Quick … name a Catholic university based in Indiana where football serves as a major rallying point for students, alumni and donors.
Well sure, the University of Notre Dame would be a correct answer. But it’s no longer the only one.
The other would be Marian University, where football—yes, football—is serving as a West Side Story of transformation for the once-sleepy, oft-ignored campus on Cold Spring Road.
“Catalytic” is how Marian’s visionary president, Dan Elsener, describes the decision—and its subsequent impact—to build a football program five years ago.
It wasn’t an easy sell. Some on campus and some alumni thought it would detract from Marian’s liberal arts mission; others believed football would siphon off resources from other sports.
“It was a big change, and people were scared of it,” Elsener recalls. “I believed it was a bold move that would go way beyond football, that it would give us confidence and belief that we can accomplish great things, do them right and do them right in a hurry.”
In a hurry, for sure. Five years and four seasons after Marian’s board gave football the green light, the Knights just finished a 10-3 campaign that included a trip to the quarterfinals of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics playoffs.
“When we started this, we didn’t even have uniforms picked out and our practice area was basically a swamp,” Elsener says. “I simply set out four guidelines: one, recruit good players; two, build character; three, help enrollment; and four, win. And I believed if we took care of the first three, the fourth would take care of itself.”
Elsener’s first order of business was to hire a full-time athletic director (basketball coach John Grimes had been doing double duty). He chose Joe Haklin, an Indiana native (Chesterton) and Wabash College graduate who had been coaching basketball at Kalamazoo College in Michigan.
Haklin and Elsener then set out to devise a business plan for athletics in general and football in particular. Their most important initial decision was determining who would start a football program from scratch. They chose Ted Karras Jr., who had coached high school ball at Andrean (Gary) and college ball at Rose-Hulman Institute.
If the last name’s familiar, it should be. Karras’ father was a defensive lineman for the Chicago Bears and his uncle was Detroit Lions veteran (and later comedic television star) Alex Karras.
Karras went cold-calling and brought in a recruiting class of 48 players. The roster now numbers more than 100. Success has followed: 1-9 to 7-5 to 6-4 to this year’s breakout 10-3 campaign.
In the meantime, Elsener and Haklin enlisted donors to put money with the vision. The most obvious result is the $6 million, 3,000-seat St. Vincent Health Field. After the Knights played home games at Pike High School the first two years, the stadium opened in 2009 and also is home to the soccer and track programs.
Now, on fall Saturdays (as well as on Friday nights, because nearby neighbor Cardinal Ritter High School plays its home games there) the Marian campus bustles with activity for both students and alumni. There is a sense of pride, and of belonging.
Not coincidentally, Elsener maintains, fundraising, even in a tough economy, “has been on a tear.” Enrollment is on the rise, too. And that sense of pursuing a greater vision has carried over into the academic side, especially with the decision to begin a college of osteopathic medicine.
“All of this has sent the message, both internally and externally, that [Marian] is going to do excellence,” he says.
However, Elsener insists, Marian has no intentions of becoming a jock factory.
“We still take our values, our faith and our academics very seriously,” he says. “Athletics has to fit into the total mosaic, a piece of the puzzle. And when they graduate, we want our student-athletes to say that they have had a great experience that has played an important role in their physical, mental, social and spiritual health that will carry over into their professional careers. We want people to say good things about these Marian folks.”•
Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at email@example.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.