Friday, November 14, 2014

The Building of a Football Power at… MIT?

MIT running back Justin Wallace. Photo by David Silverman.
By Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

Ed. Note- Pardon me as dig back into my personal archives. While a graduate student at Boston University I did some side work as a play-by-play announcer for the MIT Engineer football team. I used that access to write my final piece in SB Nation NBA guru Paul Flannery's class about MIT's brave new vision for building a Division III football power.

Well, that vision finally became a reality last Saturday as MIT defeated Maine Maritime to capture its first ever New England Football Conference championship, as well as the first playoff berth in school history.

Here is my original story (which earned me an A-, if I'm not mistaken), and I think it offers some unique insight into how this season's undefeated MIT squad came to be. In the piece I focus on a serious freshman named Justin Wallace, who this past weekend set the school record for rushing yards and remains the driving force behind the Engineers' amazing turnaround.

Clearly, coach Chad Martinovich's recruiting strategy is working quite well.

MIT still has one more regular season game, this Saturday against U.S. Coast Guard Academy, before the Engineers make history in the first round of the NCAA tournament the following weekend.

It’s All Relative for MIT Football

By Joe Parello

Thanks to harsh conditions brought on by a late October snowstorm, Steinbrenner stadium, home of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Engineers, was hammered with a mix of snow, sleet and freezing rain so thick that you couldn’t see their opponents from Nichols College on the opposite sideline. The Engineers rode the future of their program, freshman running back Justin Wallace, for 41 carries, resulting in 190 yards and three touchdowns in a 23-0 victory, their only conference win of the year. The effort earned Wallace New England Football Conference (NEFC) Freshman of the Week honors.

Unfortunately for Wallace, few outside of an elderly couple huddled under an umbrella and a man in a trench coat wandering the bleachers aimlessly witnessed his effort. This is the present state of the MIT football program, one that generates little buzz from the campus and local community, while struggling to win games. It is a climate created by a past of laissez faire team construction and an acceptance of constant failure as the status quo. As you might expect, performance in the classroom is far more important at one of the nation’s most academically demanding and innovative institutions.

With Wallace, though, the future is now for MIT football. He is just the type of player recently hired coach Chad Martinovich wants to build his new program around. A six-foot, 210 lb. running back from northwest of Chicago, Wallace garnered Division I interest after rushing for over 1,500 yards as a  high school senior. Yale and Cornell, both Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) Ivy League schools, offered Wallace, and the Big Ten’s Northwestern came calling late in the process to make him a “preferred walk-on,” with the chance to earn a scholarship as a sophomore.

The seemingly always-serious Wallace is proud, but shows little joy in his accomplishments. He downplays his conference accolades, and makes light of his Herculean effort against Nichols.

“I didn’t feel too sore, because I was cold.”

With the program recruiting for the first time ever, Martinovich hopes MIT can push past its current state to become a consistent winner. But, as any MIT student will tell you, the past, present and future are all related. According to Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, your perception of time is dependent on your position, speed and direction. Similarly, one’s perception of the state of MIT’s football program is dependent on where they are looking on the team’s 63 man roster because, like a photon moving at the speed of light, MIT is experiencing its past, present and future simultaneously.

Peter Gilliland is one of only eight seniors on the MIT roster and, as such, is one of the few holdovers from the last age of MIT football. The program began in 1977 as a club team under coach Dwight Smith. Just over a decade later in 1988, the team made the leap to NCAA Division III football. Accompanying the move was an increase in competition, but Smith never changed the way he ran his program. Fast forward to 2009 with the hiring of Martinovich, a football lifer with a background coaching both sides of the ball and recruiting New England.

“Unfortunately, (Smith) never changed his methodology,” Martinovich said. “He still treated it as if this were a club team. He never recruited, never reached out to the alums. When I got here, it was essentially a team full of walk-ons.”

Smith’s teams revolved around players like Gilliland, a student that had always dreamed of studying at MIT and also happened to play football in high school. Gilliland was an exception, however, as a decorated football player from Michigan. Still, he did come to MIT with no knowledge that the school even had a football team. Gilliland, like many players on the team, wears multiple hats. He starts at linebacker, but also handles the team’s kicking duties.

It is certainly an odd combination, but as an immigrant from Northern Ireland who grew up playing rugby and soccer, it would almost make less sense if Gilliland weren’t a place-kicking linebacker. The wide built Gilliland stands just under six-feet tall, with dark black hair highlighted by his long, Elvis-like sideburns.  As one of only four senior starters for the Engineers, Gilliland is one of the few that can attest to the merging of the past with the present at MIT, where former walk-on caliber players are being introduced to serious training and film study.

