UW-Whitewater pounds rock to D-III titles

Per tradition, football players at Division III Wisconsin-Whitewater take turns pounding a rock. UW Whitewater

Joe Hansen isn’t quite sure about the geology of the rock or how old it is or how much it weighs. But he can tell you it sits on top of a hill overlooking Perkins Stadium at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, and that he and his football teammates have spent years pounding on that boulder with a sledgehammer, trying to batter it into submission.

“The ultimate goal is to break the rock in half,” says Hansen, the Warhawks’ senior center and a member of three straight NCAA Division III national championship teams. “No one’s done that, obviously.”

Yet nothing illustrates the mindset of a football program with 46 straight wins, four national championships in the past five years and seven consecutive trips to the Division III championship Stagg Bowl than the fact these guys are eager to go one-on-one with a boulder every Thursday after practice.

Sisyphus may have been sentenced to an eternity of pushing a giant rock up a hill, but the Warhawks at U-Dub-Dub are proud to pound on their own rock year after year -- with little hope of ever cracking it -- because it sets the tone for the program.

“Pound the Rock” is the mantra, chanted by players and coaches and emblazoned on (what else?) a big rock outside the team’s locker room. As players file by on game days or their way to practice, they touch it to make one more tangible connection to a philosophy that’s as subtle as a fullback dive.

“It’s the mental aspect of it,” says Hansen, whose team is 1-0, ranked No. 1 in the nation and hasn’t lost a game since 2008 going into its home opener Saturday. “It’s the attitude you have to have of working hard every play, and when things don’t go your way, you have to keep going and keep going. Eventually if you keep working hard, things are going to happen. You keep pounding the rock, pounding the rock, eventually it’s going to break.”

* * *

With its long tradition (dating to 1889) and recent success, Warhawks football has become a big deal around Whitewater and its surrounding communities.

The booster club holds tailgate parties before games and organizes road trips, businesses offer “Warhawks specials” and sports bars, such as Rick’s Eastside Pub & Grill, draw big Saturday crowds to watch the local team on TV. As many fans wear purple U-Dub-Dub gear as red Wisconsin Badgers garb.

“When the games are on TV, people come from two, three counties around to watch, and after the games this place is nuts,” says Buddy Luebke, an employee at Rick’s, which features a big Warhawks sports trophy case.

The atmosphere at home games is lively, with a loud, purple-clad (sometimes purple-painted) student section, a Civil War re-enactor called Cannon Man who fires his artillery piece after home team scores and, quite often, a full house.

Ben Cooper, a former Whitewater player who’s now president of the booster club, calls the atmosphere “fantastic” and says the team on the visiting sideline is often “facing the home stands with 9,000 or 10,000 spectators.”

But Division III football isn’t like the brand played about 45 minutes up the road in Madison, where fans pack 80,000-seat Camp Randall Stadium for the Big Ten Badgers.

The dominance the Warhawks have achieved -- a 73-3 record since 2007 with seasons of 14-1, 13-2, 15-0, 15-0 and 15-0 -- is fashioned on a different formula than in major college football.

At UW-Whitewater, the players are good, but generally a tick slower and smaller. They may be blue-chip kids, but they’re not blue-chip recruits.

Many of the coaches have other duties as teachers or counselors, and some have other jobs off campus.

And though the Warhawks drew more fans in 2011 than any other Division III school in the country, the grand total was just 46,575.

Yet, in a way, it’s all part of the charm and attraction of small-college football, says Warhawks head coach Lance Leipold, a former UW-Whitewater quarterback who was an assistant at big programs such as Wisconsin and Nebraska until returning to his alma mater in 2007 to lead it to its first national title.

Players play for the sheer joy of it -- while studying to become teachers, accountants or attorneys -- and pay for the privilege.

“I just got the food bill for fall camp, and our players have to write a check to come and pay for their meals. … And they have to pay for housing if they’re staying in dorms before they open,” Leipold says. “Our players buy their own shoes. If the saying is they play for the love of it, I think that’s truly evident here.”

Even Leipold’s route back to Whitewater, after coaching at stops such as Madison, Lincoln and Omaha, reflects a love of the Division III atmosphere.

He’s grateful for what he learned in the bigger programs, and the chance to study X's and O's with the likes of Barry Alvarez, Bill Callahan, Brad Childress and Frank Solich, but his time at Nebraska caused him to shift gears away from the big time.

“That experience probably refocused myself to the smaller-college level when Frank Solich was released after going 9-3,” he says. “And to watch somebody who was graduating players, they weren’t getting in trouble, the stadium was sold out, he won nine games … and he was let go, kind of showed me the big business of FBS football, and I thought it was in my family’s best interest to refocus.”

