Cobbers Coach Terry Horan Creating His Own Legacy of Greatness
When your two predecessors held your job for over a quarter of century each, you would have to feel pretty good about the prospects of sticking around for a while. That was the situation that Concordia College Head Football Coach Terry Horan faced when he became the coach of the Cobbers 16-seasons ago. He had to know that things looked pretty good for him to stay for as long as he wished.
However, no one should think that Coach Horan is believing that he earned his right to stay at the school just because he wants the job. The reason he is still at Concordia is because he has kept alive a tradition of success for which the school’s football program has been known for nearly a century now. A tradition that he, himself, embraces and wishes to see maintained long after he has decided to turn the reins over to his successor.
60 years of Greatness
When many people think of great Division-III football programs, Concordia College is not the first name that rattles off the tongue. They may not even be the first school mentioned in their conference, the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, as St. Thomas, St. John’s, and Bethel seem to be the teams that are most commonly mentioned as the elite of the MIAC.
However, Concordia has long been as much a part of the college football landscape as any other college or university you can think of. While the school had a football program for decades prior to his arrival, Jake Christiansen was the first to really make Concordia a well-recognized name. He took over in 1941 and would remain at the school until 1968. During that time he compiled a 175-92-15 record, winning the NAIA National Title in 1964. He was such a legend at the school that the stadium where the Cobbers play football is named after him.
Upon his retirement, Jim Christopherson became the Cobbers Head Football Coach. He had played under Coach Christiansen, and had served as one of his assistants. It seemed that he was a natural fit to take over the job and that is exactly what he proved to be.
In 1969, Coach Christopherson became the head coach and he would remain in that role until 2000. During that time, the Coach led the school to national titles in 1978 and 1981, and he would win the MIAC conference 11 times.
With that kind of success, it is easy to see that this job would be one of the most enticing ones to get and one of the most terrifying all at the same time. When Coach Christopherson retired, the new head coach would not only be replacing a legend, but would actually be living in the shadow of two of them. Clearly, the reputation of the school would make recruiting a little easier, but the challenges of maintaining a winning program would be almost too much for many to bear. A very special man would have to be the one that was chosen. That special man became Terry Horan.
The Next “Legend” Takes His Place
In 2001, Coach Terry Horan was named as just the third coach at that school in over 60-years. The choice was a no-brainer of sorts. Just as Jim Christopherson had played for Coach Christiansen, Terry Horan had been part of the Cobbers football program under Coach Christopherson, playing from 1985-1989. He understood the Cobbers way, not only as a football program but, more importantly, as an institution dedicated to developing young men that would become outstanding members of society.
To achieve this, the school wanted a man who understood the challenges of being a coach at Concordia College. While sports are an important part of the collegiate experience, these young men are there for a first-rate education. This requires a coach who understands the priorities of the school, and no one gets this better than Coach Horan.
As a graduate of the school himself, he fully grasps what it takes to perform exceptionally well in the classroom and on the field. He took the job knowing that his own focus was to make sure that the players he was entrusted with would get the fullest experience possible at the school.
“I’ve lived the experience. I know what each of their days are going to look like. I know the type of people that we’re looking for, and the type of students that were looking for. This is a school that gives a young man a great chance for success in life, and that has to be the primary focus.”
While understanding what it takes to be a success at Concordia is of benefit, what truly separates Coach Horan from many others is that the welfare of his players comes first. While he gets that football is important to them, and to the Coach, the fact is that their academics come first and he is ready to adjust his own schedule to make sure that goal is achieved.
“We got kids that come to practice every day who have to go to labs afterward and we don’t hold that against them. None of our coaches do. It’s a part of our experience here. We’re a Division-III school, so the student athlete comes first. All of our kids know that. If I have a kid that has a lab at 7 o’clock and we practice until 6:15, I usually release that young man at about 6 o’clock so he can go and shower, grab a bite to eat, and get to his class. The last thing I want to see is a player sitting in his lab from seven to 10 and he’s starving. They are not going to be performing then. All of our kids need to let us know what their schedule is and we make sure that we adjust practices a lot of times to the schedule.”
It is his commitment to his players that drives the Coach, but he also understands that he made a commitment to their parents as well. They want their sons to grow to be great young men, and they expect the Head Coach to be a man who helps them to achieve that goal.
“That’s what we’ve signed up to do, that’s what we promised mom and dad. They are trusting us to care for their sons like they are our sons. That is a responsibility that I do not take lightly.”
Creating Success on the Field
While Terry Horan is dedicated to helping his players mature, he is not naïve to his responsibilities. The Coach is fully aware that he was not hired as a guidance counselor. His job is to produce a winning football program, standing in the shadow of two legends, and he has delivered in the same manner that his predecessors did.
In his 16th season his teams have won 106-games, including going 2-1 early in the 2016 season. He is just the third coach in school history to win 100-games and the Cobbers have won better than two-thirds of their games since he took over as the head coach. Those are truly remarkable numbers.