“It was taken much less seriously when I first got here,” Gilliland said with a hint of an Irish accent. “I guess that is more what I expected. Now, we have more meetings, workouts and I think the coaching staff is also taking more time and treating it more seriously.”

The Engineers went only 2-7 this season, but improved with every game, culminating with the win over Nichols and taking conference power Endicott to the wire in the season’s final game, before losing 36-24 after a late score.

Like his team, quarterback John Wenzel made strides with each passing week. As an exceptional student and All-State quarterback in Louisiana, Wenzel was recruited by a host of Division II and III teams, but wanted to play in the Ivy League.

As a part of Martinovich’s recruiting strategy, he attends many Ivy League camps with the hope that an MIT education can lure some borderline Division I talent to Cambridge, even if they have to pay tuition. It was at a Harvard camp that Martinovich met Wenzel, a dual-threat quarterback he had never heard of. Wenzel couldn’t be particularly offended because he, like Gilliland, was also totally oblivious to the existence of MIT’s football program.

“But once I found out they had a team,” Wenzel said. “I couldn’t see myself going anywhere else.”

Wenzel, now a sophomore, entered MIT as a part of the first recruiting class in school history, the beginning of Martinovich’s master plan. The young quarterback had his struggles, throwing 12 interceptions in his first year as a starter, but also showed that he was a significant upgrade athletically from past MIT players, rushing for 340 yards and four touchdowns.

Wenzel brings the athleticism coveted by many Division II schools and a brilliant engineering mind. While Wenzel is certainly not on the level of Stanford’s star quarterback Andrew Luck, who claims his architecture background helps him on the football field, he actually laughs and jokes about the worthlessness of his aeronautical engineering expertise once the game kicks off.

“People say to me, ‘You’re the quarterback of MIT, how can you make stupid decisions?’” Wenzel said. “So I tell them that I can’t exactly transfer thermodynamics to reading a corner’s coverage.”

Off the field, Wenzel shows what it takes to be an MIT student athlete. He walks around campus with a backpack stuffed as fat as a Thanksgiving turkey. The trimmings, however, are not delicious. Rather, it is filled with a small computer that Wenzel has built to mount in cars for monitoring driver behavior, a collection of engineering text books and a set of gym clothes.

“I’d take it out for you, but then I’d have to push it all back in,” Wenzel said.

Justin Wallace is the direction Martinovich wants MIT headed: Players that are borderline Division I athletes, exceptional students and will choose MIT over a full ride to a lesser academic school. His mentality as a running back is similar to the way he treats his studies: All business. The imposing runner wastes no time with jukes and cuts, he simply keeps his legs moving and plows forward. In the same fashion, he answers questions concisely with little to no elaboration.

“I expect to win, because I don’t like losing,” Wallace said.

The only time the close-cropped Wallace smiles through our entire interview comes when I ask if people recognize him on campus. To this, he simply chuckles and gives me a quiet “not really” before regaining his focused gaze.

If players like Wallace are the next step for MIT, Martinovich believes the future is bright. Wallace rushed for 981 yards and eight touchdowns as a freshman, and was named the NEFC’s Offensive Rookie of the Year. If recruiting more instant impact players like Wallace will be difficult, Martinovich is surely not letting it on.

“I never have to sell a kid on the school,” Martinovich said. “The players that are high enough caliber students to play the Ivy League, and at other prestigious schools like Carnegie Mellon and University of Chicago, they know what an MIT education means. My biggest thing is just educating them on the application process.”

That process may be the largest challenge for Martinovich to continue recruiting top athletes. Unlike most schools, which simply have base-line standards that athletes must meet to be admitted, MIT’s standards change every year based on the incoming class. Martinovich is allowed to “recommend” 20 students he would like to see admitted, but he estimates the process has cost him a half-dozen qualified players over the past two years.

Undaunted, Martinovich still believes he can make MIT the Division III destination for Division I caliber athletes. On top of that, he believes his plan can lead to a relatively unknown program becoming a staple on campus and in the local community. He points to the MIT basketball team, which has been consistently competing for Division III national championships the past three seasons.

“This campus, like any other, is a band-wagon campus,” Martinovich said. “You look at our basketball team that has made the Division III tournament the past couple seasons, and they fill Rockwell (Arena) towards the end of years. If we start winning a bunch, you’re gonna start seeing more and more kids in the stands.”

Though the Engineers are still working toward that future, they remain ever rooted in the past and present. Next year’s senior class will still be an unrecruited bunch, and the stands will still only be sparsely filled. They will still be fighting for the attention of their own students in a sports crazed market, and will still only be coming off a two-win season. But this program is heading in an entirely new direction, and heading there quickly.

Well, relatively speaking.

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