Kevin Cowherd: As its record soars, Johns Hopkins football team stays grounded

November 18, 2011|Kevin Cowherd

Want to see a small-college football program that gets it? Gets its core mission and still is wildly successful? Coached by a guy who doesn't think he's God just because he walks the sideline with a set of headphones and a play chart on Saturdays in the fall?

Then come out to Homewood Field on Saturday and watch undefeated Johns Hopkins play St. John Fisher of Rochester, N.Y., in the first NCAA home playoff game in Blue Jays history.

Go watch the Jays' terrific quarterback, senior Hewitt Tomlin, the Centennial Conference's Offensive Player of the Year. Or watch the senior-dominated defense led by safety Michael Milano and linebacker Ryan Piatek, the school's active career leader in tackles.

After that, hang around and talk to Jim Margraff, the winningest coach in Hopkins history over 22 seasons, who seems to care not a whit that his 10-0 team is largely flying under the media radar — again.

"It's been a great year," Margraff said the other day. "We've won seven [Centennial] championships in the last 10 years, so we're on a good roll. … This is a very good team. We'll see where we end up."

Want to know the sad thing? To this day, lots of people don't even know Hopkins has a football team, never mind the 10th-ranked Division III team in the country with a 15-game winning streak.

Mention Hopkins and they think lacrosse. Or they think of it as the consummate nerd school because of its towering academic reputation, sort of a Slide Rule U.

Yes, I know this shocks you, but there aren't too many lunk-heads on this Hopkins team. Nine players made the academic All-District team.

Daniel Wodicka, a sophomore wide receiver and former Mr. Indiana Football, majors in bio-medical engineering, the kind of major that makes the blood seep from your forehead, you have to study so hard. John Arena, a sophomore outside linebacker, studies neuroscience and has a 4.0 GPA.

No, these aren't guys who sit around the locker room snapping towels and talking about last night's episode of "Jersey Shore." The conversations can get pretty esoteric. A recent subject: a construction crane that towers over one of the science buildings.

"We're [stretching] the other day, and one of the kids goes: 'How high do you think that is?'" Margraff recalled. "And one of our freshmen goes: 'Give me a shadow and an angle and I'll tell you.' A discussion breaks out about the whole thing.

"And I'm sitting there going: 'Where else, during a stretch, with the biggest game of the year coming up, would you get that?'"

It reminded Margraff of an incident that occurred years ago, in his third season as Hopkins coach. Defensive lineman Jelani Rucker, a Poly grad, had just won the prestigious Johns Hopkins Space Grant. This was a full scholarship to study engineering and science related to space technology.

"So one time I was saying to the team: 'We don't have any rocket scientists here,'" Margraff said with a laugh. "And I see Jelani put his hand up."

Rather than run from their brainiac image, Hargraff urges the Blue Jays to embrace it.

"Even in the game program [photos], I tell them: 'I want big smiles,'" he says. "I want people to look and say, 'What a bunch of geeks.' Then I want us to come and bring it on Saturdays."

The low-key MarGraff, 51, seems like a perfect fit as the Blue Jays' coach. He was a four-year starter at quarterback for Hopkins in the late 1970s and early 1980s. And he totally relates to the challenges Hopkins football players face because of unrelenting academic demands.

"Football has to be their best two hours of the day," Margraff said. "A kid can't come out of chem lab and have us yell at him. Now, yes, it's an intense sport. And someone's going to get yelled at once in a while. But we'll make sure to find that guy later on and put an arm around him and make sure he knows exactly where we are with things.

"Football is nothing close to life and death," he continued. "It's important. But it's nowhere near the most important thing that Johns Hopkins does as an institution."

This year, even as the Blue Jays chase an NCAA championship and try to go undefeated, Margraff's message to his players is simple: "Pressure's for surgeons and soldiers. This is fun. Don't make it any more of it than that."

Occasionally, he even has to remind himself of that truism.

"When I'm getting really nervous before a game," he said, "I've told the kids: 'You try being a surgeon and operating on a child while his parents are in the next room. That's pressure. This is football.'"

And that's a coach — and a program — that gets it.

kevin.cowherd@baltsun.com

Listen to Kevin Cowherd at 7:20 a.m. Tuesdays on 105.7 The Fan's "Norris and Davis Show."

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