Welcome to the latest edition of the world-famous Fury Files, where we chat with writers, athletes, former newspaper reporters, current media critics and others who respond positively to my requests for their time. The entire collection will be available in book form just in time for Christmas (not really). Check out previous versions with Tom Linnemann, John Millea, David Brauer and Joe Posnanski.
This week’s guest is quite unique: He doesn’t sleep. At least that’s what I suspect, and it’s really the only explanation for how he does what he does.
Pat Coleman is the Executive Editor of D3sports.com, but that title doesn’t do him justice. He’s a passionate champion of Division III athletics, an outstanding writer who shines some light on a corner of the sports world usually ignored by major media outlets, a go-to analyst for playoff questions or hard-news items about schools that are dropping programs, and the leader of a team that now includes d3football.com, d3hoops.com, d3soccer.com, d3baseball.com and, most recently, d3hockey.com.
Coleman and the D3football.com crew also produce the annual Kickoff, an online publication that previews every D3 team in the country – all 239 of them. It analyzes the conferences, ranks the teams and profiles the players.
During the fall, the D3Sports sites get more than a million visits a month. Many of the people who come to the site also interact on the sites’ message boards. Remarkably – and thanks to the efforts of Coleman (who has a mere 28,000-plus posts on the boards) and the others who work for the sites – the message boards are unlike most Internet forums. The well-moderated boards remain free of mindless insults, racist comments and cruelty. People gather to talk Division III sports, beer and tailgating, and in doing so often end up meeting people who become great friends, even if they’re from hated rivals. A certain poster with a name similar to mine spends some time there chatting about St. John’s and its inevitable victory in the 2012 Stagg Bowl.
Coleman started on this odyssey when he took over the site that became D3hoops.com in 1997 and created D3football.com in 1999. Fans of Division III sports have plenty of memories of being unable to ever find scores on their favorite teams, forced to scour the Sunday newspaper’s agate section results. Division III is filled with small schools. But Coleman’s work means the teams and players receive big-time coverage.
And he basically does all this as a volunteer - while working media jobs in the real world. Again: Does he sleep? Coleman grew up in Minnesota but graduated from Catholic University in Washington, D.C. in 1994. He has worked at USA Today, USA Today Baseball Weekly, USA Today Sports Weekly, nbcsports.com and Verizon Headlines. After spending years on the East Coast, Coleman is back in Minnesota, where he lives with his wife, Cate, and three kids.
With the D3 football pairings being announced this weekend, it’s a perfect time to chat with Coleman. Here, Pat talks about the Mount Union-Whitewater rivalry, how he ended up at Catholic, how to improve the D3 playoffs, the 1936 Orange Bowl, the best game he’s ever seen and a lot more. Thanks a lot for your time, Pat.
Let’s start by talking purple. Wisconsin-Whitewater and Mount Union have both survived scares in recent weeks but still appear to be on a collision course for a remarkable seventh straight meeting in the Stagg Bowl. A few questions on the rivalry:
How surprised were you by Whitewater’s emergence as Mount Union Part 2? Especially since historically the WIAC was such a balanced conference that seemingly produced a new champion each year. Plus, between 1997 and 2004, nine different schools made it to the Stagg Bowl. Since 2005 – two. And when did you think Whitewater was going to turn into this power? The 2005 appearance was a bit of a surprise since they had to knock off Linfield, so did you realize even that first year this could turn into the country’s next great power, or did it take a few years to realize that we actually had the second-coming of Mount Union?
I can’t decide whether it was when they got to the Stagg Bowl with a second quarterback (2007), or when they did it without Justin Beaver (2008), but both of those were seminal moments. I thought Justin Jacobs, the quarterback in the first two Stagg Bowls, had looked good in regular season games and earlier playoff games I had seen him in but Mount Union made him look pedestrian. That third year, with Danny Jones at quarterback after transferring from Cal Lutheran, I didn’t really know what to expect, but it wasn’t an issue because that was basically Justin Beaver’s team on offense. Then in 2008, Beaver was gone and the Warhawks still made the title game. Also, remember 2007 was the Warhawks’ first season with Lance Leipold as head coach and a new offensive coordinator as well. There’s plenty of reason to point to those years.
