The Baker University football team will try to accomplish something no other athletics team at the school in Baldwin City, Kansas has pulled off—winning a national championship. The Wildcats (14-0) will play Saint Francis (12-1) of Fort Wayne, Indiana, for the NAIA title Saturday in Daytona Beach, Florida.
In the highly competitive world of football recruiting, the approach at a small school like Baker is different.
If you imagine a bunch of mammoth-sized, 6-foot-6, 250-pounders, your picture would be distorted. “We might get one, but we’re not getting four of them,” says Mike Grossner, the Baker Wildcats head coach since 2004. Grossner is accustomed to seeing the bigger, faster players head off to a Big 12 or Southeastern Conference team instead of enrolling at BU in Baldwin City, Kansas.
Then there are guys like defensive lineman Josh Kock of Concordia, Missouri, who didn’t have the size or speed of a blue-chipper but dreamed big. “The goal out of high school was to go to Missouri, but I got shot down there pretty quickly,” says Kock.
But the 6-foot, 260-pound senior with a neck that resembles a tree trunk and a body as solid as a fire hydrant has been a great fit for Baker. Kock says he has seen others come in and look the part.
“We’ve had several guys come in here who looked like absolute monsters, who look like they would tear apart their opponent,” says Kock. “Then they would turn out to not wanting to work and exploit their talents and their abilities.”
Kock says he never misses a day lifting weights, which illustrates another characteristic of this team: the desire to win. Baker trailed by 17 points in the fourth quarter of its national semifinal, but pulled out the victory.
Quarterback Logan Brettell, who led Blue Valley High School to a Kansas state title, threw the winning pass with 38 seconds left in the game. “It’s just an incredible feeling that this team is going through right now,” says Brettell.
Brettell says many of his teammates play with a chip on their shoulders.
“There’s a lot of players that should have been given opportunities out of high school because of the type of winner that they are, but didn’t because they might not have been as big as some coaches would have liked. They might not have run as fast or jump as high,” he says.
For football prospects who reach out for a chance to play at Baker, Grossner says he’s open. He doesn’t
delete his email and he’ll listen during phone conversations. Often, Grossner says prospects eliminate themselves.
“Do they use excuses? If I get a lot of excuses, I really don’t pursue that person,” he says. “If I get blame, ‘My coach doesn’t help me get the type of offers I want. I’m reaching out to you.’ That’s a negative red flag to me.”
With that method Grossner has revived a winning tradition at Baker that was dormant since the mid-90s. The coach then was the late Charlie Richard. In college at William Jewell, Richard played football and roomed with Bill Snyder. The Kansas State coach says he applauds the Baker football team for its success.
“I think it’s absolutely great,” says Snyder. “I love the idea that college football is making an investment—I’m not talking about monetarily—I’m talking about making an investment in what would be considered smaller schools to have that kind of notoriety.”
Baker’s football season also has resonated with its alumni base.
Brettell says he’s heard from alumni he never previously met, telling him they’re pulling for the 2016 Wildcats to win the school’s first national team title in any team sport.
“That just gets me fired up. That gives me chills listening to you say that because this team this whole season has really been about making history,” says BrettelI.
“I think we’ve done that a few times this year. If there’s any team in any year, I feel like most of our team will tell you we feel like this is it.”
Compared to major colleges, the Baker football team may be smaller in size, but a national title would mean being big men on campus for years to come.
Greg Echlin is a freelance sports reporter for KCUR 89.3.