Macalester Scots Marshall Mullenbach Teaches Domination on Defense
In the 1960s, one of the most beloved television shows of all-time aired. It was called The Andy Griffith Show and was about a small-town sheriff who was beloved by his community, not only because of his quick wit and fast-thinking solutions to problems, but also because of the way that he interacted with people. Everyone mattered to Sheriff Andy Taylor, from the mayor of Mayberry all the way down to the town drunk, Otis Campbell. Andy always had a life-lesson he taught to the people of Mayberry as well as to the millions who watched the show each week. He was the kind of guy that everyone liked. If a TV network ever thought of creating a show like that again, the perfect title would be The Marshall Mullenbach Show.
Marshall Mullenbach is not a small-town sheriff. He doesn’t live in a small community or even use his backwoods common sense and folksy personality to reach people. Coach Mullenbach is the defensive coordinator of an up-and-coming football program, who lives in a major metropolitan area and attended one of the finest academic institutions in the country, namely Macalester College. He may be worlds apart in terms of his upbringing and location, but one can’t deny the similarities otherwise.
Macalester College is a perennially ranked as one of the 25 best institutions in the country for academics. A degree from Macalester is like having a ticket to virtually any job a person could want. If one needs proof they simply need to ask Coach Mullenbach. He graduated from Macalester in 2003 and was immediately hired by Cretin-Derham High School in St. Paul. He was an outstanding teacher at the school and worked with the defense as well, but the Coach longed to return to his alma mater to coach football and so he approached the coaching staff to ask for a chance. They couldn’t have been happier to give him one.
For two seasons he was the defensive backs coach under Head Coach Tony Jennison, but in 2010 an opening as the team’s defensive coordinator became available, and to Coach Jennison there was no other choice. “It was just a natural fit. He had such a great grasp of what we wanted to do on defense, and was able to teach the players the kind of scheme we really wanted to implement. He related to them so well, and there was just no other choice to consider,” Coach Jennison remembers of the hiring of Mullenbach.
The Scots had been a respectable 4-6 in 2008, but had regressed the following season, and Coach Jennison wanted a guy who he could rely on to turn his defense into a powerhouse. That became the mission of Coach Mullenbach, and one he embraced whole-heartedly.
The first objective for him was to change the mindset of his defense. “I wanted to create an identity for our defense,” he explains. “We had built-up some bad habits, especially in the way we pursued players, and I wanted us to be a team that did not allow yardage after first contact. That starts by being in the right position and making sound tackles. It also means that when you can’t make tackles, you are in a position to make it so you force a guy into being tackled.”
Much like Andy taught his son Opie to become an expert fisherman, Coach Mullenbach educated his players on the finer points of defense, and the results became instantaneous. The defense saw a rapid maturity that propelled them to the top 25 in a wide variety of defensive statistics over his first four seasons at the helm. The 2012 team finished 22nd in the country in total defense and 15th in first downs allowed. They were also eighth nationally in pass defense. 2013 saw the team ranked 21st in takeaways per game in Division-III, however the team took some steps backward, and after the season Coach Mullenbach pulled his players aside and challenged them to think how they were going to take their game to the next level in 2014.
“We moved from 22nd in the country in total defense to 90th and we really struggled in the run-game, dropping to 151st,” he explains. “I asked the players to create goals for the next season and they gave me those goals and we have made them the focus of this season.”
These statistics were not something he was quoting from memory, although there is no doubt he could have done so if need be. He keeps these numbers posted on the bulletin board at his desk as reminders of what his team needs to do to improve. They are a constant reminder to him that there is work to do still, and also that he can’t get too comfortable in his past success. What matters is now. “Last week’s game, last season doesn’t matter except in areas you need to improve upon. If you get too confident in what you did before, you will get complacent and a complacent team is a vulnerable one.”
Coach Mullenbach’s message has been heard loud and clear by his players, and behind a veteran leadership his defense has embraced his teachings and responded. In six games this season the team has allowed just 93 points, for a 15.7 ppg allowed average, 22nd in the nation. In total defense they are ranked 26th, a 64 place improvement and the Scots have the 14th best defense in Division-III football in total passing yards allowed. Remember that run defense the team wanted to focus on this year? One of their goals was to allow no more than 140 yards rushing per game, and so far they have averaged just 137.2 allowed per game. They have cut their ranking nearly in half, dropping to 86th in the country in a conference where most of the teams are power-running football teams. Message heard and response given.
