ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Saturday night, the Hamline University and Carleton College football teams will open conference play when they square off in a rare night game on the Pipers' home field in St. Paul. While there is already plenty on the line for two programs that aspire for improvement in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC), the game's storylines run much deeper.
Saturday's game marks the return of Hamline's winningest coach, Dick Tressel, who is now an assistant coach for the Knights. The game also marks the MIAC debut of new Hamline Head Coach Chad Rogosheske, who played for the Pipers and Tressel, and has built much of his career coaching under or alongside his former coach. One of Rogosheske's assistants is Tressel's son, Luke, which adds another significant branch to the coaching and family tree that will be on display at Klas Field Saturday night.
In yet another interesting twist, the 2013 season marks the 25th anniversary of the 1988 Hamline team that won a share of the MIAC championship. That's the last time the Pipers claimed a conference title in football, and that team will be honored at Saturday night's game. And who was the coach of that championship team? Dick Tressel. So to call Saturday's game a "reunion" is a massive understatement.
The Tressel name is familiar to any who follows college football. Jim Tressel - Dick's brother - rose to the height of the profession by leading Ohio State University to a national championship. Dick was on his brother's Buckeyes staff for 11 years - including the national title season - in-between his stints in the MIAC. Luke Tressel also coached at the Division I level at the nearby University of Minnesota from 2001-06, during some of the Golden Gophers most prosperous recent years. And Rogosheske was an Ohio State graduate assistant alongside Dick Tressel from 2007-09.
However, all three of their roads led back to the MIAC, where they'll converge on Saturday night.
"It's always fun with people you've worked with and people who you feel like you've been a part of their history to see them in action," Dick Tressel said about Saturday's reunion. "There won't be much, I would call it, 'individual competition,' out there. It's just going to be fun to be around and be involved and see what those guys are doing. Instead of having to hear about it, I'll get to see it and be a part of it."
With all that Big Ten and Division I experience between them, it's interesting to see the careers of both Tressels and Rogosheske converging Saturday night in a MIAC stadium. However, it's clear Division III and its philosophy are near and dear to the coaching trio, as they all truly believe in its tenets, and the way athletics are used to often times prepare student-athletes for something greater.
"I'm a Division III guy," Tressel said. "I think the experience the kids have in football is only a piece of the overall great experience. I think Division I is more of a business."
"Everybody's out here for the love of the game," added Tressel's son, Luke. "It's kind of cliché, but the kids are here because they love football and they want to represent their school. Sometimes [at the Division I level] the players feel like they're doing you a favor by playing. It's not like that at all at Hamline. They're here for the love of academics first, so it's a little different focus."
THE TRESSEL IMPACT AT HAMLINE
Tressel returns to Hamline, where he spent more than two decades and a coach and administrator, for the first time in 13 years. He was Hamline's head coach from 1978-2000, and he added the role of athletic director in 1979. During his tenure, the Pipers amassed a record of 124-102-2 and, in addition the 1988 title, Tressel guided the Pipers to a MIAC crown in 1984 as well.
Things have changed. For one, Hamline opened Klas Field after Tressel departed for Ohio State. And now he returns as a member of the Knights coaching staff, trying to rebuild a conference rival. However, he's excited for his return to the St. Paul campus, and hopes the Pipers will be glad to welcome him back, even as an opponent.
"It will be fun to be back and even though the venue has changed, the situation is the same," Tressel said. "It will be comforting. I'm not too caught up in the fact that I'm coaching against Hamline. When I was with Hamline I gave them everything I had; I hope they know that."
During his time at the school, Tressel's tutelage left quite an impression on Rogosheske, who played for the Pipers from 1994-97, and then spent two years as an assistant under Tressel. After a year at Wartburg, he returned to Hamline for four more seasons as an assistant before reuniting with Tressel in Columbus, Ohio. After two years as a Buckeyes' GA, Rogosheske served as Bucknell's offensive line coach for three seasons before being hired in the offseason to return to his alma mater as the head coach.
During those intersections with Tressel along the way, Rogosheske learned much. In fact, when it was time to start developing his own program after he took over the Pipers, he realized a lot of the things he was using were absorbed from his mentor.
Rogosheske said the most important things he learned from Tressel were, "The way he ran the program, his organization, how instilled a positive attitude, related to his players, made them feel important." All those added up to a similar philosophy of how to run a program.
"We had a coaches meeting at the beginning of the year, and I had written down what I felt were my expectations for my coaching staff," Rogosheske said. "In doing that, I pulled out his playbook, his expectations for his staff, and mine were virtually the same. You think you create this thing on your own, but you're really influenced by the people who you coach for and who coach you."
Tressel's impact on the current Pipers is imparted through his son, Luke, as well, who is the Hamline wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator. With Dick coaching receivers at Carleton, the two now have some extremely common ground, but Luke learned much more from his father along the way while observing him and later playing for him at Hamline.
"The first thing he always preached is a positive mental attitude," Luke Tressel said, echoing one of Rogosheske's takeaways. "Keep it positive and build on positives. I've always used that in my philosophy. I learned a lot from the way he deals with his players as men, not just as football players. His expectation is trying to build character."
HONORING THE PAST
Since Tressel left, Hamline hasn't seen much football success. Over the past three seasons, Hamline's record was 2-28, without a single victory in conference play. However, as Rogosheske works to restore his alma mater, he'll have tangible evidence of Piper pride on hand, as the school honors the 25th anniversary of its 1988 MIAC title. The first-year head coach said that example can hopefully go a long way in the confidence and inspiration departments.
"That's a good group of guys and they had a great experience at Hamline and are great supporters for the program," Rogosheske said of the returning alums. "I think any example that you can give them of success from a team standpoint or success from an individual standpoint is important to put in front of your current players.