I think it’s fair to say I was surprised, yes. It had seemed like perhaps Linfield would be that team, but it turned out that was Brett Elliott at quarterback more than anything else. But we’d been telling people that rather than kick Mount out of Division III, one of the 200-plus schools needed to step up and get it done. It being a team from the best conference in Division III wasn’t a surprise, necessarily, except that it seemed like that might be UW-La Crosse, based on previous results.
Which team has the best chance of ending the Whitewater-Mount Union monopoly this season and why? And if you say St. Thomas, I suppose I’ll be all right with that.
St. Thomas is definitely on the list, but I think North Central might be a better bet. They’re certainly clicking this season and I think last year’s experience against UW-Whitewater in the quarterfinals gives them an idea of what it takes to succeed at that level. St. Thomas hasn’t really seen that yet, but then again, St. Thomas has a little more offensive diversity. I don’t think I can rule out Wesley either, although if Kean can block two punts and set up easy scores then certainly a Purple Power could do so as well.
Have you had any sense – perhaps just anecdotal – that the dominance of those two schools has at all lessened the enthusiasm for D3 football with the other fan bases? And as someone who is such a go-to person for national outlets when the Stagg Bowl approaches, has this six-year streak altered the perception of D3 football for those who do only follow it during the playoffs or even just during the title game?
There’s definitely anecdotal evidence, anyway, and there’s a lot of griping, especially in December. But there has been a lot of griping for as long as I’ve been following Division III football. Now it’s just aimed at UW-Whitewater and Mount Union instead of solely at Mount Union.
I don’t think the national media has necessarily followed suit, however. It’s led to some nice ready-made storylines for them over the past couple of years. I’d rather take a pre-packaged, not-overly-thought-out story about these two teams meeting for whatever year in a row than a Terry Pluto hatchet job on Rowan and K.C. Keeler or the like.
But the complaint from fans used to be, “make Mount Union move to Division II,” without any understanding of what that means. This isn’t European soccer. Schools choose what division they are going to be in and football can’t simply move up a division without the entire athletic department following suit. And someone finally stepped up and challenged Mount Union, so now we need a third and a fourth program to do so as well.
You attended Catholic but write on your D3 bio that you also applied to St. John’s, Macalester and Oberlin. As a Minnesota native, SJU and Macalester make sense. How did you even know about Oberlin, and what ultimately led you to Catholic? And, this is what-if speculation and that can be fairly pointless, but do you ever wonder what your career path might have been like if you had gone to SJU, Mac or Oberlin? Seems like you wouldn’t have had the opportunities that helped you land at USA Today Baseball Weekly and USA Today, even though it seems like with your passion, there would have eventually been a D3sports.com, no matter where you went to school. Does that sound accurate?
Yes, not those opportunities or the chance to meet my future wife. Just saying. I was a music major coming out of college and therefore Oberlin was a big draw because of the quality of the music school. This was the early ’90s, so everything came by mail. How Oberlin floated to the top of the pile, I’m not quite sure. But at some point, it was my first choice. I just wanted to get away from home. There was no way I was going to go to Macalester — that was forced on me. I enjoyed the thought of St. John’s until I visited and until I got my financial aid offer. John Gagliardi asked me about that once a few years ago and when I told him I only got $2,000 in aid, he shook his head and said he wasn’t surprised. I got a full academic scholarship to Catholic and the thought of returning to my roots (born in Bethesda, Md.) and attending college in a great city like Washington was just icing on the cake.
So, I figure that no matter where I went, I probably would have started on the same road, music education major, finding education itself to not be a good fit. I only had two good choices after that and I ended up majoring in Spanish with thoughts of going into the foreign service, definitely thoughts which were inspired by Washington, D.C. And the journalism bug caught me my junior year. So that was it. It was all downhill from there.
I could be directing a high school choir somewhere or teaching Spanish or in the foreign service or perhaps still at USA Today. At any of those schools I would have caught the Division III bug, at least a little bit. But it might have taken the combination of reasonably successful programs in a media market that couldn’t care less to really fuel my drive to cover the programs myself. So, thank the Washington Post, I guess. There might not have been a D3sports.com without their lack of interest in local small-college sports. Or if there were one, it would have been run by someone else.
On a related note, what eventually led you back to Minnesota? Had you always planned on coming back or was it just a matter of career, family, right timing? And speaking of your career, has your work with D3Sports ever influenced a decision you’ve made in regards to your “real world” jobs? In other words, do you take into account how much time you’ll be able to devote to the sites when considering the jobs that actually pay the bills?
