Lessons From Mt. Clef Stadium

By Steven E. Ames, Ed.D.

It is not unusual that a college or university the size of CLU would see some of its student-athletes become coaches. What sets Cal Lutheran apart from many others is that at least four of its former Kingsmen football players have gone on to coach in the National Football League.

What is it about CLU, with a current enrollment of fewer than 2,200 undergraduate students, that has prepared these alumni coaches to reach the pinnacle in the football world? Rod Marinelli '72 most recently was head coach of the Detroit Lions. Mike Sheppard '73 is wide receivers coach for the Cincinnati Bengals. Steve Hagen' 83, former tight ends and quarterbacks coach with the Cleveland Browns, is now tight ends coach for the University of North Carolina Tar Heels. And Cory Undlin '94, (MA '03), is defensive backs coach with the Cleveland Browns.

Marinelli, who took over as head coach of the Detroit Lions in 2006 after spending 10 seasons as an assistant coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers under Head Coach Tony Dungy, says his experience at Cal Lutheran gave him the coaching philosophy he uses today. Players come first, he explains. "You want to create a great environment for coaches to teach in and for players to learn in. It [CLU] is a great teaching school, and it always has been. The coaches made it special in terms of developing guys who wanted to be teachers and coaches."

A team captain and National Association of Intercollegiate Athletes (NAIA) All-America offensive tackle at California Lutheran College, Marinelli began as an undergraduate at Utah in 1968, where he played offensive and defensive tackle. After military service in Vietnam, he attended Cal Lutheran with a physical education major, and was a member of Bob Shoup's legendary 1971 NAIA National Championship team.

Taking the National Championship

"We won the national championship with a bunch of guys who, I think, went into coaching and loved football," Marinelli recalls. "It was football at its very finest to me."

Among his teammates on the championship roster was Sheppard, who has coached for seven NFL teams. Sheppard says his Cal Lutheran experience shaped everything about him. "When I was here [at CLU] it was a critical time like it is in most young people's lives. It shaped everything spiritually, personally and professionally. Everything I am about is largely because of Cal Lutheran."

A business and economics major, Sheppard was a two-sport athlete. He played wide receiver for Shoup's football team and shortstop/second base for Coach Ron Stillwell in baseball.

Both alumni agree that their Cal Lutheran coaches were great role models. "The coaches were not only outstanding coaches, but better people," Sheppard points out. "This meant that the players were coached by men with character. They were smart and understood what they had to do to be effective coaches."

Although he initially didn't think about going into coaching, the encouragement by CLC coaches plus a contact by then Dean of Students Ron Kragthorpe landed Sheppard a job as an assistant graduate coach at Brigham Young University. "That's what got me started," he concludes.

Inspired by Coach

Hagen, who also played wide receiver during the head-coaching era of Shoup (1962-89), concurs. He fondly remembers playing for Shoup and the many wins the football team garnered.

"Bob Shoup was a great football coach," he notes. "He was probably the inspiration of why I chose to coach — just because of his style, the way he coached."

Growing up in Thousand Oaks, Hagen was a ball boy for the Dallas Cowboys every summer when they came to Cal Lutheran for training camp, and he continued his service to the Cowboys after graduating with a business degree. His first job out of college was as an office assistant with the Cowboys in Dallas. Hagen describes coaching as an art — an art of communication. On the other hand, he believes "teaching football involves teaching confidence, courage and reactionary speed."

During Undlin's freshman year in 1990, CLU was making the transition from NAIA Division II to National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division III. The next year, the Kingsmen beat undefeated Redlands, knocking the Bulldogs out of the playoffs. Undlin believes this win was a stepping-stone for CLU.

"We kind of got it going once we got into [NCAA] Division III. We had a good football team that year, a lot of great guys."

A Kingsmen defensive back for four years, Undlin went on to serve as CLU's linebackers coach then defensive coordinator following graduation. He relishes his days at Cal Lutheran: "As an athlete, it gave me an opportunity to play football and be around some great people, friends I still see and talk to every single day and coaches I still keep in touch with — Joe Harper, Coach [Scott] Squires — and I played and lived with Ben McEnroe [now CLU's head football coach]."

Life in the NFL

When Marinelli talks about life in the National Football League, he points to the difference fundamentals, work ethic, attention to detail, leadership, passion and commitment truly make. The former Lions' head coach, who coached at the high school and university levels before moving to the NFL, also talks about wanting a roster made up of players who have true "football character" — players who have such a profound love of football that they will not allow anything to compromise or interfere with their desire and preparation to be the very best they can be.

His words have a familiar ring to faculty member Tim Hengst '72, who was a teammate of Marinelli's. "Rod's words about success in the NFL echo what he learned and modeled at Cal Lutheran," Hengst remembers. "This fundamental premise still reverberates not only on our athletic fields, but also throughout the academic corridors, our classrooms, student activities and the arts. It's no wonder CLU has turned out so many success stories."

Steven Ames is a part-time lecturer in communication at CLU.

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