(Published June 11, 2006)
CRETE, Neb. -- On the day a small band of Doane Tigers first met Touchdown Tommie, they made a pact: No one, under any circumstances, asks for an autograph.
Got it? Nobody.
That was during the interview process for the school's head football coach, after Tommie Frazier walked onto Doane's campus with an aura Vito Corleone would've envied.
"A lot of guys were like, 'Oh my God, this is my hero. We're going to have lunch with him,'" said Robbie Trent, a Doane wide receiver.
That was a crazy time, when a once-proud small-college program, stung by scholarship deficiencies and back-to-back losing seasons, ached for a dose of adrenaline.
That was a much simpler time, when players didn't wonder when a coach would snap and another peer would turn in his playbook.
It's only been a year since the Godfather of Nebraska quarterbacks won his first head coaching job just 28 miles from the epicenter of his fame, but already Tommie Frazier's young coaching career is facing third-and-long.
He has won two football games. He has lost more than half his team. He has turned believers into critics, who now wonder if Doane will have enough players this year to effectively practice; if it made a colossal mistake in trusting a head coaching neophyte who, they say, confuses the NAIA with the Big 12; if Frazier or any coach can again champion a program that lacks resources to compete with small-college powers.
By all accounts, Frazier has pushed his players to take the game as seriously as he did a decade ago. He yelled and screamed. He stressed excellence, shunned excuses and didn't look fondly on kids who lacked fundamentals and work ethic.
But Frazier's expectations shocked many current and former players.
"You can't come in and run a Division I program with kids who just want to play," said Aaron Coufal, a freshman lineman who quit the team last summer.
Doane recently went through spring practice with about 32 players -- one defensive lineman switched to offensive line to give it a full unit. At the beginning of two-a-days last August, the team numbered more than 100.
"We didn't run anybody off; they ran themselves off," Frazier said. "What we had last year is no different than any other major program, or small one. They don't jell because (the coaches) didn't recruit (the players). We're fine with that. But I promise you, the ones who stayed, they're better football players and better people."
Frazier wouldn't be the first coach to rebuild from scratch. He believes it's better to do that than patch problems, only to watch them reappear four or five years later. He doesn't waver publicly from his steadfastness.
The mass exodus, according to players who quit and some who stayed, centers on Frazier's methods -- methods which went beyond tough love. They say Frazier's -- and his staff's -- intensity, negativity and lack of compassion sucked the fun from the game.
The World-Herald interviewed 12 current and former Doane players about the gridiron turmoil that overshadowed Frazier's first season. Some supported Frazier's direction, saying his knowledge and drive will lead to wins.
"If we win the GPAC next year or not, I'm learning things I wouldn't learn other places," Trent said. "I believe the commitment will pay off maybe three years down the line. This will be a distinguished program."
Others predicted trouble.
"You need to have that interpersonal relationship with each player to be a successful coach," said linebacker Kelsey Romshek, who walked out after two-a-days. "Coach Frazier didn't have that."
"They expected 4.3-second 40s," said one sophomore lineman who quit but wished to remain anonymous. "That's not what you're going to get at Doane College. They tried to get a big name for recruiting and it backfired. Now Doane's going to eat it."
If Tommie Frazier was Don Corleone, Fran Schwenk was Ward Cleaver.
Frazier's predecessor coached at Doane for 21 years. He was a second father to many players. He temporarily housed out-ofstate players who arrived before fall camp. He asked about Mom and Dad, about a recent fishing trip, about chemistry.
"He wasn't just blowing smoke," said Trent, the senior wide receiver.
Schwenk was Doane's all-time winningest coach at 114-87-3 when he tired of looking up at his rivals. Building on the tradition established by Al Papik, Schwenk reached the national quarterfinals in 1993 and the semifinals in '97. He relied upon players who grew up waiting on center pivots, not stop lights. At the end of each season, he traveled much of the state looking for recruits.
"Every once in a while, one of those kids just blossomed and turned into an exceptional player," said Paul Schelstraete, a banker in Crete who played in the late 1960s during Doane's unbeaten streak of 38.
Schwenk never cut a player because he was too slow or too small. He believed drawing kids, even those too small or too slow, to Doane and giving them "the college football experience" was worth the hours developing basic skills. He built a large roster -- Doane was one of few NAIA schools with a junior varsity -- and trusted sheer numbers to grow and bear fruit.
During one successful season, half his starting lineup played eight-man football in high school.
"To them, Doane College was their Notre Dame," Schwenk said.
Pride may be the most crucial part of small-college success, said Jason Dannelly, a former Dana College player and owner of Victory Sports Network, which covers and promotes NAIA sports.
The best programs develop breeding grounds within 100 to 150 miles of campus and foster bonds of loyalty amongst players and coaches. It has to feel like a high school program, Dannelly said, because kids receive so little scholarship money and fanfare.
Schwenk knew the formula. But in 2000, the Nebraska-Iowa Athletic Conference, of which Doane was a member, expanded its borders. It added Sioux Falls and Dakota Wesleyan -- Briar Cliff and Morningside would later join. Doane's peers anted up.
