Vince Brautigam Making Cornell College His Newest Diamond
In the long history of the great sport of football there have been some great examples of coaches that have turned around teams and programs that were mired in oblivion and turned them into exceptional organizations that have become the envy of others within the sport. A Bill Walsh, who turned the San Francisco 49ers into the best NFL organization for over two decades, a Nick Saban, who rebuilt the Alabama Crimson Tide into a perennial national champion candidate, or a Jim Harbaugh, who made San Diego, Stanford and San Francisco relevant at the college and the pro ranks, are just a few of the most noteworthy examples.
These are special coaches who have a knack for spotting great talent, hiring great assistants, and inspiring men to rise to a new level of play that they may not have been aware that they had in them. Men who can figure out the Xs and Os with the best of them, but who also know how to make players of questionable character into men to be respected, and players who are good men into great ones.
It is a special kind of coach that can make winners of his players on the field and off. Who can lead like an Eisenhower or MacArthur, but also have compassion and wisdom to care and help young men grow.
Cornell College (Mount Vernon, IA) was once a school that was the punching bag of the Midwest Conference (MWC). From 2002-2009 the Rams had eight straight seasons of below .500 records, accumulating an overall record of 16-64 during that span, leaving them as a perennial bottom-feeders in the conference. In 2010, they decided to make a change, and that came with the addition of Vince Brautigam.
Coach Brautigam is one of the special coaches who turns coal into diamonds. He hasn’t just turned around one fledging program, but has actually done so at all the three colleges where he was the head football coach, a remarkable achievement whether you are talking about in the NFL or Pee-Wee football.
The Coach’s wizardry began at Mount Senario College in 1990 where he took the NAIA school and made a winner out of the program. He was named Coach of the Year in the conference four times, and had the team ranked in the NAIA top-25 in both 1999 and 2000.
In 2001 he moved onto the University of Dubuque, another school that was struggling to find a key to success. Dubuque had just 21 players on the roster when he arrived and was losing games by an average margin of 48.5 points per game. The year before his arrival the team had gone 0-10. Then Coach Brautigam arrived.
It took a few seasons, but he changed the Iowa Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (IIAC) doormat into a team competing for the conference title each season. In 2006 the Spartans had their first winning season with the Coach at the helm (6-4), and the next year they went 7-3. More remarkably, he had made Dubuque into a team that was dominating opponents instead of being pummeled each weekend, and the team’s roster had depth that allowed the Spartans to weather injuries and underachievement by players. In fact, when he left the school the roster size was in excess of 110 players, a remarkable achievement in and of itself.
Following the 2008 season, IIAC commissioner John Cochrane decided to take the job of athletic director at Cornell College. He knew that one man was needed to turn around the team’s football program – Vince Brautigam.
Cochrane offered the position of head coach to Vince in 2009, and the Coach found that this decision was a clear no-brainer. “John Cochrane called and asked if I was interested. This was a family decision that we all agreed was good for us. I came here because I trusted John, and they have done nothing but have opened their arms to me.”
Much like at Dubuque, Coach Brautigam inherited a program woefully in need of some new energy. The roster was small, the team was losing on a regular basis, and the morale was in the gutter. The Cornell Coach knew that he had some work to do to turn the program around, but this is what the coaching guru does. He simply followed the same model that he had used in his two previous stops.
“It all starts with hiring good coaches. I try not to hire coaches that are like me because I want different philosophies; I want different opinions. Then you just take it from there.”
While knowing he had a clear model that follow, Cornell College was a different kind of challenge. He was not only having to change the culture, but he was also a bit hamstrung by the academic rigors of the institution. While Dubuque and Mount Senario are fine institutions, Cornell is one of the top liberal art colleges in the country. This meant he had an additional challenge to overcome. This just required a new focus when he recruited.
“At Cornell it is not secret that it is a school where academics are definitely first. The grade requirements are much more difficult to get in. So you go out and you have to look under a lot more rocks, so to speak, to find a kid that meets the standards academically and athletically. Eighty-five percent of kids that go to Cornell are from out of state.”
While many coaches would have withered under the challenge of trying to bring top players to such an academically rigorous place, Coach Brautigam saw it as a bonus. He wasn’t just bringing in players to play football; he was recruiting young men who would gain a first-class education that would make them among the elite graduates in the country.
