Culture Change Helped Tjeerdsma Turn Around Bearcat Football

By Trent Spinner
Media Relations/Communications Student Assistant – Northwest Missouri State Athletics

Throughout Northwest’s historic domination of Division II, one man stands at the front of the remarkable turnaround that led to his induction into the The National Football Foundation’s College Football Hall of Fame.

One of the best to bear the Northwest visor, Mel Tjeerdsma is getting recognized for his accomplishments on the sidelines as the Bearcats all-time leader in wins is set for his enshrinement in Atlanta, Georgia.

Back in 1951, the National Football Foundation created an elite selective home for some of the most distinguished athletes and coaches to ever step foot on the college football field. This home is known today as the College Football Hall of Fame, enshrined are the likes of Dan Marino, Jerry Rice, Bill Snyder and the newest addition to the collection former Northwest head coach and Athletic Director Mel Tjeerdsma.

“I’m thrilled that I have been selected,” Tjeerdsma said. “To me, it’s a very special honor, and when I reflect back on my career I see all the student-athletes I coached and all the coaches I have coached with and they are all an integral part of making that.”

For the committee, this decision to induct Tjeerdsma into the hall was made simple by this resume that indicated his ability to coach at an elite level. Tjeerdsma began his reign as the coach of Northwest back in 1994, after nine successful years at Austin College, the dry spell in Northwest’s football history was evident, as winning seasons were a rarity. Northwest football had accomplished only five winning seasons from 1977-1993. The process to take the program to the top began with an all-time low with a 0-11 record. The 1995 season was evident to the Bearcats growth finishing with a record of 6-5.

Tjeerdsma oversaw the beginning of a dynasty as the 1996 season kicked off in, then, Rickenbrode Stadium against South Dakota State University. The year gave the Bearcats a taste for gold, but the problem is they only gained cooper as they lost in NCAA Division II playoff quarterfinals after a 12-1 finish. In 1997, Northwest once again fell into the trap at the quarterfinals and escaped with the passion for winning that coach instilled in the players.

“Just seeing little success each year was Tjeerdsma’s mission,” 1994-1998 center Steve Coppinger said. “He taught us how to believe in our goals and when we were seniors we set out a goal, ‘Florence or bust’ and everybody put their hearts and soul into it and that’s what we accomplished.”

The year of Tjeerdsma first major resume booster was in 1998, as the Bearcats took home the gold in Florence, Alabama, like they had been craving since the beginning of the 1994 season. Tjeerdsma’s career skyrocketed from that point on as his success led his team to three National Championships (1998, 1999, 2009) in seven trips and gave him four AFCA Division II Coach of the Year honors.

Individual accomplishments are nice, but in Tjeerdsma’s eyes, his legacy was built by those that surrounded him. From assistant coaches to the players, Tjeerdsma views his legacy to be on their shoulders. Some of the recent notable assistant coaches that he has worked with is the now Northwest coach Rich Wright and head coach of Abilene Christian University Adam Dorrel.

“It takes a lot of guys, to be able to have that feeling of comradery,” Tjeerdsma said. “From a coaching standpoint, it takes a lot of coaches.”

From a bottom tier school to a powerhouse, Tjeerdsma knew how to play the recruiting game to perfection to get the best prospects. While coming into the 1994 season, Tjeerdsma wanted to create a new atmosphere that would direct the Bearcat program to next level and to do that Coach only went after guys at winning programs and had the good character to fit.

“Coach just started to recruit good players that were good people as well, with good people you can develop a culture and that’s what he did,” Coppinger said. “People ask me today, ‘why would you go there if it was a losing program?’ well we only went there because of the coaches, we saw when they recruited us that they had a passion to win.”

To Tjeerdsma the wins and glory report behind the true reason that he loves coaching the game of football … the passion to grow boys to men. From day one with his recruiting class, he established winning was great, but more than anything he was after growing great boys into great men. The only way to do that is to create a one of a kind relationship with every single player that bears the claw on his helmet.

His passion to help grow his players still presents itself as a major priority for him even in his retirement.

“There was a lot more to what we wanted to do then just win football games,” Tjeerdsma said. “To me, a major highlight of my career is my constant contact I still have with my former coaches and athletes, to me, that’s much more of a highlight than any wins or loses or winning championships. That’s what made us so good, there is no doubt about it.”

Texas will always be Tjeerdsma’s home state, but Maryville serves as his adopted hometown, with his 17 years coaching and five years as director of athletics, his love for the city is evident.

“I was a head coach here (Northwest) for 17 years and then came back two years later and athletic director for five more, so without a doubt, this is home base,” Tjeerdsma said. “The people here are just as important to this because they are just like the kids, they bought into it and believed we were going to win and that’s what makes it easy to recruit kids. Everyone expects to win and that’s what the good kids want to do.”