Rob McCarthy Building Algorithm of Success for Lawrence University Vikings
It’s been a long dry spell at Lawrence University. In the last 15 seasons, the Vikings have only one season where they won as many games as they lost, and over the last seven seasons they have a combined record of 11-59. During that seven-year stretch they never won more than two games and have found themselves near the bottom of the Midwest Conference on a regular basis.
It has been a tough stretch that has not seen the team win more than five games in any season. It is also the kind of run that creates an atmosphere of discouragement. It is during times like this that the faithful feel like their alma mater is destined to be relegated as a bottom dweller, never to challenge the big boys of the conference.
That may have been the feeling at Lawrence University, but a change has brought about a new sense of encouragement with the Vikings. In July of 2013 Mark Burnstein became the President at the Appleton, WI university, and one of his first orders of business was to ensure that his student-athletes had the same opportunity to have a first rate experience on the field, court or ice that they were experiencing in the classroom. To achieve that aim he brought in 25-year coaching veteran Rob McCarthy to take over the football program and lead it to a new level of success.
It’s a pretty safe bet that when you are located 30 miles from Green Bay, you coach football, and you last name is McCarthy that there are going to be some very high expectations. Green Bay Packers Coach Mike McCarthy has turned his team into a perennial Super Bowl contender each year. The Lawrence University faithful are hoping that Coach Rob McCarthy can have that same kind of impact on their football program.
Coach McCarthy comes with quite a pedigree. The Deer River, MN native has over two decades of experience coaching in one of the most dominant conferences in all of Division-III football. His time at Carleton College as the team’s defensive line coach and St. Olaf College as the defensive coordinator allowed him to coach against some of the best D-III football programs in the country, including St. Thomas, Bethel University, and St. John’s. He has also spent time coaching at St. Thomas and Concordia, his alma mater.
These Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) powerhouses are traditionally programs in the discussion for a national championship, and his time at these colleges gave him the time to learn and develop a strategy of what he wanted to do should he find himself as the head coach of his own program.
In January of this year that opportunity came when the Vikings made McCarthy their 28th head football coach in school history. To President Burnstein, Coach McCarthy was the clear choice.
“One of the distinctive aspects of Rob’s candidacy was his strong support of students’ interest to pursue more than one passion or – as we like to say – multi-interested students.”
Lawrence Athletic Director Mike Szkodzinski agreed that McCarthy was the right choice to change the culture of the school’s football program. “We are very excited to welcome Rob to our staff as the next head football coach,” Szkodzinski said. “The applicant pool was tremendously competitive and Coach McCarthy distinguished himself as one of the top recruiters in our pool.”
The Lawrence football coach finds himself in an interesting juxtaposition. This is a school with a limited history of success on the football field, so if he did not succeed it would not be a big surprise. However, he is being brought to the school to change that culture, a challenge he is looking for to and embraces fully.
“We constantly talk about a commitment to excellence and what does that mean. It doesn’t matter whether you are talking about in the classroom or on the football field, we are seeking young men who are committed to excellence. Young men who, as much as they get it done on the football field, also get it done in the classroom, or in whatever they do, whether it’s in music or in athletics. We want them to ask themselves what it takes to have that commitment every single day.”
While enthusiastic about his opportunity, the Coach fully understands that turning this program around is a daunting challenge. Many may think he would be crazy to take a chance like this, but the commitment from the administration as well as a chance to coach at a high achieving academic institution made this selection a no-brainer.
“I am very passionate about what a high academic, Division-III school has to offer. The people were amazing during my visit. They have a great passion for the whole student-athlete experience here at Lawrence, and it’s in a great town here in Appleton. With a new president and his passion for athletics, I am excited about where the program is going and where the athletic department here is going.”
It clearly is an administration that wants to aid students in excelling in all areas, but changing this culture is something that most seasoned coaches would struggle to achieve. Coach McCarthy is in his first year as a head coach, making for an even greater challenge. At least that is how it may seem on the surface, however that is not reality at all.
Rob McCarthy is not some dreamer who entered the position with lofty goals and no real solution to make those dreams reality. He understood the task at hand, and has created a brilliant algorithm that would make the best computer programmers jealous.
His course began with a focus on recruiting. As the Lawrence Athletic Director pointed out, Coach McCarthy is an exceptional recruiter, who knows how to persuade high school students to put their trust in him. He would dispel that notion, however, making the central focus of his recruiting pitch the incredible education these students would receive at Lawrence University.
“We are definitely going to focus on who we are. We are going to promote the idea that we are one of the top academic institutions in the country and look for players that want that kind of experience. Here in Fox Valley there is a great history of football, and we are going to focus on working hard on recruiting here in this area as well as looking nationally.”
The Coach has had incredible success bringing in athletes from all over the country. In fact, over 90 percent of the freshman on this year’s team are from out of state, with players coming from as far away as Arizona and Florida. A pretty impressive feat to bring players from hot weather climates like these to attend a school that is covered in snow for six months out of the year.
Coach McCarthy has shown himself to be an excellent recruiter, but that is not because he has some magical set of words and phrases that causes players to gravitate toward him. In fact, his reason for success is quite simple. He got into coaching because he wanted to help young men grow and succeed, and this is why these young men want to play for him; because their success is paramount to him.
“To me I am just interested in having a positive impact in the lives of our student athletes. I had many coaches who greatly affected the man that I have become and I wanted to use coaching and teaching as a way to impact their lives.”
The Vikings Coach truly has a heart for his players and it is that genuineness that makes them work hard for him. He is also fully committed to his players and their success, and this is best exemplified by his actions when he got the job. He was now going to be coaching players that were recruited by the prior coach and this could have easily created friction, but he made sure that he and the current players were on the same page.
“I had a clear vision in where we are going, and I wanted to make sure that they knew who I was and what I was all about. I got to spend time knowing each and every one of them, and built off what they had established here, but I think it is just being genuine and letting them know that I do have their best interests at heart. That they know that we are going to rally together for a common cause and compete as one.”
That was step two in his algorithm for building a successful program. With a focus on recruiting and building relationships with current players, he also had the added responsibility of finding a coaching staff that could help him build the program while teaching the foundation he had in mind. He could not have been happier with his choices.
“It took some time at first, because I wanted to make sure that I made good choices. I used my network and talked with other coaches. I was looking for guys who had a great vision, who were great teachers, and I came up with a staff that is great. This is an incredible group of coaches.”
With that in place, then came the laying of that foundation. Coach McCarthy wanted his players to first and foremost be men of integrity who wanted to be better in all that they do. “I want them to be engaged as learners. I want them to continually improve in all areas. I want them to be active members of our football program. I want them to be active members of our community. I want them to focus on improving every day and that is part of what we talk about every day here.”
While looking to guide his team to become better players, students, and members of the community, he also came here to build a football program. He knows success is not coming overnight, but he is not just seeing this season as a throwaway one either. This year he is gauging the potential and abilities of his team so he can build for future campaigns.
“This year we just set goals of improving and getting better, and setting some tangible results. Next year we will have a baseline to go from and so we will set our goals from that.”
To build the Lawrence University Vikings into a competitive football team is going to take a coach with a lot of heart and perseverance. It is also going to take a man with a strategy that is as much about philosophy as it is about formulas and schematics. Coach Rob McCarthy is proving to be the perfect man for the job and, as a result, the team is on the pathway to a success that no one in this generation has seen. The Lawrence University football team’s ship of success has set sail. Viking fans, time to climb aboard.
By Robert Pannier