"This is a Hamline team that had a lot of success, and you try to make your guys aware that it has been done and can be done here."
Dick Tressel remembers that team fondly, and is excited they'll be back together to celebrate the anniversary of their big accomplishment. His Carleton coaching responsibilities mean he won't be able to enjoy the festivities in the same fashion as his former players, but he's excited for the chance to reconnect with some of his old stars.
"I'm excited that they're being recognized in a fashion that they ought to be recognized," Tressel said. "That's Hamline's last piece of a championship in the MIAC. They're hard to come by so I think they ought to celebrate it.
"I hope to be able to say hi to some of those guys and I've kept in touch with some of them. Hopefully I'll be able to connect to some of them and stay in touch going forward."
Meanwhile, the other Tressel is excited for the reunion because Luke was getting his first taste of football at the time of their triumph - as the team's ball boy - and he looked up to many of the players. As a coach at Hamline, he shares Rogosheske's excitement at the opportunity to lift them up as an example for their current players.
"My dad always treated the football team as a family, and I loved being around that team," Luke said. "I was probably a 9-year old ball boy. Seeing the people I looked up to and respected and wanted to emulate is going to be fun. It's going to be great to have everyone back celebrating and reminiscing.
"It was 25 years ago, so it's fun to bring something back to Hamline that not many players on our team would have ever known about. It's great to bring a winning tradition back and let our players see you can be successful at Hamline. If we do the right things we can get back to that level. Just seeing that success is an option is great."
Like Hamline, Carleton has also fallen on hard times on the gridiron. The Knights nearly captured a conference title in 2008, finishing in a second-place tie with a 7-3 overall record and 5-3 conference mark. In the four years since then, Carleton went 5-27 in conference play and 11-29 overall.
However, in the first year under Rogosheske, and with Carleton opening its second season under new head coach Bob Pagel and a Tressel on each staff, there is optimism around both programs. Both are realistic that the road ahead is a long one to ever reach the current heights of MIAC foes St. Thomas (ranked No. 2) and Bethel (ranked No. 7), but in each case, the coaches like what they're seeing.
"I think things are moving in the right direction," Rogosheske said. "We've got a lot of work to do still, but we've done a lot of work already. There were 37 guys in the program when we got here. We had to build our numbers. We had to build the right mindset for the team, which includes being positive, working hard, having expectations and having them meet those expectations. There's a long way for us to go, but we're moving in the right direction."
"Our coaching staff is very pleased with what we're seeing, but we're realists," added Dick Tressel about the Knights program. "This isn't going to be easy. Just looking at the improvement in our quality of play and the quality of our players and the commitment of our kids, it's pretty easy for us to see the improvement. We're going to have to do some special things if we want to beat some of those really good teams, but I think we're starting to move that way."
The progress was evident on 2013's opening weekend, as, both teams started the season with home victories before taking a week off to prepare for the start of MIAC play, and Saturday night's big game. The Pipers started the Rogosheske era with a high-scoring 41-33 victory over UM-Morris and the Knights handed Grinnell a 29-10 defeat in Northfield.
It seems fitting that the two open the conference season going head-to-head. A year ago, the Knights edged the Pipers in Northfield, 21-14, in a great game that was also both squad's conference opener. Both teams expect another entertaining battle, and an excellent gauge of where each program stands. This time, that test will play out under the lights.
"I do think that it being a night game, because it's different, adds a little excitement," Dick Tressel said. "The game is critical for both teams. As you go into conference play, you look at rosters and pure personnel things, and this is your most even matchup probably for both teams on the physical side of things. Last year it was a close game right down to the bitter end and we'd expect that same sort of scenario to play out."
"We just want to go out there and compete and try to play a good game," Luke Tressel added. "Our expectations are to control what we can control. If we do that, we're excited about our opportunity. We just have to go out and execute and play hard. That's probably the same thing they're saying.
"It was a great game last year - I was at the game down at Carleton - and hopefully it's another great show."
Of course, the competition extends beyond the players to these coaches who are so familiar with one another. For the Tressels, meeting on opposing staffs will be nothing new. Dick's Ohio State team met Luke's Minnesota squad in Big Ten play during their Division I experiences. However, this will be Rogosheke's first time seeing his former coach on the other side, and it will be interesting for him to go against someone who so greatly shaped his career.
"It'll be different for me," Rogosheske said. "He's obviously a guy that I played for and that I coached with on many occasions, but this will be the first time that I've had a chance to go against him."
The Tressel men are excited to meet head-to-head again, but Luke said there's one member of the family who tries to remain neutral and isn't quite as fond of these matchups - his mother, Connie.
"It's fun, but I think it's really hard on my mom," Luke said with a laugh. "She's trying to find any way she can to be impartial. She even will take photos on the sidelines so she doesn't have to be up in the stands.
"As far as me and my dad, it's not much different than every other week. We're still in contact. I just hope I can even up my record to 1-1 because he got me in the last battle. Who knows how long he'll keep coaching, so I have to get my wins when I can."
But, regardless of which team wins Saturday night, it's exciting that a bond formed and strengthened at Hamline has found its way back to the MIAC. The coaching plights of Rogosheske and the Tressels prove that just because Division I is bigger, it isn't always better. College football still can be about more than scholarships and sponsorships and even wins. It can be about passion. It can be about integrity. It can be about the game. And it can be about developing for a future that doesn't include the NFL.
"I have a renewed enthusiasm for football in the world of education," Dick Tressel said. "It's fun to be working with guys that enjoy the heck out of football, but their education is really the big piece of the puzzle."