Family. At some point, about a decade ago, I started thinking seriously about returning, trying to find a job at one of the Twin Cities newspapers, without a lot of success. Then in the span of about a year, my brother got married, graduated from law school and had a baby and I was thinking, “crap, I’m missing everything.”
As for jobs, that’s a great question because right now I am struggling with that very fact. The news team at Verizon was downsized in September and I have not been doing a very good job looking for a new job. This is the busiest time of the year for D3sports.com and we have enough set aside at home for me to do this “full time” for a month or so, but it’s time to get cracking and it is very difficult. Right now I am literally doing D3sports.com sites about 60 hours a week. I would have to scale back what we are offering and get some help from other people on the team. There’s enough work and enough interest to do this full time, but not enough revenue.
The problem is, I love doing it so much that I can’t tear myself away from it.
When you graduated from Catholic, you worked as the school’s SID before eventually transitioning into media, with USA Today Baseball Weekly, and you’ve continued on the media side ever since. In college, was that always the plan? Or did you originally plan on working as an SID longer? It seems more people make the move in the opposite direction – going from a newspaper or broadcasting into SID work. What led you to go the opposite way?
I can’t say I had a plan, necessarily. I was enjoying working as a part-time agate guy at Baseball Weekly right after graduation, with hopes of being hired full-time, but that was 1994 and baseball fans remember what happened there. I was lucky enough to land on my feet a couple weeks later when the SID left. I had been working in the office part time and stepped in for about six months until the work stoppage ended and I could get back in at Baseball Weekly. BW was just too fun to stay away from, it paid slightly better than an SID job and it almost never asked me to work more than 40 hours a week. I learned so much about journalism from those people, not to mention baseball. That place gave me a chance to write, edit, lay out pages, then let me deal with the website team when that technology rolled around.
I had the opportunity to go back into sports information a couple years later and was offered the SID job at Beloit but couldn’t go back. Now, by that time, the events that spawned D3sports.com were already set in motion, at least, but I was more secure as a journalist and wasn’t ready to uproot and move.
Even with the playoff system, there are still worthy teams left out. Over the years, which snub was the most surprising to you, and if you want to keep the time frame to when the NCAA expanded the playoffs from 16, that’s okay. Otherwise, I believe the nationwide consensus is that SJU’s failure to make it in 1992 and 1995 would be the most egregious examples of wronged teams. Maybe.
I think it really came to a head in 1998 when there were five undefeated teams in the South alone. I’m not sure if one incredible snub stands out in football since the expansion because in the end, the champions in Division III football are often head and shoulders above everyone else, including the bubble teams, who are often in the high teens to low 20′s in the rankings. But for several years before 1999, Division III was wrestling with how to expand the postseason without expanding the tournament itself beyond four weeks. Thankfully, none of the options they floated was put into play (regional bowl games, an eight-team NIT-style bracket, three regional championships and no national championship).
The best part about the 1998-99 offseason was that they expanded the playoffs twice. It was originally slated to move from 16 to 24 teams but got expanded again to 28 before we ever played a game. It was a recognition of how hard Division III football had been getting screwed. That’s too late to help Emory & Henry 1998, St. John’s 1995, Lakeland 1997 and the like. By the way, 8-1-1? Those other teams were 10-0. The 16-team bracket was just ridiculous. And I wasn’t upset to see ties go away either.
The good thing is that the process is so much less political now than it was before expansion. It’s much more open and transparent.
Speaking of the playoffs, if you could change one thing about either the selection process or the scheduling of the playoffs, what would it be, while still adhering to realism and the NCAA’s goals? Actually, if you could change…oh, three things, what would they be?
I’d love to see some variance allowed in game times, have some games start at noon and some at 1 p.m. local. The first Saturday of the playoffs is the most intense day we have, with about a 45-minute span in which tight games are coming down to the wire, etc. Let’s spread that out so those games can get more individual notice and attention. It’s Division III football’s best product — the 32-team football bracket is something nobody else in the NCAA has. Let’s showcase it more.