So, he took a job at Division II Nebraska-Omaha, and then was hired at Whitewater when the position opened five years ago.

Says Leipold: “We’re extremely happy here.”

* * *

Saturday has been dubbed National Champions Day at Perkins Stadium, as the Warhawks host Buffalo State College and the school celebrates five 2011 national titles (football, basketball, women’s gymnastics and men’s and women’s wheelchair basketball).

Whether his football team can win a fourth straight national title is something Leipold would rather not focus on. Nor does he want to look ahead to winning a 47th straight game Saturday (which would tie Oklahoma’s major-college mark from 1953-57) or surpassing the Division III 54- and 55-game winning streaks set by Mount Union.

It may be trite, but Leipold preaches going “1-0 every week.”

“Focus on the process, and the results will take care of themselves,” he says.

“You start patting yourself on the back too much, about what you’ve gotten done or where you think you’re going to be late in the season, I think you’re asking for failure somewhere along the line,” he says. “You’re going to stub your toe.”

So how exactly has UW-Whitewater become the current top dog in Division III?

The fact that Leipold took the Warhawks to a championship his first year and has won four Stagg Bowls makes him the prime suspect, yet the 48-year-old coach deftly sidesteps praise and pitches it elsewhere.

He credits previous coaches, the administration, the facilities, his staff, his players and even opponents such as Mount Union -- which Whitewater has played in the Stagg Bowl every year since 2005 -- as lifting the program. Among the factors:

The coaching DNA: Forrest Perkins coached 29 seasons at the school before handing off to one of his former quarterbacks, Bob Berezowitz. Berezowitz coached 22 seasons before handing off to one of his former QBs, Leipold. As a player, Leipold split his four years between Perkins’ last two and Berezowitz’s first two seasons. Leipold says both coaches -- who still come to games -- were not only mentors, but set a winning tone and upgraded facilities to help recruiting. Plus, he says Berezowitz built a good staff and set him up for success by going to Stagg Bowls in 2005 and ’06.

Emulating the best: Magic had Bird to raise his game, Ali had Frazier, and Whitewater has Mount Union of Alliance, Ohio. When Whitewater decided to improve in the early 2000s, Berezowitz scheduled regular-season games against powerhouses Mount Union and St. John’s. Those matchups prompted Whitewater to go after better talent. The Mount Union-Whitewater duels have continued, with the teams meeting in the past seven Stagg Bowls. Mount Union won three of the first four; U Dub-Dub four of the past five.

The staff: Defensive and offensive coordinators Brian Borland and Steve Dinkel have been around more than a decade, and the staff as a whole, Leipold says, is “continually motivating and coaching for improvement.” It was Dinkel, in fact, who brought the concept of “Pound the Rock” to the program when he was hired as offensive line coach.

The players: UW-Whitewater, says Leipold, is in a good position to get talent because, with only one scholarship program in the entire state (the Badgers), it often gets players who might play at a higher level elsewhere, but want to stay in state. Other schools in the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Association also benefit from that, he says. And with a smaller roster -- capped by the school at 100 -- it promotes constant internal competition.

And then there’s the Warhawks' style of play. Scheme-wise, it’s not fancy, a pro set on offense and 4-3 on defense. But the team is fundamental and physical.

Says Mount Union head coach Larry Kehres, who’s won a record 10 Division III national championships: “When I look at Whitewater, I see a team that has everything a championship team needs to have. They’re very solid fundamentally in blocking and tackling, they’re quick, they have good speed where you need speed, they’re efficient and you add to that good coaching.”

Kehres, whose program has a respectful rivalry with Whitewater -- it’s almost a mutual admiration society -- says UW-W is “the standard bearer” for fundamental football.

It’s also physical football, something Leipold says was instilled in him during his time at Nebraska and Wisconsin.

Hansen, the starting center, agrees, saying physicality is always a focus of practice. For the linemen, it’s repeated drills and contact.

“They like to keep us juiced up, you know, amped up, so they don’t give us many breaks during practice where you’re not doing anything,” Hansen says. “It’s a fast practice, up-tempo. You’re always running around, going to the next drill.”

And competition is constant.

“I think some of that comes through, where a guy might get you one play, you want to come back and just destroy him the next,” he says.

In a way, it’s like attacking that big rock on top of the hill.

Like the rest of the Warhawks during this championship run, the undersized Hansen is eager to outwork the competition and make his mark -- even on a boulder.

That theme has been pounded home.