Wayne State ditches 'toxic' vibe, returns to national rankings
Detroit — Following the 2011 season, in which Wayne State made a stunning run to the Division II national championship game, longtime coach Paul Winters had a chance to move on and up.
Division I Akron, his alma mater, came calling.
But Winters decided to stay put, turning down a chance to double his salary.
"It comes down to, every morning you get up and you want to go to work," Winters said the other day, in his modest office at the Matthaei athletic complex.
"I have worked at Wisconsin, Toledo, Akron, and Wayne State. Obviously, I wasn't the head coach at all those places. I just like to come to work every day. And I didn't necessarily like that every day at those other places."
Then came 2013, and Wayne State followed a 3-2 start with a six-game losing streak to end the season — a losing streak that led to a divided locker room like Winters had never before seen. There were cliques. Some upperclassmen mailed it in, while younger players stayed committed, leading to some serious locker-room tension. More players started grumbling about their lack of touches than the lack of wins. It got ugly, former players and the coach said.
So, was Winters kicking himself for staying?
Winters laughed — he can laugh about it now — but he wasn't laughing then.
"In the middle of that losing streak, it was awful," Winters said, stone-faced. "I didn't enjoy coming to work, I didn't necessarily enjoy the team. I don't think we got it, you know?
"This team gets it."
Led by a mammoth senior class that's been through all the ups and the downs you can imagine and always vowed never again to let what happened in 2013 happen again, Wayne State is off to a 6-1 start and ranked No. 22 in the Division II rankings entering Saturday's noon home game against Saginaw Valley State.
Winters calls this the cohesive team he's ever coached, and perhaps the most talented, too, and that includes 2011, when Wayne State, the last team in the playoff field, amazingly kept winning and winning until it finally lost to Pittsburg State, 35-21, in the title game.
"To say (that run) wasn't on the map," said Sean Baligian, the radio voice of Wayne State, "would be an understatement."
Not this year, though, Baligian said. This team, led by a crazy-dominant offensive line, an off-the-charts rushing attack and a sophomore quarterback who's as tough as he is talented, this Wayne State team won't sneak up on anybody.
It's still a long road to even get to the playoffs — Wayne State has to travel to No. 25 Ferris State next weekend, and will host No. 2 Grand Valley State in the regular-season finale — so there are no promises being made in the narrow, dimly lit hallways at Matthaei.
Except for this: Whatever happens, the team will remain one.
Some good, certainly, comes with playing for a national championship. Recruiting, for one, is an easier sell.
The expectations, though, certainly can be a burden.
"Impossible," Winters, 58, Wayne State's coach since 2004, said when asked how you live up to that. "The people who don't follow college football expect if you've had one great year, for every year to be a great year, like Alabama or Ohio State. But look at Michigan State."
Wayne State dipped to 5-5 in 2012, and after it got off to the 3-2 start in 2013, the floor collapsed, and so did the locker room.
Seniors on the 2013 team were sophomores or redshirt freshman in 2011, and if you ask folks all around the Wayne State program, they'll tell you that once the losing started in 2013, many of the upperclassmen, expecting a national-title run of their own, packed it in. Many of the underclassmen didn't.
You get where this is going.
"We kind of knew something was not right," said Dalton Binkowski, a senior nose tackle from Romeo High School. "Everybody didn't have the same goals and the same mindset. After we lost a couple games, sort of half the team gave up, while the other half didn't want to.
"It was just contagious and it's not good."
It was a helpless feeling for the freshman and sophomores in 2013. They remained hungry, but soon found themselves with no leaders to look up to.
"It was bad," said Robert Kelly, a senior guard from Chandler Park Academy. "There were a few guys, and they were seniors, that just wanted individual stats and were playing for themselves. That hurt us a lot."
Many of those around the program called the atmosphere, "toxic."
Winters wouldn't dispute that.
"There were some guys, I think, that felt like they had accomplished something over their career, and I owed them maybe more a piece of the team, get you the ball more or something along those lines," he said. "The fact is, the 2011 team was just that, a team. It wasn't about who was getting the ball or who was getting the publicity.