Fairness in bracketing has to be on this list. I don’t think it’s unrealistic to pair up teams the way they are supposed to be, even if that involves an extra flight in the first round. If I’m an athletic director in the Northwest Conference or the American Southwest Conference, I have to ask myself, “why did we move to Division III in the first place?” These teams get no favors from the NCAA whatsoever in bracketing, and, to be honest, do not have the same experience in the postseason that everyone else gets.
And how about occasionally considering that a two-loss team might be better than a one-loss team? The decisions are made so much in terms of win-loss record, rather than strength of teams. How are we ever talking about one-loss teams in the NEFC contending for at-large bids? And along with that, I’d like to see some more accountability from the committee as to how decisions are made and why some teams get in and others don’t.
Was that four things? (Yes, but that’s okay.)
D3 football fans have a bit of a love-hate relationship with ESPN. Love that the network airs the title game, hate that the announcers can appear unprepared and are always going to be unfamiliar with the teams and players. Aside from hiring you and Keith to announce the game for them, what could ESPN improve on to make the Stagg Bowl a better production?
You hit on the one major point, a lack of Division III knowledge on the broadcast. I don’t delude myself enough to believe I’m good enough to call the game on ESPN but there’s obviously some knowledge that they could use. They’ve done a little better over the past couple of years, replacing Pam Ward, whose disdain for the game is apparent from a lack of in-person presence in Salem at practices when she’s on the call. Clay Matvick has done play-by-play for the past couple of Stagg Bowls and he does his homework. He has come to the other events surrounding the game and he’s picked our brains (Keith’s and mine) and when I come home and watch the game on my DVR, I feel like the product is a good one.
What I don’t like is that their coverage of the game is limited to solely what happens from kickoff to the first made-for-TV trophy presentation. At halftime, the studio talks about anything but the game and the pregame and postgame is practically non-existent. (Recently the postgame news conferences have been on ESPNews, which is a good step forward.)
I’m not sure prime time on ESPNU is better than 3 p.m. Saturday on ESPN2, but anything is better than 11 a.m. ET for a championship game.
The move of the selection show from ESPNews to NCAA.com is not really a positive either. Admittedly, we had some years where we got six or seven minutes, but we also had a half-hour once with highlights, and a rehearsal, etc. There were some good shows and they had good people producing them. I hate to see that go away and end up in the hands of people who have no Division III football expertise and don’t know the teams and players.
Back to Mount Union. While Whitewater has won three of the past four titles, Mount Union’s incredible dominance since its emergence as a national power in the early ’90s remains mind-boggling. Is there a Mount Union stat that you particularly enjoy? The list is seemingly endless: Larry Kehres’ winning percentage, the two epic winning streaks, losing one game by more than 12 points since 1992 (yes, another SJU plug), 108 straight wins since ’96 when winning turnover battle (as of last December), have lost two games in a season once since 1990 and on and on. Anything in particular that especially stands out?
For me, it’s pretty simple. One thing says it all — Larry Kehres, 26th season as a head coach, 23 losses. It’s maybe a little basic, but that’s the beauty of it. They win games. The .925 winning percentage is so high it’s not really easy to put into perspective. Less than one loss per season on average, however — that gets the point across.
Some Catholic University football trivia, but no Google and no old media guides, which you probably have scattered around your home.
1. What year did Catholic play in the Orange Bowl and what was the score?
This is easy because it’s the pinnacle of Catholic U. football — 20-19 in 1936. I look back at that 1935 season and it’s just amazing how football has changed, but for a few years there, CU was trying to be big-time. They drew well, played their home games in a relatively large bowled stadium on campus that sat about 10,000. The remnants of that stadium were there when I got to campus as a freshman, used as a parking lot. The bleachers were still there. Would have been a great spot for a stadium but the law school brings in more money (and is certainly a higher priority at CUA these days). I do still have some media guides, especially the ones I wrote or had a hand in designing. (Fury: He’s obviously right. Catholic defeated Ole Miss.)
2. In 1984, which Catholic player set a then-Division III record for most interceptions in a season and how many did he have?
Oh, shoot, I know it was 13 and I have seen the name a thousand times. Guy’s last name was McMahon, which I remember because he wasn’t the most famous McMahon to attend Catholic (Heeeeeeere’s Johnny!). (Fury: Pat gets a half-point. Chris McMahon was the answer.)
