Photo courtesy of OC Athletics
When newly hired Head Football Coach Steve Opgenorth enters the room, his energy and approachability jump out. On his desk is a copy of The Football Coaching Bible by the American Football Coaches Association, and various accolades hang from his wall.
“Trust the process,” is one of the many catchphrases Opgenorth employs when discussing his love of the game. Before Oberlin, Opgenorth spent five seasons at Baldwin Wallace University, serving as associate head coach, offensive coordinator, and quarterbacks’ coach.
Opgenorth has entered the program during a turbulent time of transition for the team in the wake of former Head Coach Jay Anderson’s departure. Despite this, he has already begun to implement changes in workouts and is working to bring in new staff who share his philosophy that football is a sport that should promote teamwork and a competitive spirit. It is clear he has ambitious plans for what he wants the program to become.
During the hiring process, Opgenorth was impressed by the people he met, including the students that he will now coach.
“In a place like this, you can grow,” he said. “It allows you to build a foundation and it allows you to find victories academically, athletically, socially. There was a sense of pride among the current players that I met. I thought this was a challenge worth accepting and couldn’t be more excited to be here.”
Delta Lodge Director of Athletics and Physical Education Natalie Winkelfoos praised the renewed energy that Opgenorth has brought to the team and highlighted his previous success with recruitment and coaching.
“Coach O’s energy is unmatched,” she wrote in an email to the Review. “His successful recruiting and coaching experience at a high academic institution is beneficial. His drive to compete and advance the culture of our football program on the field and off made him an exceptional fit.”
Opgenorth is faced with multiple challenges as he joins a team that has a roster that is smaller than usual and has faced a low retention rate in recent years. Last week, the Review covered concerns raised by former players about football coaching and training staff (“Current and Former Players Express Concern About Team Culture,” Feb. 21, 2020). While the accusations did not occur during Opgenorth’s time at Oberlin, he believes in moving forward and setting a new standard for leadership.
“You learn from the past and you move forward in the future to grow and develop,” he said. “I’m not sure exactly what was done or what was said, but I do know it’s my responsibility, too, to build a standard both on and off the field and grow from that foundation. Our kids are working extremely hard, both in the weight room and in their studies. I’m going to push them academically and going to push them in community service. I know that it’s going to be fun to move forward.”
Opgenorth thinks that this shift to a team-based approach to coaching will help with retention rates and transparency in the recruitment process.
“I think the collective retention of our student will change because the recruitment piece will change,” he said. “They’re going to get every piece of information about me, about our staff, about our culture, and about Oberlin College and the environment here. I want them to hold onto every piece of it and love it all. And if they do, I don’t expect them to leave. Retention is big and that’s one piece that will continue to help our success.”
One of Opgenorth’s goals for the team is to get players more involved in community service. During his time at Baldwin Wallace University, Opgenorth cultivated a relationship with the Special Olympics in Ohio and regularly volunteered his team to serve at the winter games. The team also had the opportunity to participate in Night to Shine events, where student-athletes were prom dates for differently abled individuals. Opgenorth hopes to implement similar programming at Oberlin, kicking off spring training with a community service event at the Cleveland Browns showcase.
“Community service is self-serving for our young men,” he said. “It’s self-serving for our programs. Community service allows us to be in uncomfortable situations at times and be comfortable in those situations through experiencing these events. And it translates to college football games: I want our guys to be comfortable with two minutes left and we got 90 yards to drive. I think it stems to how many times I can put them in situations where they understand their opportunity and how neat it is to be a college football player.”
With community service as a focal point of his coaching philosophy, it is also important to Opgenorth to recruit student athletes who will contribute to that culture.
“The recruiting process is a 12-to-14 month process to understand who the young man is, if he is a fit for Oberlin College, and if he’s a fit for the program,” Opgenorth said. “Our young men will understand what it means to be a Yeomen college football player. It’s not easy, but they’re going to know what the expectations are.”
First-year wide receiver David Strunk has already noticed a change in energy under Opgenorth’s leadership.
“Since he got here, our workouts have revamped energy-wise and everybody is excited,” he said. “We can actually see ourselves achieving something now and he has a go-get-it kind of attitude. He really encourages competition. In the past, we’ve struggled with that, at least last year. He’s bringing a whole new set of standards.”
As Opgenorth looks forward to the upcoming season, he has set a high bar for the Yeomen, seeing his role as a facilitator of their athletic potential.
“My goal for 2020 is for our young men to trust the process and collectively reach their full potential,” he said. “I believe the football field is an extension of the classroom. My classroom happens to be 120 yards long at 53-and-a-third yards wide. We’re going to teach harder, we’re gonna teach better and we’re going to have fun doing it. My goal is to make the 2020 season the most positive and influential season for our seniors and one that they can remember for the rest of their lives.”