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In December 1990, Sports Illustrated quoted Daniel F. Sullivan, then president of Allegheny College, as saying “It is hard to teach integrity in the pursuit of knowledge, or how to live a life of purpose and service, when an institution’s own integrity is compromised in the unconstrained pursuit of victory on the playing fields.” In NCAA Division III, athletics have a reserved and confined role on campus and academics come first. Allegheny was no exception. Sullivan made his comment, however, immediately after Allegheny’s football team, led by center John Marzka, won the national championship.
It’s that same approach—academics first—that has led to Marzka’s success as an athlete and as a coach both on and off the playing field. Marzka knew that after college the NFL would not be calling. He said in the same 1990 Sports Illustrated article, “They don’t want a six-foot, 220-pound center.” Marzka took his psychology degree, headed to graduate school and began a coaching career at Thiel College, a path that led him to Albright in 2006.
Today, Albright head coach John Marzka seems to stands as wide as he is tall, a very imposing figure who instantly takes command of a room. His handshake more than firm, his eyes focused, he has no problem verbalizing his goal to build leaders.
The Lions had seen some success on the field, but had struggled in recent years. Marzka’s philosophy that the football field is just an extension of the classroom and his academic game plan impressed everyone from day one.
While at Thiel, Marzka turned around a program that had seen 25 losing seasons and a 22-game winless streak. In five years, the team was 11-1 and made it to the second round of the NCAA playoffs. “Thiel was a situation in which the entire culture needed to be changed,” says Marzka. “Albright knew success, but the players needed a life coach and academic direction.”
On his first day as head coach at Albright in January 2007, Marzka met with the 90 men who had just completed their season and would make up the leadership of the team the following year. He laid out his philosophy and his game plan to mixed reviews. By May the team was down to 56 players; 34 decided to leave the team. “They made the choice to leave. They decided that the program was not for them,” says the coach. Marzka quickly recruited 70 freshmen his first spring at Albright.
“When we bring in players we look for ones who are right for Albright, academically and on the field,” says Marzka. “I want players who can become leaders and have solid academic records. Athletic promise is further down the list.”
According to Marzka, only 6 percent of high school players will ever
see action on the college field. Only 2 percent of players will continue with
Setting clear expectations from day one, Marzka helps his players discover, develop and use their gifts to make contributions to the world around them. He wants them to be successful in classroom, career, life and family, and to reach their full potential.
Reach Your Full Potential. These words, or RYFP, are emblazoned on everything produced by the football office—from letterhead to game programs to the emblem on the players’ helmets. Marzka points out that full potential is different for each player. “Full potential depends on each player’s abilities. They will succeed based on their commitment,” he says. “To me doing a little better today versus how they did yesterday is success.”
The academic game plan has several key points to assist players in being better students. While it shifts each semester based on players’ needs, each player is taught that they must learn the fundamentals of academics in order to be successful in the classroom. They are taught how to take notes and effective review techniques. “When you learn a position you first learn the stance of that position. It is a fundamental one must learn to be successful. Taking notes and studying techniques are the fundamentals of being a good student,” says the coach.
Class attendance and participation are other requirements of the football academic game plan. Every player is required to attend all classes, and the coaches check. Faculty receive e-mails and phone calls from coaching staff to ensure that every player is attending every class. But attendance is just one piece of the pie; they also need to participate. Marzka teaches his players to focus in class using the “SLANT” method: sit up front, lean forward, act interested, nod and track teacher.
There are consequences for the player who fails to abide by the game plan. They can be required to attend review sessions for attitude readjustment, suffer game suspension or be dismissed from the program. The effects of Marzka and his staff on the program have been noticed across campus. “I think the biggest compliment to the athletics program at Albright is that it is nearly impossible to tell the student-athletes from the students who do not participate in athletics,” says David Martin, C.F.A., professor of economics and business.
Mike McCall ’09 was one of the players who stayed on during Marzka’s first year at Albright. “At first I was kind of indifferent about the changes,” says McCall. “Marzka and the rest of the new staff were strict and expected a lot out of us both on the field and in class, but after a while I realized that it was for the best and it wouldn’t only make us a better team, but also better students and better members of the Albright community.”
McCall went on to graduate with a degree in marketing and is currently employed by Goodyear. He credits Marzka with his ability to be successful in his current position. “A key part of sales is confidence, and one of the things that Coach Marzka and his staff preached was that preparation breeds confidence. I think of that every day as I go into work.”
“...it is nearly impossible to tell the student-athletes from the students who do not participate in athletics.”
Marzka still bounces ideas off of his former Allegheny coach, Ken O’Keefe, who has gone on to become offensive coordinator for Division I powerhouse University of Iowa. “To be successful a coach must have the same goals for these young men as the professor in the classroom,” says O’Keefe. “John understands that. He knows the philosophy, is very well prepared and has done a great job.” And the academic program can transfer well to the big Division I programs like Iowa where “keeping your job is far more dependent on your record on the field,” says O’Keefe, whose team has seen increased success since he came aboard.
Now in his third season at Albright, Marzka beams when he speaks of the students who have achieved success. The offensive lineman who had a 2.3 grade point average in high school and now holds a 3.0 in his freshman year at Albright; the senior who jumped on board with the program and became an exemplary student-athlete earning a sportsmanship award from the Middle Atlantic Conference. What Marzka did not mention was tying for the MAC championship and winning an ECAC bowl game in 2008. But those victories pale in comparison to the individual success stories that are yet to come.
“Sure I would love to see us get an NCAA playoff berth and take that
next step,” says Marzka, “but truly I just want to see the team all reach their
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