MUTKA: Chesterton’s John Snyder likes VU’s direction in football
By John Mutka Post-Tribune senior correspondent December 15, 2013 11:06PM
New Valparaiso head coach Dave Cecchini was an offensive coordinator at Lehigh, but he says defense is the top priority in attempting to turn around VU’s program. | Photo courtesy of Lehigh Athletics
Updated: January 17, 2014 6:21AM
John Snyder’s return to college coaching wasn’t what he’d hoped for.
Valparaiso went 1-10 for the third straight year, his boss got fired and his future in coaching is uncertain.
Fortunately, the former Chesterton football coach didn’t give up his day job, which is teaching.
Of course Snyder’s disappointed in the record. Who wouldn’t be? Watching VU football was as much fun as a trip to the dentist for a root canal, but he believes the program is in much better shape than outsiders believe.
“It’s just a matter of translating it onto the field,” he said.
Snyder would still like to be a part of Valparaiso’s future, but that’s up to new coach Dave Cecchini, an impressive hire from Lehigh whose resume includes the Citadel and Harvard.
Cecchini has succeeded everywhere, but so did Dale Carlson, who built wildly successful programs from scratch at Tri-State (now Trine) and Ohio Dominican but could not overcome VU’s lack of tradition, which has wobbled on shaky ground since the school went to Division I in every sport but football, which remains a non-scholarship program.
Snyder believes non-scholarships are an overblown excuse for a program which has withered since quarterback Dave Macchi and Whiting wide receiver Rob Giancola led the 2003 team to its only Pioneer Football League title.
“Everybody in our league is in the same position,” he said.
Near-misses against St. Joseph’s (34-31) and William Jewell (36-34), both scholarship programs, set the tone for a heart-breaking season which included a 23-10 loss at Drake, a perennial PFL contender.
“We were up 10-7 in that game with eight minutes to go,” said Snyder.
Offensively, the Crusaders put up solid numbers before leading rusher Jake Hutson, go-to receiver Fred Gladney, and lineman Bill Bodzianowski (a fifth-year senior), missed huge chunks of the season with injuries. A crippled offense struggled to control the clock, which stressed a defense burdened by extra time on the field.
“What we lacked was solid depth,” said Snyder, who used PFL rivals Marist and San Diego to illustrate his point. “They had eight senior and junior starters. Our staff said, ‘Holy cow! Wouldn’t it be great to reach that level.’ ”
“I feel bad for Dale,” said Snyder. “He’s a great guy, a coach someone should hire. People shouldn’t focus on what happened here, but on his overall career. He told me it’s part of the business, but the insecurity at the college level is unbelievable.”
When Hutson bowed out he was averaging nearly 79 yards per game. It took Brandon Hall seven more games to overtake him as VU’s leading rusher.
“Big loss because he was a great leader,” Snyder said.
Can the Crusaders overcome years of benign neglect? Valparaiso president Mark Heckler took a step in the right direction by introducing Cecchini to the team and the administration seems to be marching in lock-step.
Cecchini responded to questions with the enthusiasm for someone who had been named a head coach for the first time.
“They just need a push in the right direction,” he said. “Hopefully, I can provide that.”
The 41-year-old newcomer, a former All-American wide receiver at Lehigh, didn’t belabor his impressive background.
“I’m not an ego guy. It’s not about me. It’s about the program. I’m here to serve the players.”
Naturally, their short-term focus is on next season. Hutson, is looking no farther than rehabbing his surgically repaired knee and preparing for finals week. Meanwhile, he offered his impression of the new coach.
“He really inspired us about his vision for VU football in the near-future.” said Hutson, who is jogging without pain and expects to be full-speed ahead by the new year with the exception of heavy lifting in the weight room.
Hutson and his teammates weighed in on the process, offering opinions leading up to Cecchini’s hiring.
His resume, which is overwhelming based on recruiting players for a non-scholarship, need-based program, impressed Hutson.
“We wanted a young, personable guy, someone we could go to, a player’s coach. Coming from the Patriot League, the same type of school as Valpo, that’s pretty cool,” he said.
Players expectations seem realistic, nothing like going from 1-10 to 10-1 in one year, but the Crusaders — especially the seniors — desperately want to be rewarded on the field in 2014.
“We’re not looking at two years down the road,” Hutson said. “We’re still carrying that drive to be more than .500.”
Meanwhile, some collateral damage can be expected. Keeping transfers to a minimum is a priority. Hutson is optimistic.
“Everyone is pretty much on board,” he said. “I don’t think more than one or two guys even mentioned transferring.”
One by one the great Northwest Indiana football coaches are fading away. During my P-T years I’ve mourned such icons as Mann’s Don Elser, Hobart’s Russ Deal and Don Howell, East Chicago Roosevelt’s Pete Rucinski, Hammond Morton’s Maury Zlotnik, Wallace’s Mike Jennings (also coached at Chesterton), Wirt’s Walt Nabhan and Roosevelt’s Len Douglas.
The latest legend to run out of days is Eddie Herbert, who departed on Dec. 9 at the age of 95. Herbert didn’t match the spectacular numbers of many of the above coaches, because he only presided over Lew Wallace’s program from 1960-67, but his .760 percentage, based on a record of 53-15-5, ranks among the best.
Eddie played with Heisman Trophy winner Tom Harmon at Mann, then coached there before moving to Glen Park to guide the Hornets.
His rivalry with Mann’s Elser was often the highlight of the season in Gary, their rivalry attracting more people to Gilroy Field in one game than Wallace, West Side and Roosevelt combined do now in a season.
In 1967 Wallace and Wirt both went 10-0, but didn’t play each other because Wirt belonged to the Calumet Conference and Wallace to the Northwestern Conference. An attempt was made for an impromptu playoff, but the IHSAA would not approve it.
Herbert officiated football in the Big Ten for 20 years and worked in the Rose and Orange bowls. He continued to coach into his eighties as an assistant at several Northwest Indiana schools after leaving Wallace.
Hopefully, some day we’ll meet at those pearly gates and swap football stories.