#BakerBuilt: NAIA Football & the Lingering Impact of Small College Sports

I shared most of this story in a Tweetstorm on Sunday, but wanted to share it here too, and extend it into paragraphs. My alma mater, Baker University, is playing in the semi-finals of the NAIA Football Playoffs on Saturday. Baker is a small, United Methodist affiliate, liberal arts college that enrolls roughly 1,000 undergraduate students in Baldwin City, KS. This season its football team is 13-0 and has a fun high-powered offense. ESPN3 has streamed several of their games, and including their recent playoff match ups.

Their opponent this weekend is Eastern Oregon University (EOU). I have a slight connection to EOU. Dick Davies‘, my advisor at Nevada, son was their president from 2009 to 2014 (He’s now the president of Murray State, and I got the chance to meet him in 2015). During my two years at Nevada, Dick and I talked about NAIA football regularly. I remember he went to a few games up at EOU and had me guest-lecture in his classes, which were among the first college lectures I ever gave.

Beyond that connection though, after I was admitted to the University of Nevada in April 2009, Davies sent me a personal email welcoming me. In that message he recounted the story of his one interaction with Baker University. It was in October 2005 and the football team traveled to Ashland, OR to play Southern Oregon University. Dick and his wife were spending the Halloween weekend there. They happened to be staying at the same Holiday Inn as the Baker team, and he wrote “I recall how much my wife and I were impressed by their behavior and courteousness. Had a brief chat with the coach and was impressed by his attitude on what college football at that level was all about. I had intended to send a note to the Univ president to that effect and regret that I did not follow through.” It was his one interaction with the team, and probably the only time he had ever heard of Baker University, but it was a good one. I doubt it had anything to do with my admission to the university or his agreeing to work with me, but the positive impression from meeting Coach Grossner and the team in 2005 certainly didn’t hurt. Seeing that I was a graduate of Baker, he connected it to his positive memory. It helped us forge a personal connection early on.

As Baker prepares to play Eastern Oregon in the semi-finals of the NAIA football playoffs, I’m reminded of this story. Of the impression Baker made on Davies. On the ways that football success — at any level — can help boost the image of a university. Of how small personal interactions matter, and can pay it forward for others. I undoubtedly benefited from the Baker football team’s friendliness.

Academics love to ask you where you went to school. Many are aware of random small liberals arts colleges throughout the country, but it’s still rare when they know about Baker. Dick knowing about Baker, put me at ease when as a brand new master’s students 1,500 miles from home. That’s few people know about Baker is not a knock on the school, but a reflection on the lay of the land. The NAIA has done a good job of streaming their games. Maybe people will watch them randomly on ESPN3. Or maybe they will interact with a former Baker athlete, see one of its history majors at the Missouri Valley History Confernece in Omaha (which has become a regular event for them). Whenever they watch or meet a Baker alum, I hope their interactions go like Dick Davies’ did, and I hope they help pay it forward. Small schools are wonderful places, and I hope more people get to know them.

There is some irony in my writing about Baker football and its impact on me. Before this story, I didn’t really care much for football at Baker. I ran cross country and track. They got all of the attention. And because Baker is the second-winningest program in the NAIA, they always had high expectations that they seemed to meet. And then, on the personal level, sometimes they got in our way when we were running on the track (during our season). I had a few football player teammates (including the current head track coach), and I really liked them, but overall I was lukewarm at best on the football program. I doubt that I’m the only xc/track kid that felt that way, That’s just how it seemed to go. Yet, now as alum, I love following the football team. I like seeing when the do well. I take pride in their wins. I feel the same way about volleyball and soccer, and so on. Cross Country is still my top, but I’ve learned and seen how much sports at small colleges matter. I’m lucky they take the role of sports and education seriously. It hard for me not to be speak effusively about my time there, and how it has prepared me for my current career. I’m lucky I got to compete and briefly coach at Baker. And I’m proud of its success. It’s helped me, and I know its helped others.

I know football success will never put Baker on the map. I spent a lot of time studying Baker’s rich sports history, and have seen how its remarkable successes haven’t elevated the school’s reputation. But can claim Emil Liston, Phog Allen, Edward Gallagher, Karl Schlademan, and Charlie Richard, as having coached on its athletic fields. Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy played there too. The school has immense pride in these figures, which I think is sometimes misplaced. It’s not about the iconic coaches or the win, it is about the people who they’ve mentored. There are hundreds of alums like me, who benefited from the athletic programs and only a handful of iconic coaches. Sure, there would be more if we cared about small time colleges in this country, but the fact that we don’t, in some ways, allows them to do better work without the pressures to win. That being said, I really hope they win Saturday and continue their march towards the national championship.

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