“We try to entice kids to take a look at us earlier, and it’s all about building relationships and having an opportunity to come to an academic institution that is highly regarded. The success they will have after graduating is one of the key points we stress when talking to the young men we want to come here. ”
The first season under the Coach’s tutelage the program went through some growing pains, going 0-10 overall, but in 2011 the progress began to show. The Rams went 3-7 that season, then went 4-6 the next year. In his fourth season as Head Coach Cornell added three wins over the previous season, going 7-3, including 7-2 in the MWC.
The success that Vince Brautigam has had as a head coach is a remarkable achievement. He has clearly shown an amazing knack for turning teams around, but it is the life story and how he got into coaching that makes the man a person to admire far beyond his coaching abilities.
Vince grow up loving sports, especially the sport of baseball, however his parents would not allow him to play football until he reached high school. His freshman year the coaches at the school asked his dad if he could join the team and he agreed. It was a great season on the gridiron as he got his first taste of the sport, but that excitement was crushed in the spring of that season when his father passed away.
Angry at the loss of his father the Coach acknowledges that his life could have taken a very ugly turn, but one man was not going to allow that to happen. “My coach, Glen Weiss from Ludlow High School in Kentucky, took me under his wing and if it wasn’t for him I don’t know where I’d be today. Just the love of playing sports and the comradery for a kid who lost his dad I think had a lot to do with it. Football was the only place where you could go out and play and hit somebody without getting in trouble, because when you lose your dad at such a young age and being a teenager it was a great place for me to just be comfortable.”
The impact of his high school football coach went far beyond helping him deal with the loss of his father. Vince Brautigam knew that he wanted to have the same kind of impact on young men, and help them navigate the early part of their adult life. Coaching became the path he wanted for himself to assist young men as he had been mentored.
“I don’t want to just be a coach to these guys. I want them to know that I care. When I recruit them I tell both the player and the parents. I am not afraid to tell them that I love them and I wear a size 10, and there’s no in between. I am not going to blow potpourri and I am going to be honest with them. I want them to know that they are a part of something that was not just about football.”
Over his 23-years of coaching he has worked to accomplish his primary goal. The Cornell Coach has set it in his mind that he wants his players to know that he cares for them on and off the field, and he works to ensure that they leave the school with three primary goals in mind.
“There are three things I want from them. I want when they graduate that they leave a better person than when they came in, I want them to be a good husband and a good father. If they do those three things then I have done my job as a head coach.”
While the Coach has done an amazing job turning the Rams into a force in the MWC, he is by no means believing that he is the only force making this change occur. He gives a majority of the credit to the assistants on his staff, but also acknowledges that the changes made by Cornell College President Jonathan Brand and his athletic director have had a dramatic impact on his ability to recruit as well as on the morale of the players.
“It goes hand in hand, our president, Jonathan Brand, came in and our football field is two years old, our lights are a year old, and our baseball field is brand new. He has just given a good reason for good student athletes to take a look at us. Before our athletic facilities were lacking, but now, because of his efforts and because of John Cochrane, our athletic facilities have had a major improvement. There are new commons areas. All the dorms have been refurbished. So things are on the upswing for us in terms of enticing good student athletes to come here and play at Cornell.”
His assistants, players, fellow faculty members and the college president have played a significant role in helping him to change the culture of the Rams’ program, but he fully acknowledges that one person has done more than anyone else. His wife Allison.
“We have been married 30 years now, and she is very special. You simply cannot be a good coach without a very special partner like that, and she has to put up with a lot. She has really helped me to stay grounded and able to better handle the rigors of coaching.”
When you put all those pieces together it is easy to see why Cornell College is one of the better programs in the Midwest Conference. Their coach has put his stamp on this team so that the players can get a first-class education while also enjoying a first-rate experience on the field. That was something that players at the school were not able to say for nearly a decade before the Coach’s arrival.
While the Rams are a quality football team, there is no doubt that the biggest legacy that Vince Brautigam has created is with those three goals he has for each of his players. Because of his love and commitment to his players these young men are going to be better men, better husbands, better dads. These men owe a debt of gratitude to their coach for how he has “raised” them, but there is no doubt that another group of people are even more appreciative of him – those future wives and children. They will have a great man at their head of their family thanks to Coach Brautigam.
By Robert Pannier