A Few Good Men
- Updated: January 10, 2014
Rader, Ierulli, Wilks each deserving credit for MC breakthrough season
By Stefan Cooper
Blount Press Row
The Maryville College football team had been decimated before it left town that Friday morning.
A campus-wide bout with the flu hadn’t spared the Scots. Forty-two players, less than half the roster, boarded the bus for Hampden-Sydney.
Maryville was humbled the next day, 82-14.
Tony Ierulli wasn’t looking for vengeance when the Scots returned to Hampden-Sydney for an NCAA Division III playoff opener two months ago. The Tigers hadn’t run up the score during the 2003 meeting.
It was the last game of Ierulli’s first season. The seniors wanted to play, so they made the best of it.
Ierulli was let go as Maryville coach eight years later. In the two years since, new Scots coach Mike Rader has delivered back-to-back conference championships and the first Maryville team to reach the NCAA playoffs in school history.
Rader, the USA South Athletic Conference Coach of the Year, has been a terrific hire in all respects. He’s 14-7 at the Maryville helm, 11-3 in conference play. The rub lies in giving Ierulli his due, and he’s due some, when it comes to Maryville’s historic season – as is Phil Wilks, the coach dismissed to make room for Ierulli.
As pivotal a moment as any in the history of Maryville football was the decision to leave the Old Dominion Athletic Conference in 1988. The scheduling challenges it unleashed had terrible consequences, with Wilks, for years, absorbing the brunt.
Often, to complete a 10-game season, Maryville was forced to schedule teams the Scots had no business playing: NAIA schools looking to move to NCAA Division II (Tusculum); former junior colleges with huge, lingering recruiting advantages (North Greenville); recent Division III national champions (Wittenberg).
Wilks and his Scots paid a steep price to keep football alive at Maryville. It would be no different for Ierulli.
Maryville helped found the Great South Athletic Conference in 1999, giving most Scots teams a conference title and an automatic NCAA tournament berth to play for each season. Most Great South schools didn’t have football, so Wilks and the gridiron Scots remained independent, the scheduling and difficulty reaching postseason no different.
After that first season in 2003, Ierulli made getting Maryville into a conference for football his No. 1 priority. With then dean of students Bill Seymour championing the effort with the administration, Maryville joined the USA South in 2005, Ierulli’s third season.
November’s historic playoff appearance doesn’t happen if Maryville doesn’t make that move.
All Maryville teams joined the USA South with the 2012-2013 school year. By that point, Ierulli had begun to fall prey to the same thing that took an increasing toll during Wilks’ tenure: money to hire coaches.
Ierulli had one of the youngest coaching staffs you’ve ever seen toward the end. Many of his assistants coaches were recent Maryville players.
He was allotted $70,000 to pay three coaches his first season. The football budget, excluding salaries and travel, was $49,000. It reached $80,000 by Ierulli’s final season. That final season in 2011, the third and last paid assistant on Ierull’s staff took home $24,000.
Jim Pavao, Wilks’ close friend and defensive coordinator, worked a second job during his time at Maryville.
“I was shocked at some of what Phil did with so few resources,” Ierulli said.
Ierulli took home $50,000 in his final season. Soon, he was not only losing his assistants to other colleges; they were leaving for high school jobs.
Ierulli’s dismissal shortly after the final game of the 2011 season sparked a firestorm as players, faculty, staff and alumni took sides. Maryville’s reasons for letting him go we’ll leave between the school and the coach. That’s not what this is about.
With the suddenness Rader has given Maryville a national presence, the belief has begun to take root Ierulli, and Wilks before him, just couldn’t coach, and that just isn’t the case.
In his brief stay, Ierulli actually became the third winningest coach in school history.
As the search for Ierulli’s successor commenced, many friends of the program got a look at the numbers. When they settled on Rader, they made sure, this time, the new coach got everything he needed to build a winner. Maryville defensive coordinator Scott Brumett and offensive line/strength coach Phillip Bailey have been worth every penny.
Brumett crafted the USA South’s top defense in his first season a year ago, the Scots finishing second in total defense this fall. Under his guidance, senior linebacker Dylan Wolfenbarger joined a rare few Scots to be named an All-American.
Bailey’s work with the guys up front helped senior running back Travis Felder set a new Maryville single-season rushing record. The Scots had the USA South’s top-ranked running game largely as a consequence. Bailey’s program in the weight room produced a fitter Maryville team that kept its starters on the field for the duration of the season
That said the Scots weren’t in tatters when Ierulli was let go.
Maryville won four of its last five games that season. Recruiting was on the upswing. Felder, Wolfenbarger, receivers Ed Johnson and Blake Williams, tight end Jared Miller and defensive end Jamie Owen, all were Ierulli recruits.
Put with the Scots Rader brought aboard – sophomore quarterback Evan Pittenger, freshmen running backs Trenton Shuler and Deshijon Whitlock, to name a few – and Maryville has been an electric team the last two seasons. Ierulli left them some parting gifts to get started.
Scheduling Tennessee Tech two years ago seemed an outrageous thing. The Golden Eagles, who compete in the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision, are a program where most of the players are on athletic scholarship.
That Maryville team, that game, specifically, paid for $25,000 in new field equipment, practice sleds, weight room equipment and some of the uniform upgrades the Scots took the field in the following season.
When Ierulli was relieved of his duties, it wasn’t simply a coach losing his job. Ierulli is a Maryville graduate. He met his wife, Carol, there. Two of his children graduated from Maryville. He was captain of the football team his senior year.
Ierulli moved to Carson-Newman after leaving Maryville, where he’s served as an assistant coach the last two seasons. He’s kept up with the Scots. Rader and he not only have a good professional relationship, they understand each other on a fundamental level.
Ierulli himself was once a young coach starting out.
“Coach Rader and I have talked the last two years,” Ierulli said, “and he’s a class guy. If I was looking for a football coach, I’d hire Mike Rader.”
Ierulli’s dismissal had the unintended consequence of informing alumni how underfunded football was at Maryville. Influential alumni then got involved in the search for his replacement and, once Rader was hired, made sure he wasn’t burdened with the same shackles.
Shazam! Maryville became a winner.
There’s a line from the Lorraine Hansberry classic “A Raisin in the Sun” that best sums it up.
The play’s protagonist, Walter, has just lost all the insurance money the family received from his father’s death on a failed business venture. Walter’s sister, Beneatha, doesn’t cut him any slack and rails on him for losing the dough. That’s when the play’s heroine, Lena, the mom, steps in with the production’s most memorable line.
“When you starts measuring somebody, measure him right, child,” she says, “measure him right. Make sure you done taken into account what hills and valleys he come through before he got to wherever he is.”