FORT WAYNE – Here’s the kind of complex, ticking clock that is inside Matt Land: As he sits in his athletic director’s office at Trine University, he explains why he doesn’t want to be in an office.
I don’t want to sit in an office, he says from behind his big, dark desk. I don’t want people telling me what I want to do.
Did you catch the last part? It’s about what I want to do; not to do
As long as he can recall, he’s been his own man – even when he was a boy.
He was the scrawny kid on the Tom’s Peanuts team in the Wallen Little League. He was the light-in-the-shorts quarterback at Northrop. He was the 145-pound wrestler with more guts than talent. He was the head football coach at South Side when the South job was one of the low rungs on the coaching ladder. He was the head coach of the Freedom indoor football league team that never knew, from one game to the other, if there would be a paycheck. He was the one out of four candidates who took the Trine (then Tri-State) football job when, in the three years prior, the program won two games out of 30. Two of those years were 0-10.
I remember it all, Land says. He almost hisses with defiance. What I could always remember, I was never good enough to be great, and that always pissed me off. From that time, that’s what always has driven me. I was always that person not blessed with athleticism, and people would tell me that, and it would piss me off.
The more he was pushed, the harder he pushed back.
The more he was told no, the more he said yes.
The first thing we did is we went and got a welcome mat from Walmart, he says.
It’s the story of his first year as the new football coach, when the university was still called Tri-State and there were the awful seasons of 0-10, 2-8 and 0-10. It was just a black welcome mat, and we put it in the weight room.
I was fielding 10 phone calls a day from people that wanted to play us. We’re the doormat of the Midwest NCAA football programs. So we put it in the weight room; made ’em walk over it every day when they lifted. So they remembered. You suck! What are you going to do about it?
Oh yeah. He remembers it all; even his wife, sitting at the kitchen table, telling him not to take the job at Tri-State.
She said, They’re so bad, Matt.’
Tri-State was 2-8 in Land’s first season. Still not good enough. What was his team going to do about it?
They would go 6-4 the following season; and then 10-1, 10-2, and 11-1; three consecutive MIAA championships; three consecutive trips to the NCAA Division III tournament.
It was during the 2010 season when Trine produced quarterback Eric Watt, winner of the Gagliardi Trophy, which is the Division III equivalent to the Heisman Trophy.
A bad year now at Trine was last year, went it went 7-3 and missed the NCAA playoffs for the first time in four seasons.
At 40 years old, he didn’t expect to become an athletic director this early in his career. Those jobs go to the guys with more gray up top who are willing to park it in an office and sit through administrative meetings and invite the donors up to the stadium suites for wine and pieces of cubed cheese.
But when the AD opening arose, Land saw something he couldn’t pass up. He saw another challenge.
We took somewhat of a risk on Matt when we hired him five or six years ago, Trine President Dr. Earl Brooks said. He hadn’t coached the college game. He had been very, very successful in the Fort Wayne market, having coached South Side, and at that time, had been coaching the Freedom some. But we saw a young man that came in and did a fantastic job in the interview process and had a well-articulated plan. Was Matt somewhat of a risk? Maybe, but I think he was a very well-calculated risk.
And Brooks is just as confident in Matt Land, the athletic director, as he is in Land, the football coach.
I like Matt’s energy. I like his vision. And I think he’s very capable, and I’ve seen a lot of growth in Matt in the short time he’s been here, Brooks said. He didn’t have college experience, and it took him a short period of time to turn a program that was 0-10 to 10-0 and has gained a lot of support along the way in terms of donors and alumni, and I think he can translate some of that success to some of our programs in the department.
Because he still remembers it all is fuel to his motor. It’s why he won at South Side; why he won in the indoor league; why he’s flipped the switch at Trine and turned perennial losers into a championship program.
When you think you can do the impossible, you’ve got to find a place to do the impossible, Land says. How many times can you do it? I don’t know. That’s what drives me.