjoying the success, but the losses still stick in his belly.
“I don’t think we’re nearly as successful as I’ve wanted to be. In the last five years we’ve won the league twice and we’ve had some really good football teams. The losses still haunt me. They haunt me on a daily basis. I think we should’ve won the league three out of the last five years and the one we didn’t win still really bothers me very much.”
Creating a Culture for Success
No one should be surprised that the Stan Zweifel is bothered by the loses. He has high expectations for himself, his team, and his program as a whole, and this shows in how personally he takes loses. It also shows in how he builds his program.
The world has changed drastically since his first year in coaching, yet the Coach understands that there are certain things that help to make any football team successful.
“In 40+ years of coaching I think kids still want to have parameters. I don’t think that’s change from my first high school job in 1975 until 2017. I think kids want to know what you expect of them, how are you going to put them in a position to be successful, what do I got to do to be successful.”
While parameters are central to the success, relationships are equally, if not more important to the success he has had at the college level. He isn’t looking to be a friend to his players, but wants his players to know he is always there for them.
“I think you’re trying to be a mentor, a leader. I never like to get to the friend level. I don’t want to be their friend socially, but I do want to be that person that they feel that they can confide in and seek help from.”
A Commitment to Make a Difference
The role that Stan Zweifel plays in the life in his players is related directly to the mission of the school where he coaches. The University of Dubuque has made it a point to bring in young men and women who are first generation college students, meaning that no one in their family had gone to college before. That is an amazing mission, but one that comes with a lot of challenges for the students and the coaches.
“Sometimes we’re taking kids who may not be as prepared as students are at other colleges and so you need to understand that you have to look at character issues, you got to look at how well they have done academically in high school and see what they could become and not what they are. We are able to give some kids an opportunity and those kids that you give opportunities to there are things that you have to put together to be able to help them. We have a great academic support system here at the University of Dubuque to give those kids the additional help that they need. We are also very cognizant in talking with our coaching staff about making them accountable on the issues of things like going to class, so that they can be successful.”
Dubuque has also wanted to appeal to a diversified student body, understanding that when students have contact with people from varying walks of life that it only enhances their academic experience and makes them more well-rounded. This has helped to make the football program a lot more diversified as well, something the Coach Zweifel feels is a major reason why his program is so successful.
“We have a very diverse program. We have over 50 percent of our football program who are minorities. That comes from the commitment of the school to help those that may not have necessarily been able to go to college otherwise.”
An Ever Changing World Brings Transformation
The policy of the school to give these young men and women a chance like this a truly amazing part of the University of Dubuque. It has helped to give these students an opportunity that they may not have had before.
It has also opened the eyes of Stan Zweifel to how different the average student is today in comparison to when he first started. One area really stands out for him and is a primary reason why he has had to adjust his role as a coach.
“My first coaching job was at Minnesota State Mankato in 1980 and I think 80 some percent of our students had two-parent families. That thing has disappeared forever. Surely they lose some structure from that part. Sometimes, I spend a lot of my time helping kids with social issues. Whether that be a family issue where they don’t have a full family. I’m not a grandpa figure. Although some people think I am, I’m sure as hell not, but I know that these kids need structure and they need a place to go to where they can talk about issues affecting them, whether it is academically, socially, or anything else.”
One area of change the Coach is grudgingly accepting is social media. He sees that it is having a dramatic impact on the students, and not necessarily for the better.
“Social media, cell phones, although a lot of people will tell you that that’s really good, I predict to my team each year that it will be the fall of the Western civilization. Just like the Romans in the fall of their empire.”
There are no illusions he has about the problems that social media can pose for a player, the team, and the school as a whole. We live in a very ultrasensitive society, and a comment that would have been ignored a generation ago can now become a lifelong stigma. This is the last thing Coach Zweifel wants to see happen.
“We monitor all of our kids as much as we possibly can. You know that that’s near impossible. That’s a full-time job for our football ops person, Bridgette Brandt. The first woman I’ve hired on our football staff. We do have social media as part of our football program. We try to be constructive, and try to get positive things out. We also try to get across that when you put stuff out on social media that it lasts forever. That’s another thing that so different than 20 years ago. You say something 20 years ago and it’s forgotten in three seconds. Today, you put something out on social media and it’s like an imprint for the rest of your life. We really try to educate about things like this.”
A Love for Those Who Go to Battle for Him
This may seem Orwellian to some, but the fact remains that these are more than just players to Coach Stan Zweifel. This isn’t Alabama or Florida State where the coach likely knows the names of maybe 100 players. The University of Dubuque is part of his family, and so the success of his players is something that means a great deal to him.
“You want them to be successful. They spend four years here, and you want to feel like you have made a difference, because you know you have a real opportunity to impact a player’s life. We have great players here, but we also have great young men, and that is the best part of coaching.”
Making a difference is something that the Coach takes special pride in. It means the world to him to know he has had a positive impact. A day before being interviewed for this article, he was given just such an instance.
“Just last night, I got an email from a former player of mine at Northern Colorado, who’s a principal near Denver Colorado. I probably haven’t seen him for 17, 18 years. He says, ‘Coach, just thinking about you last night. Must be something crazy but I just wanted to drop you a note about how much I appreciate what you did for me.’ That’s good stuff. If you don’t get those kinds of things it’s tough.”
Those are the kinds of things that make it worth it, because Coach Zweifel recognizes that his success on the gridiron has come at the expense of his family. It is the regret in his life and one of the primary reasons why he has been so thankful for the woman he is married to.
“I have four children and, luckily for me, my wife did a great job in raising our children. I spent more time with other folks’ children than I did with my own. That is just the nature of coaching. I look back on it and that would be the one regret that I have that I did not spend more quality time with my children.”
As the 2017 season opens for University of Dubuque Spartans, Stan Zweifel will be looking to lead his team to their third straight winning season. With Michael Joseph on the roster, a likely national Player of the Year recipient, things look really bright for this team. It would be no surprise to see the Spartans win the Iowa Intercollegiate Athletic Conference title and reach the playoffs for the third time in his tenure. In all seriousness, is there really any doubt?
By Robert Pannier