The Tigers, and their veteran coach, folded.
The head Tiger
Tommie Frazier, a big fish in a small office, relaxes on a lateMay morning. He watches a TV judge hear arguments between two people who don't much like each other.
Bill Callahan's desk is almost as big as this room, which Frazier could fill with trophies and rings and memories of one of college football's greatest dynasties. Instead, the only thing red in the room is a Lil' Red bobblehead.
"I'm a Doane Tiger, man."
He applied for this job with an assistant's stint at Baylor on his resume. He left a fundraising gig at his alma mater.
Frazier says he could've coached elsewhere, but Doane was the best opportunity. He admittedly feels more comfortable in the big cities -- he lives more than 80 miles away in Omaha -- where rumor doesn't sweep across town like a flu virus.
"I guess that's the problem around here," Frazier says. "Before, everybody could come in here and know everything that was happening with the program. They can't do that now. I don't think it's right for people in the community, people outside of the president or athletic director, to know everyday operations and what's going on here. When that happens, then you start hearing all these things, 'Oh, the program's in shambles.'"
He eventually wants to compete for national championships at Doane. He has drafted his plan.
"I'll be quite frank, it was more of a country club atmosphere where you show up and go out to practice and just walk around; that type of a deal," Frazier says. "But when we came in here, they saw how tough it was going to be."
Aaron Coufal grew up on a farm near Dwight, Neb. He helped Dad harvest corn and beans. He chased pigs and cattle. He played on East Butler's C-2 state semifinal team in 2004. He wanted to play more. He chose Doane before Frazier took over.
Last summer, he worked out regularly with about 10 future teammates. He was one of just two freshmen.
Coufal, at 6-foot-3, 250 pounds, wasn't in the best shape. Still, he drove to Crete four days a week for two-hour sessions. He ran and lifted weights and ran some more. Every night, Frazier dismissed him from conditioning drills, Coufal said. According to a teammate, he told Coufal to sit down so he "didn't die."
"I got ripped out hard every day," Coufal said. "It just built up to the point where I didn't want to play for them anymore. I put in about 45 minutes of driving to get screamed at. If that's not commitment, what is?"
According to Coufal, offensive line coach Brad Davis, who played on Oklahoma's 2000 national championship team, told him during two-a-days that he'd never play. Coufal quit.
As many as 50 others quit before Doane's first game. Less than 60 suited up for the last game, according to players; Frazier says only 10 to 15 quit the whole year. Another wave left after the season, before two months of winter conditioning that required a 5 a.m. alarm four mornings a week.
The roster defections were like cutting fat, said Jordan Crawford, the Great Plains Athletic Conference's leading tackler who is happy playing for Frazier. There are the kids who play football as a college hobby, Crawford said. Then there are kids who go to college to play football. The ones who left didn't want to win badly enough.
"What we do here is preparing them for the real world when they don't have football," Frazier said. "Guess what, they get a job and not work hard at that, guess what happens? They're going to get fired."
Doane assistant John Stineman coached high school football in Nebraska for more than 30 years. In 1998, he was a nationwide finalist for the NFL High School Football Coach of the Year Award. He joined Schwenk's staff in 2004. He has stayed to help Frazier.
"I don't know if he knew the level of athletes we had or that play on the NAIA level," said Stineman, who coaches quarterbacks.
Stineman said Frazier knows the game, but he and some members of his staff were too hard on kids. It's pretty easy coaching elite athletes, Stineman said, but "when you've got to work with a 140-pound pimply faced freshman, you've got to make some adjustments with your coaching."
A Frazier practice is crisp and well-organized. What soured some players was his expectation of reserves to execute as well as the all-conference picks. Many players didn't pick things up as well as a young Frazier, who as a freshman commanded Tom Osborne's offense a few months after first seeing the playbook. As a coach, Frazier had little patience for those who asked questions. When kids didn't catch on, Frazier often removed them from drills.
The end result -- all the defections -- left only six or seven healthy offensive linemen at one point. Starters were sharing scout-team duties. The list of walking wounded lengthened because players were taking so many repetitions in practice.
"A lot of times you don't have to play frontline players on kickoffs and returns," Stineman said. "We had to."
The recruiting trail
Jamaal Major was a 6-foot wideout from New Orleans. Michael Pleas was a 6-3 receiver, a Floridian like the coach. Frazier lured the pair to Doane after two-a-days started last August. He quickly worked Major and Pleas into his rotation.
They appear to represent Frazier's recruiting path. He says Doane will enter Omaha and Lincoln more often than Schwenk did. It will venture outside the Midwest more, too.
Frazier knows Texas and Florida. Davis, the offensive line coach, knows Louisiana. Defensive coordinator Troy Dumas, who teamed with Frazier at Nebraska, played in the NFL. Doane doesn't intend to stop recruiting Nebraska kids, Frazier said, but the state's sparse population makes finding talented players difficult, especially when conference foes tap the same pipelines.
It remains to be seen whether the talent Frazier covets will end up at Doane. Crete is a small town. Doane is an expensive school without many of the lavish facilities found on other campuses. The Tigers had a few players from Texas two years ago, Stineman said. They left immediately after the season.
