Michigan college football coach wins on and off the field
ALLENDALE, Mich., April 11 -- Matt Mitchell could breathe a sigh of relief as he closed out his maiden season as head coach of the Grand Valley State University football team. He survived taking over the job from popular head coach Chuck Martin, and he brought in an 11-2 record, and is now the most successful first-year coach in the history of GVSU.
He also led the team to its tenth straight playoff appearance and a sixth straight conference championship.
Mitchell started out with GVSU six years ago as the defensive coordinator under Martin, who left last year to join the staff at Notre Dame. After taking his defense to a top 10 ranking nationally, he said he'll continue to run the defensive strategy for at least the next year or two.
And he plans to keep things consistent for the forseeable future.
“I’m a big believer that your system on both sides of the ball has to fit (the) personnel we have recruited. It makes sense to keep some continuity." Mitchell said.
Athletic Director Tim Selgo, who appointed Mitchell to the head job, said he isn't looking for big changes.
“He did an excellent job,” Selgo said. “Beginning last winter, we had a very good recruiting year, which is unusual in a transition year. He immediately established himself as the leader of our program.”
Sophomore Alex Walker, who attended most of the home games, agrees.
“It has got to be hard to replace a coach like (Martin) and have such a good year,” he said.
Looking for off-the-field success
Mitchell said he does have a few more goals for the program, many of them off the field. A big one: Have all his players participate in community service, helping them grow not just as athletes, but also as young adults.
“I think a lot of times with our guys, they are very myopic, they look at things that are six inches in front of their face,” Mitchell said. “All they are concerned about are the next few hours of their lives.”
For their local community service, players are expected to work on local elementary school reading programs or summer football camps.
“What we are trying to do is send a message and we are trying to get the guys to appreciate that by living their lives a certain way with some discipline and care for others, they are going to have a much more rewarding life when they get out of here,” Mitchell said.
The team has taken its service mission national. Six years ago, the team traveled to Kiln, Miss., to help with hurricane Katrina relief efforts. Since then, the team has made a similar trip each year. In 2010, players went to Dorr, Mich., to help out at a youth camp for disadvantaged children. They roofed buildings, dug out a new volleyball court and performed other manual labor.
“I think heading in it is like pulling teeth,” Mitchell said. “But on the back end they feel pretty good about it. That’s why doing community service, it’s good for the people we're doing it for, but we’ve got a lot of positive reactions out of our players. If they go help someone that's not in as good of a situation, I think that gives them perspective.”
Coaching: Not just a profession, but a "lifestyle"
Preparing to watch game film and sporting a pair of blue sweat pants with a matching blue GVSU jacket, Mitchell looks as if he was has always been a football coach, as if he could only be a football coach.
But he didn't start out that way. It took a few wrong turns before he found the road to coaching. The turning point: A summer job in college. Mitchell grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and attended Cornell College, while working for Rapids Wholesale, a bar and restaurant supply manufacturing plant.
"It was the longest three months of my life,” Mitchell said. “It was miserable. For one summer all I was doing was putting together Kegerators. I pretty much vowed after that job that I was not going to get in a line of work that was repetitive."
It was that experience that prompted him to pursue coaching and, as he put it, find a lifestyle he enjoys.
“Life is too short not to be doing something that you enjoy doing. My kids are too young to understand this - at some point they will - this is not a job,” Mitchell said. “This is not something you come in and punch the clock. It’s my lifestyle, it’s my profession.”