by Dr. James Thrasher
Imagine being the new coach of one of the worst Division III football programs in the country. The program sat at zero wins and 20 losses after back-to-back winless seasons heading into the 2016 campaign, which garnered a national ranking of 207 out of 238 Division III football programs. As you approach your head coaching debut and the team is assembled for the beginning of camp, what do you say? The players are hanging on your every word because they have not won a college football game in two years.
What will be the difference maker? A pep talk, new uniforms, and motivational posters in the locker room? No, this coach knew that all the superficial fixes would not bring wholesale change. The very roots of the program needed to be reexamined in the context of the Athletic Department’s commitment to a Christ-centered mission in the development of student athletes as people, competitors, and teammates.
After studying leadership in the Scriptures and many individual leaders in sports and business, new head coach Andrew DiDonato knew he needed to ask two fundamental questions: why does this program exist and what is its purpose? His answer: this football team’s existence and purpose are to glorify God, and that will be accomplished through three guiding principles. These principles were similarly confirmed by great leaders like Moses and David, Sam Walton and Walt Disney, Bobby Bowden, and Nick Saban.
These leadership principles: Vision, Process, Love.
The phrase “brick by brick” was born to illustrate these three principles. Many of the historic and stately buildings here at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania are built out of red brick. These buildings had a blueprint—Vision. The masons, directed by the blueprint, painstakingly and precisely built the walls—Process. The mortar was the adhesive and glue that kept the bricks together—Love. This phrase became the reference point as the players became bricklayers in boldly devoting themselves to a cause bigger than themselves.
So what vision was shared by Coach DiDonato on that August 2016 afternoon that transformed the program and that made history at Grove City? Coach walked up and down the aisles of the auditorium repeating with great passion, “To Glorify God, in the pursuit of earning a degree, building lasting relationships, and competing for President’s Athletic Conference Championships.”
He said, “Focus on your vision, not your circumstance.” Looking beyond the past, DiDonato shared that this new vision would keep the team focused, fueled, and help them finish.
Process would be lived out through the phrase “see a little, see a lot; see a lot, see nothing.” He told the players to just lay a brick and invest in getting better in their positions every day.
Love would be practically lived out by genuinely caring for and investing in one another and applying the phrase “each of us needs all of us.”
The results of this transforming vision didn’t happen overnight. The losing streak would reach 33 games before the team earned its first win in 2017. Since that humbling beginning, the turnaround that the Lord has brought about through this coach and football team is unprecedented in the Division III football record books. In the last five years, the program has 44 wins and 12 losses, and has achieved four Bowl Championships, one Conference Championship, one NCAA National Championship Sweet 16 appearance, and a NCAA Division III 2023 #10 final ranking by both national polls.
The reason for this success might be different than one would expect. Yes, the team now recruits nationally, has an outstanding coaching staff, and has players who are incredibly gifted and execute on the field, but those aspects of the program are not the reason for this unbelievable transformation.
The real reason is the power of the Gospel. Coach DiDonato shares the Gospel and how to live out a personal relationship with Christ during two pre-season camp chapels each season. He then integrates the truths of the Scriptures with the challenges before the team and with life after practice each day. The sincere and widespread individual spiritual growth of the players allowed them to play free and full. Attempting to play for God’s glory, as one’s sole motivation, changes everything. All of life is worship, and the players are encouraged to play confidently knowing God’s peace, presence, and power. The guys prepare and play for something bigger than themselves. They unearth God’s treasures by being a steward, to the fullest extent, of the gifts and abilities which the Lord has entrusted to them—and that wins ball games.
Nothing can capture this road traveled better than this post game message from Coach DiDonato (over 462,000 views on X/Twitter) after winning this year’s President’s Athletic Conference Championship:
It is that transforming message that has transformed a team and a program.
—Dr. Jim Thrasher is the Senior Advisor to the Vice President for Student Recruitment and the coordinator of the Institute for Faith & Freedom’s working group on calling.