"They're a long ways from home," Stineman said.
Frazier says 19 to 20 players intend to arrive in August; he declines to give names and says most are finishing up admission paperwork.
Some of Frazier's players say the class, as of now, is closer to eight. Doane's current roster stands at about 40; just three are listed as offensive linemen. Frazier expects 70 to 75 players in the fall. Would he be forced to recruit on-campus players who quit a year ago?
"I don't know how many of them that left the program would be willing to come back," Stineman said.
Mark Brahmer, head football coach at Pierce High School, was an All-American at Doane in 1993. He doesn't know how Doane could practice with just 50 or 60 players.
He's willing to give Frazier a chance, but he questions the coach's recruiting. Every GPAC school came to Pierce, a Class C-1 juggernaut, this year to recruit. Every one, that is, but Doane.
It's the same story in southeast Nebraska at small schools the Tigers once farmed. Doane fans and players agree Frazier was hired, in part, because of his potential recruiting prowess. Yet the 1995 Heisman runner-up hasn't taken advantage of his star power where it's brightest.
"Nobody knows Doane College in Florida," Brahmer said. "But I think if Tommie Frazier walks into Pierce High School, it would turn heads. Any of our kids would know exactly who the guy is."
Major quit the team after catching 20 balls last fall. Pleas led the team in touchdown receptions but left town after the season. A month ago, he was arrested in Georgia for armed robbery and burglary.
Help on the way?
Fran Schwenk saw the problem looming for years. When the NIAC expanded, most of its member schools increased their scholarship allotments to compete with NAIA powers like Sioux Falls.
Doane's administration chose not to. The Tigers contended for a conference crown as late as 2002. But starting in 2003, teams Doane had drubbed throughout the '90s started biting back.
The NAIA limits member schools to 24 scholarship equivalencies, 28 percent of Division I's allotment. GPAC coaches can give no player a full ride.
Doane and its conference brethren aren't required to reveal scholarship equivalencies and much of financial aid packages depends on academic aptitude and family income.
But Doane's pie, insiders say, is smaller than most in the conference. Doane, according to Schwenk, gives between 12 to 13 scholarships. Some in the league are close to 20 equivalencies, enabling them to compete for national championships, said Dannelly, of Victory Sports Network. Most disperse about 15 scholarships.
Concordia coach Courtney Meyer, also in the league's lower half in scholarships, said financial investment typically parallels conference order of finish. Those who spend win; those who don't lose. Schwenk agrees.
"I don't care if you're Fran Schwenk or you're Tommie Frazier or you're Vince Lombardi, you've got to have an even playing field," Schwenk said.
Schwenk left a year ago for William Jewell College in Missouri in large part because of the scholarship situation. His last few years, coaches told players about opponents' star players who wanted to come to Doane but received $2,000 to $3,000 more elsewhere.
"It all boils down to what kind of financial aid package you can put together," assistant coach Stineman said. "Doane has to make a commitment to get the football program back up or we're going to have to be content to work with what we get. Tommie knows what he's doing, but you can only do so much."
Doane President Jonathan Brand, who took the job last July, will meet with his coaches this summer to discuss scholarships. It's possible they will decide more aid is needed to compete, he said.
For now, Brand stands behind his coach. He says the defections and the losses haven't thwarted his optimism. This past winter, before the sun was up, he was running on campus when he stopped by the fieldhouse to see Frazier's players working out.
"That just pleased me immensely," Brand said. "When you want to do something, you've got to take it seriously. I believe in Tommie."
Courtney Meyer, Concordia's coach, had two starters on last year's team who arrived at practice 45 minutes late every day. They weren't loafing. They were singing.
Sorry, coach, choir practice again.
NAIA coaches say you won't find that in Division I. You won't attend girls' basketball games with your team or skip conditioning because of a part-time job. You won't join fraternities with thespians or eat meals at the cafeteria with the math major from down the dorm hall.
"We have to remember it's still small-time football," said Meyer, whose Bulldogs finished 4-6 last year. "They have a lot of other things other than football to be a part of."
Frazier, leaning back in his office chair, recognizes the dramatic element in his story. It's not every day one of college football's most recognizable names grabs the whistle at an NAIA school. But he says this experience is about his passion, not his background.
Still, Memorial Stadium and those national championships, on this morning, seem so far away. The only difference between Doane and Nebraska, Frazier says, is talent.
"I was always raised if you're going to spend time to do something, why not give it 100 percent? Why not do what you can to be the best? If you can't do that, I'm sorry, maybe Doane's not the place for you.
"I'm not trying to run this place like a Division I program. I'm trying to run this place based off my experiences in what it is to be successful. Let me tell you, you've got three guys on this staff who have won national championships at the highest level. Everything we do here we did as players ourselves.
"It shouldn't matter whether you're Division I, Division I-AA, Division II, Division III or NAIA. An athlete is an athlete. Any athlete out there who doesn't want to be pushed to be the best, then they shouldn't be playing a sport."
He remembers the day his players first met him. Nobody asked for that autograph.
"They wanted to see if I truly knew what I was talking about. I guess I did, because I'm here."