Big Rapids, Mich. — Tony Annese let his players celebrate in cold, wet, windy conditions this month after Ferris State rallied from a fourth-quarter deficit to clinch a share of the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference title with a 35-17 victory over Northern Michigan.
A week later, Ferris State claimed the title outright, its first since 1999.
And just like that, Annese has seen the days of mediocrity — 6-5 in 2008, 1-10 in 2009, 5-6 in 2010 and 6-5 in 2011 — go by the wayside since his arrival in 2012.
"I'm just thankful that I'm coaching a great group of young men who believed and worked hard to try to make a dream a reality," Annese said. "They've earned a lot of credit and respect for what they've done."
In three season at Ferris State, Annese is 26-7, including 11-0 this season, a No. 4 Division II ranking, and a home NCAA postseason game Saturday against Ohio Dominican.
Ferris State defeated Ohio Dominican, 34-19, this season to end Dominican's 21-game regular-season winning streak.
"Coach Annese is the best at just getting the ball in people's hands and utilizing all the people that he has," said junior quarterback Jason Vander Laan, a frontrunner for the Harlon Hill Trophy — the Division II Heisman. "The option plays he has, the schemes are crazy. I've never seen them before and it helps us be successful. Every week we have two or three new installs (plays) designed for who we're going to play."
Ferris State is averaging 48 points and a nation-leading 533 yards offense in the no-huddle, spread option attack.
Successful track record
Ferris State's rise to the top starts with Annese, who won three (2004, 2006, 2008) Division 2 high school championships during a five-year stretch at Muskegon before moving to Grand Rapids Community College, where he took over a sub-.500 program in 2009 and won two NJCAA national championships (2009, 2011) in three years.
When Ferris State came calling, Annese accepted the offer, and quickly turned things around.
In his first year, he changed the culture, guiding the Bulldogs to a victory over Grand Valley State for the first time since 1999, then ending a 10-year losing streak to Michigan Tech.
Annese was 7-4 that season, followed by an 8-3 mark last year with another victory over Grand Valley State.
"It's been the same formula at every level," Annese said. "You kind of set the parameters for how you run a program, then put the pieces in place. It's basically a foundation, first of developing a relationship and trust with young people and making sure they know that your mission is really to serve them and to help them be successful because ultimately if they don't know that, don't know the kind of person you are they'll doubt you at some point in time.
"When we took this, we talked about the fact you can't look too far ahead.
"It's just about getting better every day. It's all about putting a vision out there, first setting the plan, then getting the kids to believe, talking with those kinds of expectations in mind."
Vander Laan has flourished in Annese's spread option attack, running the ball as well as throwing it.
He set a Division II season rushing record for a quarterback (1,607, 21 touchdowns) last year, and throwing for 1,741 yards with 15 touchdowns.
This season, Vander Laan has continued to run well (1,328, 19 touchdowns) and thrown for more touchdowns (27) and yards (2,140).
And, he has multiple weapons to work with, including receivers Shakur Sanders (42 receptions, 663 yards, eight touchdowns) and Jamel Lockett (34 receptions, 386 yards, two touchdowns), and running back Jahaan Brown (786 yards, eight touchdowns).
"If you have a coach that's controlled and composed then that just gets passed down to the rest of us," Vander Laan said. "When he shows that he has confidence in me than I have more confidence in myself and the offense. I just stay relaxed and that's what helped us."
The confidence showed as Vander Laan rallied Ferris State from a 17-14 fourth-quarter deficit against Northern Michigan to score the final 21 points.
After a near interception late in the third quarter which could have been returned for a 10-point Northern Michigan lead, Annese yelled to Vander Laan, "Jason, let's go now … confidence!"
Vander Laan responded with a 12-play, 86-yard touchdown drive.
"The physicality of being a good football player is one thing, the psyche of our believe system is another and that's where we've really come the most," he said. "Like the Northern Michigan game, when things are going bad, to train the mind that we're still going to be successful. It really turns a person who's just good into a person that's great and a program that's just good into a program that potentially can be great."
Ohio Dominican at Ferris State
Kickoff: Noon Saturday, Top Taggart Field, Big Rapids, Michigan
What: Second-round NCAA Division II playoff game
Records: Ferris State 11-0, Ohio Dominican 10-1
Series: Ferris leads, 3-0. Ferris handed Ohio Dominican its only loss, 34-19, on Oct. 18