However, those numbers are just the tip of the iceberg. The Cobbers are working on their 11th straight year without a losing record, and he was named the MIAC Coach of the Year in both 2002 and 2004. In 2004, the Cobbers won their first MIAC championship since 1986 and the team spent 28 weeks in the Division-III top-25.
All of this he has accomplished while turning to one of the oldest styles of offense in football. Most teams have implemented the spread or pro-style offenses, looking to throw a lot more. The passing game is in, but not at Concordia. While wanting to pass the ball, he has embraced the triple-option, an offensive style that many would say has passed its prime. That may be true, but it is giving Concordia a whole lot of success.
It is also a style that Coach Horan opted for because he understood that to be a success on offense, his team needed to consider that they had to adjust to their size and talent.
“We want to be different from anybody else. We’re very much like the service academies where they really go into their battles knowing that they have to do something totally different than what everybody else is doing. You have to be really disciplined to play this style of offense. The triple option is three plays in one, and you have to assign someone for each man. If someone is off on one of their reads, then we’re going to make you pay for it. That’s just the way that we run things. We also know that traditional teams that like to run the option like us they don’t throw the ball very well, which is something that we feel we are two-dimensional. We can run and can throw, which is even tougher to defend.”
Not many teams may be using this offense, but it is proving to be quite successful. The Cobbers have finished in the top four in offense in the conference in each of the last six seasons, averaging better than 400-yards in four of those years.
It may seem simple, but what makes it so difficult to defend is that it requires a lot of discipline on the part of the defense. Add to it the fact that Coach Horan expects to throw as well, and it is easy to see why this is one of the more challenging offenses in the MIAC to face.
While the team has had great success, the Coach is saddened when the results don’t favor his team. He knows his players put in a complete effort each week, but he is bothered when the resorts on the scoreboard don’t depict that.
“One of the biggest disappointments is to see your kids’ faces after a loss because you know how much hard work they put in. That kind of eats with you for a while.”
Blending Character On and Off the Field
The most difficult challenge that a head coach faces today is that everything that a player does is magnified. The news is littered with stories about how football players have gotten in trouble with off the field conduct issues. Some make statements on their Twitter or Facebook accounts or post pictures on Instagram that paints them and their football program in a negative light. The Coach understands the age that we live in and ensures that the type of athlete he recruits is worthy of wearing the Cobbers uniform.
“All of these kids are under the microscope, and that’s where your recruiting process comes into play. I can count on one hand how many fires we’ve had to put out over the last five years. There haven’t been many. They understand what w’ere about, they understand about our program, what’s expected. We talk about social media, we talk about what you should do and what you shouldn’t do, so we make it very clear in the way we want to run things. It doesn’t mean that some kids don’t make mistakes; they do and, when they do, we handle it accordingly.”
There are two aspects of being the Concordia Head Football Coach that Terry Horan enjoys most of all. They are the reason that he loves going to his job each and every day.
“To see these young men cross the stage at the end of their senior year and shaking that president’s hand and getting their degree. That is what this is all about and you feel like you have made the right kind of impact when you see that happen. Also, we put so much time into a week of prep, just seeing the joy and satisfaction in our kids’ faces after a win, knowing how much time they put into it, that’s truly gratifying. Watching our kids compete is really special. I think those are the two biggest joys of mine.”
The joy is clearly apparent. Coach Horan loves his job; not even considering it as such.
“I’m on my 16thyear as head coach here at Concordia and there has not been one day that I would call this work. My wife looks at me and smiles because she says that I go off to work every day clicking my heels. Because this is not work; this is a calling. I love being part of my alma mater, guiding and leading young men.”
Following two legends is never an easy thing. The sports world is littered with stories of players and coaches who never lived up to their predecessors and became footnotes more than legends in their own right. Every so often, however, there is a man who is so impressive that he meets the challenge head on and establishes his own legacy. A man who wants to uphold the great traditions, yet show that he is truly worthy of the position he is holding. This is maybe the most impressive part of Coach Horan. His commitment to honor the past, produce results in the present, and ensure for success in the future are the things that the coach recognizes as an awesome responsibility.
“When you look at the two men that I followed and the legacy that they left, I want to honor those two guys by continuing to move our program forward, and continuing to make us competitive across the country, but also by recruiting the type of young men that they had in their program; that we all feel good about. To me it’s just continuing to lead our program to bigger and better heights, and to strive to be the best we can be. Those guys built the program and I’m just fortunate enough to come into a program that had already been established. I just want to make sure that we continue that tradition by honoring those men.”
Honoring Jake Christiansen and Jim Christopherson is exactly what Terry Horan has done. Along the way he has established his own legacy at the school and no one should be surprised if he spends twenty more years at Concordia College. Clearly he has taken the good soil that has predecessors laid and is harvesting a whole group of amazing young men that will impact this world in an incredibly positive way. He is simply upholding the Cobbers way.
By Robert Pannier