Like all the Macalester coaching staff, if you ask Marshall Mullenbach what it is that he has done to change the team around he will explain to you how he has great coaches to work with, how he has a group of great players who are dedicated and intelligent, who understand how to turn things around. He will even tell you how the college has done so much to make Macalester a great place to play football. He will give accolades and appreciation to virtually everyone else, but himself. That is simply the Macalester way.
However, a huge credit belongs squarely on his shoulders. His players know it, his college knows it, his defensive coaches know it, and so does his Head Coach. “Marshall is one of the smartest football guys I know, but what makes him such a good coach is that he is a great teacher,” Coach Jennison explains. “He really knows how to reach players and motivate them on their level.”
His players agree. “Coach Mullenbach designs great schemes and he really knows how to motivate us and show us how to succeed in that design. He is really good at communicating his message to us,” star cornerback Konnor Fleming expounds.
That’s one of the things that makes Coach Mullenbach so great at what he does. He channels his inner “Andy Taylor” and explains things to his players in such a way that he is clearly understood. He doesn’t do it in an overbearing or demeaning way. This isn’t Bob Knight or Bo Schembechler yelling and screaming at a player. Coach Mullenbach is a guy who explains things to his players so they get it, and he does it in a way that is respectful, purposeful and constructive. As a former player he understands that academic rigors of his institution, and he demonstrates that in the way he addresses and cares for his squad.
Coach Jennison doesn’t have team rules at Macalester for his football program. He has a credo that he expects his players to live by: Be respectful, be responsible and create great relationships. No one embraces this philosophy more than Marshall Mullenbach, and it is his Head Coach that is the first to point it out. “Marshall is a guy who just gets along with everyone. He is so comfortable in any situation, and the players respond to him well because he is so real.”
This is a sentiment that everyone who knows Coach Mullenbach echoes. It is clear not only in the words that he says, but also in the way he carries himself. He has the personality of the guy that got along with everyone in high school, that neighbors come over to his garage and hang out with him, that never closes his door to anyone, and who would gladly stop to help a troubled motorist. The spirit is there that says people matter first, and it clearly shows in the way he carries himself.
Of course, he is the first to deflect any accolades for himself. Like Sheriff Taylor giving an “Aw Shucks” moment when he is told how he saved the day, Coach Mullenbach is quick to turn the praise onto his Head Coach, his coaches and his players. “The school has created an atmosphere where the team can excel. Tony is so great at trusting me to develop a strong defensive scheme. From there it is the players who make the plays. They are the ones who make the difference.”
While Coach Mullenbach is a very good teacher, a great communicator, and the guy who virtually everyone would love to be around, there should be no mistake that this is a great defensive mind with a real passion for the game. He went to Macalester after all, which clearly supports that he is a very intelligent man, who also happens to be very passionate about all that he does.
He doesn’t need to yell to get his point across. He will if necessary, but his strength is in finding ways get his point across in an intelligent way to a very intelligent group of young men. This is a team with students who will be future astrophysicists, doctors, captains of industry, global advisors and engineers. There is no one studying the history of sports or getting a pass in their classes because they play football. This is a school with brilliant young men, and it takes a brilliant mind to reach them. That man is Coach Mullenbach.
“I do think that is one thing that makes me able to connect with them well is that I am a more cerebral guy. I try to focus on how to make teaching points to them, and I know they get it because of how smart they are.”
Just as Andy could reach and get governors, newspaper moguls and state police officers as well as housewives, barbers and gas station attendants to understand him and embrace his words, Coach Mullenbach has quickly developed a style that enables him to reach seniors and freshman alike, language experts and scientists, students and parents, coaches and staff. He is a humble guy who has taken his intelligence and character, and become a man that virtually anyone would like to know. That is if you are not on the opposing sideline on Saturday.
While this is a very mild-mannered, friendly, humble, caring guy, this is also a person who is out there to win every game when his team takes the field. Coach Marshall Mullenbach is a warrior at heart as well, and if anyone has failed to understand that about him, they will learn that lesson very quickly. If they need references, however, there are six teams that played the Scots this season who would happily vouch for that reality.
By Robert Pannier