"In 2013, it was more about touches and things that had nothing to do with winning."
The worst part about it? The rebellion was led, in part, by the so-called leaders.
"And, you know," said Winters, "when it's your leaders, it's a big problem.
"And, you know, it's funny, because quite honestly, the 2011 team, those guys were sophomores on that team and redshirt freshman on that team, and they contributed. But we didn't have the success because of those guys. We had success that they were a part of."
It was so bad that was serious talk of canceling the season-ending banquet. Ultimately, they went through with it but regretted it.
Binkowski, Kelly and other members of the current senior class — who were youngsters back then — stuck together during that season and vowed that when it was their time to be the leaders, things would be different. .
And they've lived up to that pledge.
Setting the tone
Wayne State went 7-4 in 2014, then 6-5 in 2015 — a year Winters said he saw some of that selfishness creeping back into play. It's something coaches of all sports at every level fight at some point.
Winters installed a leadership council, and after the 2015 season, he even dismissed four players, some of them stars, for not being team players. He didn't have to do that after the 2013 season, because, as he noted, most of the problem players had moved on via graduation.
Meanwhile, the rest of the soon-to-be-senior class had long been laying the foundation for change. Some 70 players were participating regularly in the optional summer workouts, a 30- or 40-percent bump from previous years.
"The seniors, we got together and we set goals for the team," said Kelly, who admitted in past years he wasn't a full-time summer participant. "We would get together and discuss different things about the team, how we can strive.
"We weren't going to be like year's past."
"Oh yeah, absolutely," Binkowski said. "Between us seniors, we wanted to have a year unlike any other year. We knew we had the guys to do it."
Wayne State opened the season with a 28-3 victory over Northwood.
Then, in Week 2, Wayne State loss to then-No. 5 Ashland, 36-25. This would've been a time in past years, especially 2013, when the bottom would've started falling out. But not for this year's team.
It just went right back to work — and worked even harder. It was noticeable, too.
"Our seniors, we said, 'We don't want to see anybody's head down,'" Binkowski said. "We were not gonna dwell on it, we were 1-1, an average team. We took it and said, 'Hey, this happened, what's done is done, move on to the next week.'"
Since then, Wayne State has reeled off five consecutive victories, over Lake Erie, Tiffin, Hillsdale, Findlay and Walsh, to crack the Division II rankings ahead of Saturday's game against a 4-2 Saginaw Valley State team.
A big crowd is expected at Tom Adams Field, where the buzz is growing, and the players are feeling it — from Wednesdays, when several of the players who don't have class throw on their uniforms and hand out tickets to students on campus, to game days, with the full-team Warrior Walk, starting at Manoogian Hall and proceeding across the Lodge and through the tailgates to the stadium.
Fans are getting into it again, because the players have bought into it again.
"This group cares about each other more than maybe any other team we've had," Winters said. "This group is really a rock-solid unit.
"It's not about me, me, me. It's about us."
2016 Wayne State football
Division II ranking: 22nd
Ground game: Wayne State is averaging 300.6 rushing yards per game, with two players, Romello Brown (9.1) and Deiontae Nicholas (9.7), averaging nearly 10 yards per carry. Brown has rushed for 1,000 yards through seven games.
Offensive line: Dubbed the "Men In Black," the unit has flat-out dominated this season, helping sophomore quarterback Donovan Zezula to complete 60.7 percent of his passes and throw for 11 touchdowns, to just four interceptions. A Matthew Stafford-type, he doesn't shy from hits.
Professional prospects: Every NFL team has visited Wayne State at least once, with about half visiting at least twice, to check out the potential of RB Romello Brown, G Robert Kelly and G Tommy Richardson, among some others.
Tough conference: The GLIAC is considered the best Division II league in football, with four teams ranked, including Grand Valley State (7-0), Ashland (6-1), Wayne State and Ferris State (5-2). Wayne State visits Ferris State on Oct. 29, and hosts Grand Valley State on Nov. 12.
Up next: Wayne State hosts Saginaw Valley State at Tom Adams Field at noon Saturday.