BIG RAPIDS — The sports world can be a sad, depressing place, especially around the Motor City. Everywhere you turn, there is gloom and doom, losses and disappointments.
But today, it’s time for something different.
Let’s give thanks for something that is lighthearted and just feels right.
Let’s celebrate a winner.
Which takes us across the state to Top Taggart Field on the campus of Ferris State, where coach Tony Annese is running across the field during a practice, while talking trash to a defensive back.
Ferris State football coach Tony Annese. (Photo: Ferris State Athletics.)
The Ferris offense, which is Annese’s baby, just scored on the Ferris defense, and a defensive back starts to dish it back at Annese. If I could print any of it, I would. But this is a family newspaper. So let’s just say, it’s colorful and entertaining. In a fantastic way.
There is a cool, genuine vibe around this football team. And that’s part of the reason for the Bulldogs’ success — that and immensely talented players. Annese has created a small-school national power at Ferris and the most successful college football team in Michigan since he arrived.
The Bulldogs have won at least 11 games for five straight seasons; and now, Ferris is getting ready to play Central Missouri on Saturday in the NCAA Division II playoffs — its sixth straight appearance.
Annese has built a team of players who didn’t fit anywhere else. Some were considered not quite tall enough, or not quite fast enough, or not quite talented enough to play Division I. But Annese found a way to develop them and turn them into winners.
Other players came to Ferris because they were too troubled or came with too much baggage for major college football. Jayru Campbell, a Cass Tech quarterback, was headed to Michigan State until two arrests and two stints in jail. Campbell got a second chance at Ferris and won the 2018 Harlon Hill Award, as the best player in Division II.
Others found their way to Annese after starting at Division 1, growing disenchanted for whatever reason and then transferring to Ferris.
And somehow, all of these pieces have come together.
“When you have the right culture, it’s easy to integrate individuals,” Annese says. “You can say this kid got into trouble here, or this kid wasn’t on the right page there, but the right kind of culture fixes a lot of problems.”
“But how have you done it?” I ask. “How do you build a culture like that?”
To me, it’s a fascinating subject. Here you have a guy who has done nothing but win, wherever he goes, at a time when all we see is a whole bunch of losing everywhere else.
“It’s authentic culture,” he says. “Everyone brags about culture. It’s either authentic or it’s a lie. And young people can figure it out quick.”
“It’s based on love,” he says.
Call me cynical, but I’m pretty sure I rolled my eyes on reflex.
Love? On a football field? Come on. Are we all gonna get in a circle and sing “Kumbaya.”
But then something surprising happened. I talked to several players and the same theme kept coming up.
In every interview.
“The first thing is love,” Sy Barnett, a sophomore wide receiver from Williamston, says.
“That’s something we emphasize here, just with everyone,” Barnett says. “It doesn’t matter where you are from, how old you are. What it comes down to is love for everyone. Offensive, defense, we all have respect for each other.”
He isn’t talking about a corny kind of love. Some of it is tough love. Some of it is a brotherhood love. And some of it is an encouraging love.
“It’s really simple — young people aren’t raised the way we used to be raised,” Annese says. “There are some — not all — who need to feel love every day. We got guys like Jeremy Burrell from Benton Harbor — he feels love every day from his position coach.”
The longer I stay around the Bulldogs, the more I start to sense something unusual, and it reminded me of the feeling around the Clemson football program.
A few years ago, I spent some time in the Clemson locker room. After a few minutes, I could feel something different. There is something special about that program and coach Dabo Sweeney. It’s the way the players talk about each other and joke around.
And I could sense the same thing at Ferris.
Now, here’s the crazy part:
Since 2014, Clemson is 76-7. And in that same time frame, Ferris is 70-8.
Now, I’m not comparing their programs. Or even their players.
But it’s the same vibe.
“The key to coaching is love,” Sweeney once said. “It’s not knowledge; it’s not discipline. If you love ’em, you can discipline them. If you love ’em, you can yell at them and laugh about it later.”
That’s what it feels like at Ferris.
And what it sounds like, talking to Anesse.
“We are not the type of people who look at any situation as the glass is half empty,” he says. “We are positive about every little circumstance. If we have injuries, we are excited about the next man up. That’s just our mentality.”
When Campbell went down with an ankle injury — he has played just five games this year — this team didn’t panic. It got excited for Travis Russell, a senior quarterback who could have left as a graduate transfer but stayed.
“He came back here, knowing Jayru was coming back as the reigning Harlon Hill winner,” Annese says. “He said, ‘Coach, I can’t leave my guys.’
“That’s what I’m talking about authentic culture. It’s based on love.”
‘I love him’
After the practice, the Bulldogs gather in a circle around Annese, and I’m thinking: ‘Oh boy, they really are going to start singing.’
But Annese is urging his players to go to a volleyball match on campus that night, as a show of support. Then, maybe, those volleyball players would support the football team.
“Young people have to learn, if you want something, you have to give something,” Annese says.
Everything is lesson. This is what sports should be — an extension of the classroom.
Learning something far more important than Xs and Os.
“I learned a long time ago, you are a coach for the right reasons, to serve young people,” he says. “As a high school coach, sometimes, it’s easier to see than a college coach. A college coach, there are too many forces that pull you away from that mentality, meaning, people are trying to steal your job.”
Annese spent 22 years as a high school coach at Montrose, Ann Arbor Pioneer, Jenison and Muskegon, winning three state titles.
And he is still a high school coach at heart, who just happens to be coaching in college.
“There are so many ways to describe coach Annese,” Jevon Shaw, a senior from Farmington Hills Harrison, says. “Loving. Caring. Funny. I’d characterize him as a jackrabbit. He’s out here, he’s hyped up. Always running around. Always yelling. But in the coach’s office, you have a friend you can always go to. He’s been a good dude to me — always has been. I love him.”
“You don’t even have to say the word to feel it to fee the love,” Shaw says. “There is so much out here.”
I left the field, feeling good for a change. You really can feel something different at Ferris.
Of course, maybe, it’s just being around a winner.
Contact Jeff Seidel: email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel.