It’s not every season that an athletic program earns gets national recognition, achieves their first ever trip to Elite Eight, produce 15 all Centennial Conference honorees, and break a school record for wins in a season.
Especially under a new head coach.
But accomplishments don’t always fully illustrate the impact leaders can have on a program. For years the Muhlenberg football team had been fortunate to follow the path of a leader who was inspiring, intelligent, and motivating: Mike Donnelly.
“Duke had so much passion for making other people be there best. He was able to shape how I organize our daily, weekly and yearly schedule,”said Mules head football Coach Nate Milne. “He really provided a blueprint for success, which allows me to be myself in our meetings and on the football field,”,
Milne continued to describe Donnelly as a man who shaped him into the man and coach he is today. Coming from two different generations never phased either of these men, who learned from each other and formed a lasting bond during their time together in Allentown.
“As a person I think I learned more from Duke than he probably thought he taught me,” said Milne. “We were at different ends of our personal lives, his children were adults and mine are so young, I would listen to him tell stories about bringing them to the office in order to spend more time with them and to appreciate the time away from the office. Our staff works crazy hours, 7 days a week from August until December. Duke appreciated the finer things and always made the most of his time away from the office, as it is so precious. That is something I’ll never forget and take with me forever.”
Following Donnelly’s passing in October of 2017, Muhlenberg was looking for a new head coach to lead its football program. The search turned out to take them no farther past their own campus limits, as Milne was hired after serving the previously three years as offensive coordinator for the Mules.
“We were at different ends of our personal lives, his children were adults and mine are so young, I would listen to him tell stories about bringing them to the office in order to spend more time with them and to appreciate the time away from the office.” – Nate Milne
Despite a taste of success last year – winning an ECAC bowl game over Carnegie Mellon – Milne, his coaching staff, and his players knew they were capable of far greater things this year. Milne began the season in August entering his first full season as head coach, so the opportunity to lead the program from all facets was something he had not necessarily experienced in his previous roles with the Muhlenberg coaching staff.
“I really didn’t have a grand plan on what my expectations would be,” said Milne, a Hobart College alum. “With our program there are 104 young men and nine coaches that need to work well together each day. We really focus on each practice one at a time since there are so many moving parts.”
While Milne had many personalities to manage and a new game plan to develop each week, he proved himself capable of stepping up to the challenge as each game came and went. The Mules 2018 regular season ended with their mere loss coming in Baltimore to Johns Hopkins. Both teams ended up shared the title of 2018 Centennial Conference Champions.
There were hurdles to get over and some tough strategic football decisions to make as each game saw fit, but Milne worked through them to lead his team to its deepest playoff run in program history.
A hard fought 38-10 loss in Alliance, Ohio to defending national champion, Mount Union does not put a damper on the immense success the team had this season. Muhlenberg’s first two playoff wins this year in the round of 32 and “sweet 16” against Delaware Valley and Randolph-Macon, respectively, showed just how well Milne performed as a coach this year.
“Many of our in-game decisions make themselves. We spend hours watching film and researching the data for each game and each opponent,” said Milne.
The Mules win against Delaware Valley proved the preparation of Milne and his staff. In a tied game late in the fourth quarter the Mules chose to run on a third and long instead of attempt to gain the first down. They punted to Delaware Valley and Nick Siricco ‘21 took an interception to the endzone for what ended up being the game winning score.
“The numbers really made the decision for us. Our percentage to pick up a 3rd and very long is very low, with the extra yards gained running the football we were able to punt the ball deep and allow our defense to have a statistical advantage.”
Relying on the defense was the right call. “When our opponents have to drive more than 80 yards, our defense is successful in stopping them over 90 percent of the time. We knew the numbers and the decision is easy to make.”
Despite one of the best coaching seasons by an individual in Division III football this season, Milne is always sure to give credit to his assistant coaches, for he could not have gotten through this spectacular season without them. From leading certain team meetings, to coordinating plays for the offense, defense, and special teams, the Muhlenberg coaching staff goes far beyond the leadership of Nate Milne.
“As a coaching staff we always spend time and sharing ideas with each other,” Milne said. “This season I spoke to the defense more on game day than I have in years past but during the week Coach (Kory) David and our defensive staff handle all of the game planning. Coach David is the best defensive coordinator in Division III and the best thing I did as head coach was stay out of his way and let him do his job that he does so well.”
It might be easy to be discouraged when one’s season ends with a loss. It might even be especially tough to digest this loss knowing that one of the most special seasons in program history has been capped. But Milne is not the type of coach that is going to dwell on the few negatives of the season.
Coach David is the best defensive coordinator in Division III and the best thing I did as head coach was stay out of his way and let him do his job that he does so well.” – Nate Milne
“Our team has wonderful practice habits. The team has an ability to compete against one another at a very high level every single day in order to make one another better,” said Coach Milne following the last game of the season. “Although our roster looked similar we had a significantly deeper team in many critical positions than we have in many of the previous years.”
Leadership was also key, “Our leaders were great this season as well. We had so few upperclassmen that all of them were pushed into leadership roles and did a wonderful job of showing this team the right direction. The great practice habits and leadership allowed us to get better each week and we peaked at the right time.”
As the offseason arrives, the Muhlenberg football coaching staff has a great amount of work to do in preparation for 2019. While there will be no official games being played that will count in the win-loss column, the team does have a “special trip to Italy planned for the spring of 2019,” said Milne. Muhlenberg will “play an offseason game for the first time in Muhlenberg history and develop a chemistry prior to the fall of 2019,” Milne added.
The coaching staff plans to continue evaluating its players and game schemes to continue improving. Some coaches might simply be satisfied with this result, but Coach Milne and his staff knows that there is always room to get better, to have more fun, and to make Muhlenberg Football better than it was in its previous year.
Coming off an incredible season with so much promise for next year, Milne will continue to lead with energy, positivity, and the type of leadership that is reminiscent of Coach Donnelly.