3. In what year was a Catholic-Brooklyn game touted as ABC’s Division III game of the week?
This I have no idea about. ABC aired a bunch of these games regionally in the late ’70s and Catholic only returned from club to varsity status in 1977 so I would guess it’s in those first couple of years. That’s one of the great unknown stories in Division III, frankly — there was some great regional network coverage in the ’70s and again in the ’80s when the NFL went on strike. I am sure we have only scratched the surface of what’s out there. I would love to watch any of those games. (Fury: Again, close. 1978)
Earlier this year D3football.com released its all-decade team for the 2000s. But if you had to pick just one guy from that team to build a team around, who do you take and why?
Nate Kmic. I’d get a guy who could handle 40 carries a game, has good field vision and breakaway speed. He ran for 8,000 yards in his career but it could have been more. He didn’t start during the regular season his freshman year and Larry Kehres is good about not running up the score, so it could have been 9,000 or 9,500 yards in his career. I mentioned this question to Keith when we recorded our weekly podcast and he wasn’t convinced but I like the thought of college football’s all-time leading rusher being a guy you can build a team around.
You and Keith McMillan take part in a one-on-one challenge to determine which one of you is the most knowledgeable D3 football expert in the land. ESPN airs this challenge before the Stagg Bowl, with the Schwab as host. The mythical trivia contest forces you to answer questions about past champions – national and conference – and career record holders. It also focuses on the present day: The fastest to name every D3 team; who can name the most coaches; the most starting QBs, etc.
Hah, interesting thought. I feel like I would probably win the teams portion. Keith might have an upper hand on coaches, since he talks to more of them on a regular basis than I do. But then again, I have to manage most of that information on the site by myself. Problem is, I also have a lot of basketball coaches rattling around in my head as well.
I would like to think I’d win that. If it makes Keith feel better, we can say it’s because I’ve been in the studio a few times and wouldn’t be thrown off by the surroundings. When does my two-minute drill begin?
Even though you knew the D3 audience was a bit underserved when you took over the hoops site and created the football one, were you at all surprised by how much passion there was among the fans of Division III or how the sites seem to be gaining in popularity as you guys add new features and even new sports?
I was absolutely surprised. I figured I’d be doing the old Division III Basketball Online site for a couple hours a night, two to three nights a week and everyone would be happy. But I quickly found out there were a lot of SIDs willing to send us information and a bunch of people clamoring to read about it. It grew into five nights a week, then seven, and a football site, then later a baseball site, soccer and just recently, hockey. I wish we could continue to grow like we did in those early years, but now we’ve reached basically all of the fan bases that have a reason to have national interest in Division III year-round. Traffic has been pretty level over the past few years, and as team websites have grown and changed from in-house designs to being designed and hosted by outside firms, we no longer are linked to from many schools. That’s hurt us and I would like to go through each school’s site and do a more personal appeal to those who don’t link to us anymore, or who have buried links … if I only had the time.
The thing that surprises me the most is that there are schools who won’t post scores or stories or box scores on our site. D3sports.com sites get over 1 million visits a month during the fall and around 750,000 a month in the winter and spring. Athletic department sites can’t hold a candle to that and a lot of Division III schools themselves don’t draw that much traffic to the school’s overall home page. It’s a quick and easy process.
How are you guys able to maintain the sort of unwritten rule – or is it written? – that current players shouldn’t post on the D3 message boards? If a player signed up with their school email, would you ask them not to register? And if you think an anonymous poster is a player, do you guys take any steps to discourage them or does the community itself apply enough peer pressure?
Actually, it’s not our rule and I don’t really feel any pressure to make it one. Most coaches, if not all, have this rule for their programs, though, and it certainly makes sense. The best part is the community does all of the work, but occasionally I will notice a name registering that rings a bell. Often that person will get an email from me saying that while we don’t have a rule against players posting, your coach might.
Your sites are now filled with written features, videos, and live broadcasts. You’re all over social networks with Twitter and Facebook. Is there one particular area you’d like to expand or enhance in the coming years?
Well, I don’t think we do enough broadcasting, and that’s a matter of the technology outpacing us as well as schools doing their own broadcasts. Our numbers show there is an audience for D3sports.com doing its own broadcast even if there is another broadcast crew on-site. Most of us have a ton of broadcasting experience, and I definitely enjoy being behind the mic. D3football.com needs to have a weekly show the way we have Hoopsville on D3hoops.com, and it’s a matter of finding an evening that we consistently have free in order to do so. Dave McHugh does a ton of work creating Hoopsville each week, and at the moment we don’t have that kind of time.
