FORT WAYNE – Matt Land usually doesn’t mess around when answering questions. He never really has. Whether it be when he was coaching at South Side or with the Fort Wayne Freedom indoor football team or even in his current dual role as Trine athletic director and football coach, he has always been direct.
So when asked about the obvious coaching pipeline running up Interstate 69 from Fort Wayne to Angola with several of the Thunder sports, Land, as usual, was his usual straight-to-the-point self.
It’s no coincidence, he said.
When Land became the Thunder football coach, he built his staff with familiar faces: coaches who could get the job done – and also fulfill his plan for recruiting.
Football coaching in Fort Wayne is so strong, he said.
Land would hang out on Friday nights after games at a bar owned by his brother-in-law and frequented by other coaches from around the city. So when he took the Trine job in 2006, he used the contacts for his coaching staff, which includes familiar names such as Troy Abbs (Carroll, Fort Wayne Freedom), Derek Prather (Carroll), Greg Svarczkopf (Bishop Dwenger) and Maury Waugh (Saint Francis).
It became a community of Fort Wayne football there, Land said. I really respect the way people coach and the things they did. So when I got up here, I wanted to build my staff with local people from the recruiting areas that we were going to target. I happen to be in a position that the people who I surrounded myself in my circle of friends were football coaches. That’s where I started first.
He used that philosophy when hiring coaches for other sports when he became the university’s AD in 2012.
When you talk about staff and you talk about hiring it’s about trust, honesty and loyalty, he said. Those are the things you have to get from a new hire. Unless you have previous relationships with them, you don’t really know.
We have great coaches in Fort Wayne, and we have very successful programs in Fort Wayne. That’s what I did; I got the people I knew were successful and were good people.
Filling from The Fort
Including Land, about a dozen head or assistant coaches at Trine either worked in Fort Wayne or went to a Summit City high school or university, including assistant athletic director/assistant women’s basketball coach Andy Rang (South Side, IPFW), women’s basketball coach/tennis coach Ryan Gould (Snider), women’s soccer coach Terry Stefankiewicz (IPFW, Northrop), track coach Rod Waters (Wayne), director of track and cross-country Tom Knudson (Northrop) and cross-country coach Zach Raber (Carroll).
It all started with Matt, and his associations with Fort Wayne coaches, that has led to a migration north, Stefankiewicz said. What I like about it, it is a brotherhood and everybody gets along. We joke about it, that we need another Fort Wayne guy. It’s a good working relationship.
Fort Wayne high school athletics have a solid statewide reputation in many sports. The success of some of these programs can be traced to a run of talented coaches, and Land tapped into that when filling vacancies.
For Land, it’s about creating an atmosphere where the coaches have freedom do to their jobs.
Every coach wants to coach in a place where they are left alone to do what they do, Land said. No coach that I know wants someone looking over their shoulder all the time. That’s the kind of environment I want to put people in, and I want to hire people who are able to do that.
And the coaches appreciate that autonomy.
The opportunity I saw at Trine is that we really made an investment in full-time coaching, Gould said. You have the opportunity to go up and spend 40 hours a week on coaching with no other responsibilities. It is something I have always wanted to do, and Trine offered that opportunity. We are really blessed with the chance to work at Trine, which is a strong academic university. It has been a lot of fun for all of us.
With so many talented athletes in Fort Wayne’s high schools, the challenge for Trine coaches has been to get some of them to head north to the Angola campus and compete at the NCAA Division III level. Their familiarity with Fort Wayne’s coaches and athletes helps in recruiting.
I love the idea of Division III, where it is academics first and athletics are second, said Raber, who ran at Wabash College. Trine is an opportunity for a lot of kids in the Fort Wayne area and beyond to really progress athletically and academically.
The funny thing is in the 11 years I was at Carroll, not one time was I contacted by a coach from Trine.
I think that’s crazy because it’s such a good school and a good location that it could be powerful within our state. Kids really have an opportunity to open their eyes to a place that could be fantastic. And the coaching connections I have are invaluable.
Land has almost every sport Trine offers covered with at least one representative of the Fort Wayne-seasoned coaching fraternity.
You have skipped the first two steps of recruiting, Land said of coaches knowing the Fort Wayne sports landscape. You don’t have to get a phone number, and you don’t have to develop a relationship. Those relationships and contacts are ready-made, so it speeds things up.
Gould is entering his first season as the women’s basketball coach but has already been on the recruiting trail, which has included Fort Wayne.
Coach Rang is both familiar with the coaches in the SAC and the NHC as well, and it is the same in football, Gould said. They have been able to make connections with a lot of coaches locally and have a lot of their kids up for camp. It has added a local flavor to the way we started recruiting.
Trying to sell Trine
Trine officially changed its name from Tri-State in 2008. Since then, the university has transformed its campus with new buildings and its reputation among potential student-athletes with new academic programs.
I remember when it was Tri-State, and I would bite my lip for (someone) going up there, but then when you go up there, it is like a diamond in the rough, Stefankiewicz said. It is a beautiful campus now.
The good thing is we are starting to get more Fort Wayne kids up here. Originally, parents might have thought, Tri-State? no, it is strictly an engineering school. Now we have 37 majors, and the new physical therapy program has done wonders for the female side. It is going to be something special.
The key for some coaches is trying to get kids to venture out of their comfort zone in Fort Wayne, but still have the desire to stay close to home.
When a lot of student-athletes talk about going out of town, the first thing that comes to mind is going out of state to big schools, Waters said. We are usually looked over.
We have been in Fort Wayne nonstop since I got there, he said. Athletes are starting to become familiar with our programs, whether it be track or football or basketball, etc. It’s working out well this year, for sure.
We are trying get into Fort Wayne and get some of these athletes in the city. It’s only 45 minutes away from Fort Wayne, and both programs have really tried to get back home and recruit some of these student-athletes.
Raber said he likes to sell the engineering program.
The potential for developing that was huge, Raber said. There are a ton of athletes in Indiana and Michigan and Ohio who are looking for engineering as a major and physical therapy as well. That was a big draw for me as far as moving into a place that has a strong recruiting base.