2003 changed the course of Michigan Tech football
HOUGHTON — In the 100-year history of the Michigan Tech Huskies’ football program, the most recent years have been some of the most prosperous, even despite the team’s current 1-4 record. However, it wasn’t all that long ago that the program nearly died off, thanks to a decision to cut the program following the 2003 season.
Dan Mettlach, who serves now as an associate head coach and offensive coordinator for the Huskies, was caught in the middle of a wild two-week sequence that set in motion a renewed drive for the Huskies to take the next step as a program.
In the Spring of 2003, Mettlach had just finished up his third season with the Huskies. He was the starting quarterback of a team that had gone 3-7 in 2002. The Huskies finished the season losing six of their final seven games.
One morning, as he and his teammates approached the SDC Gym, something seemed alarming. The lights in the large room were still off.
“We found out the morning of one of our morning conditionings,” he said. “So it was 6:30 or 6:15 in the morning, or whatever, in the wood gym. All the lights were off. All the guys were kind of wondering what was going on. Then coach (Bernie) Anderson came in and gave us the news.
“(It was) about a 5-10 minute conversation. Everybody didn’t know what to think. People were upset and whatever else, kind of wondering what the next step was going to be. So you’re walking out in the SDC at 6:30 in the morning, not knowing what’s going to happen.”
While trying to process the decision that was made by the Athletic Department, Mettlach and his teammates had decisions to make, should they stay or should they go? He recalls that some of his professors were wondering why he and his teammates were even bothering coming to class, given that they could be out looking to transfer.
For Mettlach, the whole experience was surreal in that moment.
“It was one of those deals where you’re sitting there questioning, ‘man do I really feel like going to school right now?’ because of the state of everything else,” he said. “Then you’re getting to class and some of the professors are wondering why you’re there.”
Over the course of the next two weeks, several team members did attend recruiting trips, trying to find a new school to play for. Others made the decision to stick around, even if there was no hope of playing another game at Michigan Tech.
As rumors spread that there might be enough support from the alumni and the community to fund the return of the program, Mettlach and his teammates had another distraction to deal with: should they continue to search for a new home, or stay in Houghton on the chance that the program would return.
“We went on visits,” he said. “Some of us went on visits together. Certain teams were recruiting the same guys. You’re trying to find out not only what’s going to be a fit football-wise, but academically, three years into your college career. What transfers, what doesn’t, and so it was an odd time.”
When it was announced that the program would return, Mettlach could hardly contain his excitement. Over the coming days, the team learned that only a handful of players had decided to transfer, meaning that they would return most of its starters for the 2003 season.
Also, new to the program in 2003 was the VIP pavilion at Sherman Field. Built by kicker Grant Botz’s father and stocked by Jim and Julie Cortright, the space became a gathering place for alumni and fans alike. Mettlach also commends the efforts of Sue Johnson, who coordinated the VIP program. With such support, the team came into the 2003 season excited to know that they were supported by more than just their families.
During the 2003 season, the Huskies won their opening game, but then lost the next four. There is an adage in sports that teams need to learn how to win. Mettlach felt that was exactly what was going on with the team, because once they figured it out, they won four of their last five games.
That knowledge proved valuable heading into the 2004 season. Mettlach and the Huskies defeated Northern Michigan to open the season and never looked back, winning their next eight games and setting up a huge matchup against perennially-ranked Grand Valley State.
With the conference title up for grabs, the two teams met at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor. The Huskies ultimately lost three players to injury in the game and lost the game, but they did get to play in front of 52,000 fans, something every player on that team will remember for the rest of their lives.
In that moment, Mettlach and his teammates were just focused on football.
“We stayed not too far from the stadium,” he said. “So there were, obviously, quite a few alums around the two hotels that we were at. My wife now, girlfriend at the time, went to Michigan, so we were driving by, and we saw her tailgate, and there were a bunch of our buddies out there.”
Afterwards, the Huskies learned just how much it meant to alumni and the community to be a part of a very special moment dubbed, the “Bash at the Big House.”
“We got out of our team dinner at the hotel that night, and the amount of people that were just around the parking lot, or in the hotel, or the hotel next door, was unlike any other game we had had before,” he said. “When we meet alums, or talk to alums, or Tech supporters, whatever, that were at that game, we still get people to come up to us.”
The Huskies earned the chance to play in, and host, their first NCAA playoff game that season. While they lost to North Dakota, the experience was one that helped set the tone for the next 18 seasons of Michigan Tech football.
Now a coach with the program, Mettlach instills the same principles in players that he was held to in his playing days.
“There is no easy way to get wins, but I think the thing I appreciate about this place is we do not take shortcuts, just to get wins,” he said. “We’re going to do things the right way, the Michigan Tech way. The guys that have been in that program understand what that means. That part, to me, is you know whether you’re 1-4 or 5-0, that part makes Michigan Tech special.”