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Head Football Coach Mark SpeckmanHead Football Coach Mark Speckman

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Success Beyond the Field

Head Football Coach Mark Speckman just led the Bearcats to their best season in a decade, but the hardest part is yet to come: recruiting for next year.

"Recruitment during the off-season is much more difficult and time consuming than coaching during the season," he says. "We travel far in search of people who can really play and who are talented academically."

Willamette's emphasis on good athletes who are equally strong scholars makes recruiting a bit different than at a Division I sports program, but it's also what makes the University's athletes special, Speckman says. "Our athletes have a lot less of a sense of entitlement. They give a lot of time to football, but there is no slack when it comes to doing well in school. There's nowhere to hide in the Willamette curriculum. Their excellence has to reach to the classroom as well as the field."

Anyone wondering what defines a scholar athlete needed only to listen to the national anthem at the Bearcats' final game in November against the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater in the NCAA Division III playoffs. Tight end Josh Lee, who majored in music and hopes to become a teacher, stood tall on the sidelines in his football uniform and pads as he wowed the crowd with his vocal rendition of the song.

"Our starting tight end stood up there and sang the national anthem -- and not only sang it, but knocked it out of the ballpark -- and then got out there and scored a touchdown against the defending national champions," Speckman says. "Only at Willamette. That's the kind of student we have here. Kids get the full deal."

Speckman has coached Willamette's team for 14 years, first as an offensive coordinator, and as head coach since 1998. He was here in 1997 when the Bearcats were undefeated until losing a heartbreaking national championship game, 14-7. He has watched the team go through ups and downs since then, culminating this fall in an undefeated regular season and a trip through the second round of the playoffs.

What worked so well for the Bearcats this year? "If I knew, I'd write a book and be a millionaire," Speckman says. "I do know we had guys who could make plays, especially on offense. We could strike from anywhere on the field."

The team's success brought more fans to the games, and Speckman says the support did not go unnoticed. "It was really neat seeing a lot of the alumni, professors and administrators coming out to the games. People were getting really excited about Willamette, and the kids appreciated it."

The students also appreciate their coach, who was named 2008 Northwest Conference Coach of the Year and was a finalist for Liberty Mutual Coach of the Year. In addition to working hard with the players on the field, Speckman takes time to run summer football camps for the community and has so many motivational speaking engagements that he had to hire someone to manage his speaking schedule.

Speckman's care for his athletes is obvious in the way he describes them, and it's also evident from a peek into his office -- it's filled with photos of teams and players.

"We work with quality young men that really have their priorities in order," he says. "They're scholar athletes, they play because they love to play, they're low ego and everybody does well in class. They've got everything you want in a football player."