I like every feature we are doing right now. I’d hate to get rid of something, and I’m at capacity already. What we need is a business guru. We have a lot of news experience on staff but we need to find a way to make it work from a revenue standpoint.
You guys write a lot of original stories on the website. Are there two or three pieces that really stand out to you that d3football.com has done over the years, whether it was an inspiring feature, a great column or a hard-news item?
Keith McMillan and I travel fairly regularly. It’s hard to cover Division III from our desks and there are 240 or so schools to cover. We often try to hit two games in one trip if we travel, but we also try to hit big rivalry games, or games that draw big crowds, that sort of thing. Keith went up to Rochester, N.Y., a couple of years ago for the Courage Bowl, a game between St. John Fisher and the University of Rochester which benefits a local foundation that helps children with cancer.
One of my favorite moments since I moved back here was stumbling on a great story at the Carleton-St. Olaf game. I had no idea about the postgame tradition in that rivalry, where the winning team walks down to the town square in Northfield, Minn., and turns an eagle on top of the town’s war memorial to face the campus of the winning team. The day I was there, Carleton won for the first time in 12 meetings and the Knights took The Walk.
And we have had some great work out of our regional columnists as well. Ryan Tipps has been writing for us for a long time and knows his beat really well. Last year he was the first of us to pick up on a cause that a lot of Division III football coaches support, the Lauren’s First and Goal Foundation, which supports pediatric brain cancer research.
What’s the best D3 football game you’ve ever seen, whether it was during your time as a student, an SID or since you became the D3 Sports guru?
I think it has to be the Rowan/Mount Union national semifinal in 1999. This probably sticks out in my mind because it was the first big Division III moment game I was present for since starting D3football.com.
It had some great subplots to it, being my first trip to Alliance, Ohio; the end of a long Mount Union winning streak; etc. The game was played in the wake of the Terry Pluto column I mentioned earlier, from that morning’s Akron Beacon Journal. Everyone I talked to that day, it seemed, was talking about that piece, from both Rowan and Mount Union fan bases, and Pluto ended up a guest on Rowan’s radio station at halftime, getting grilled. He had, not surprisingly, held up Mount Union as the paragon of all that is right about Division III while trashing Rowan for having a lot of transfers, including a couple of Division I bouncebacks. The Rowan broadcasters pointed out that Rowan University (Pluto had called it Rowan College) as a whole has a lot of transfer students, at a higher rate than the football team did, in fact. Pluto was talking about “the spirit of Division III” and the radio broadcasters asked him who was defining said spirit. Pluto said, “I am.” One of them answered incredulously, “You’re defining the spirit of Division III?”
Short story long here, I know. The game ends up going into overtime and Rowan wins 24-17 when it knocks away a pass in the end zone, ending Mount Union’s record streak and putting the Profs back in the Stagg Bowl for the fifth time in seven seasons. And the experience ended more than two hours after the game, with me and Ed Barmakian of the Newark Star-Ledger, him typing away and me still struggling to process what I had seen. That and a six-hour drive home on a late December night.
Other games on that list would have to include Stagg Bowl XXIX, the prime time sellout between Mount Union and Bridgewater, as well as the “409 game” between Bethel and St. John’s in which coach John Gagliardi passed Eddie Robinson’s all-time collegiate football wins record. I got two good bylines in USA Today off of that 2003 Johnnie team, because I flew to Minnesota for that game and then wrote a second-day gamer out of the Johnnies’ Stagg Bowl win.
Aside from football, I would say my favorite game was a night that Catholic U. upset Rowan, the No. 1 team and that year’s eventual national champion, in men’s basketball, as well as the 2001 D-III national semifinals, when Catholic rallied to beat Ohio Northern. Catholic won the national title the next day but that was against a familiar opponent, one I was confident Catholic could compete with. The semifinal game was much more unexpected. I practically hyperventilated during a second-half timeout, broadcasting the game on the radio.
Meanwhile, if there’s a Game 7, well, when was the last time there was a Game 7 in football? I believe never. At least if we don’t get some variety in Salem this time around, we’ll have a storyline for the ages.