BEVERLY - There was nothing at the start - no footballs, no stadium, no coaches, no players. There was simply an idea, for a school that less than a decade ago had been a women’s college. An idea built on aspirations.
The administration wanted to build pride at Endicott College and bring energy to the campus. School officials turned to athletics.
“I think as a college community, though, there was a lot of hesitation on whether football should start,’’ said Endicott president Richard E. Wylie. “I said in one of my meetings that we have an opportunity to be in football. And people said, ‘Do you really want to do it?’ ’’
The man they would hire as head coach in 2001 actually approached them. JB Wells was assistant head coach and offensive coordinator at Illinois Wesleyan, and found out about the opening when his defensive coordinator came into his office one day and asked if he knew anything about Beverly, Mass.
His grandparents had lived nearby. So he made a phone call to Endicott, a phone call that would lead to a job, a move, a football-equipment shopping spree, and the start of a program that now stands undefeated, is the best in the New England Football Conference, and is creeping toward the top 25 nationally in Division 3.
“When I took the job here, I immediately looked at lacrosse, I looked at baseball, I looked at basketball. I said, ‘How are those other sports doing?’ ’’ Wells said.
“They were all winning championships. So I figured if they can do it, we can do it.’’
Practice doesn’t start until 8 p.m. on this Wednesday. The Endicott team is a few days away from improving its record to 7-0 with a 49-0 homecoming stomping of Plymouth State. That still doesn’t get the team an earlier practice slot.
Sometimes it’s worse. Sometimes the football team has to wait until the soccer players have vacated the field, its patience tested through doubleheaders and overtimes, and occasionally not starting until nearly 10 p.m.
“They really could be walking around with a giant head, walking around this campus like they own it, and they don’t,’’ Wells said of his team. “I think part of the reason that they don’t is because we’re all part of a bigger community and we’re the new kids on the block.
“We’re not the only good program around here and we don’t act like we’re the only good one.’’
In the last nine years, the school has watched its football team blossom quickly, dip in 2007-08, and soar with the recruiting of this year’s senior class.
“During my long tenure here at Endicott, there are a lot of things I couldn’t have predicted,’’ Wylie said. “I could have dreamt about them and hoped they’d happen.
“But I think that what happened here is that you get a good person like a JB Wells and his assistant coaches, they bring in a couple of really good athletes and they bring a lot of great kids in, it just changes the culture and it just grows.’’
And with it, the school has changed.
It’s impossible to credit only the football program for the upward strides. But the links can’t be ignored.
“One of the things that is always hard to do is change the image of an institution,’’ said Wylie, who had worked at Connecticut, Temple, and Colorado before Endicott, which went coed in 1994.
But it has worked. Enrollment has increased, as has the school rankings in US News & World Report.
Building the football team, though, has come at a cost. It hasn’t been perfect.
“I think we’ve evolved,’’ Wylie said. “Endicott, when I came, had a lot of needs. And one way to stabilize the institution was to build strong athletic programs. Building a stadium and the sports center were critical. Those decisions were the right decisions.
“But I delayed in building the arts center. I delayed some of the other things because I needed to stabilize my population, and athletics was one way to do it.
“I wouldn’t change what I did. I always feel guilty that I didn’t put more emphasis on the arts and the music and the theater early in the program.’’
A big piece
The picturesque oceanside campus, perfect on this October evening, is a strange place to find a 6-foot-4-inch, 276-pound defensive lineman who is a potential NFL prospect. Truth is, Kevin Eagan never intended to go to Endicott. His parents never really believed he would go anywhere else.
He committed to Rutgers. He wavered, though, putting off his decision as he wondered whether the Big East school was a good fit.
His father had gone to a big school and transferred. His brother had gone to New Hampshire and transferred to Endicott. Eagan didn’t even get that far.
“I didn’t call the coach and tell him I wasn’t coming until the day I was supposed to go there,’’ Eagan said. “The day I was supposed to leave, I woke up, me and my dad just talked, and it wasn’t the right thing for me [to go to Rutgers]. I don’t regret it one bit.’’
Eagan’s mother had e-mailed Wells the night before to tell him that her son wouldn’t be headed to Piscataway, N.J. The family’s decision to put down a deposit on Endicott - just in case - changed Eagan’s future and, perhaps, Endicott’s.
“Everyone plays football because they enjoy the sport,’’ said Eagan. “No one is on scholarship, no one is here for free. Everyone is here because they enjoy the sport. And that aspect is what I like best.’’
That’s what Wells seeks in his players, those who are committed. There was a three-year plan to equip the team, from football tees to helmets. Now, the Gulls know who they are; they know what they need.
They have Eagan. They have quarterback Phil Konopka, about whom the Arena League has come calling. They have 5-foot-7-inch running back Mike Lane, who is averaging 150.3 rushing yards per game.
“When you’re dealing with a non-scholarship situation, they’ve got to enjoy where they’re at,’’ Wells said. “Because if it was all about football, they wouldn’t stay. We don’t own them and we know we don’t own them.’’
Things have changed since that first football squad - made up of seemingly anyone and everyone who had an interest in football - took the field. The joke went that if someone could walk and chew gum at the same time, he got a helmet.
No longer. Though the team has been through some changes, it has generally moved toward success. About four years in, though, Wells reevaluated the way he was running his program, deciding he had been listening to his players too much.
That was when he brought in the current class.
“Things started to click for us,’’ Konopka said. “Games that maybe in the first few years would have gone sour for us, the ball bounced the right way for us, and things started to change.’’
Added Eagan, “We don’t panic anymore. If something goes wrong, we don’t panic.’’
And so Endicott has gone from an afterthought opponent - a team in its infancy - to a legitimate threat. The Gulls won the conference championship and made the NCAA tournament last season, and have a chance to go even further this year.
“You don’t get a chance to coach a team like this very often,’’ Wells said. “So I’m just trying to enjoy it, ’cause I’ve been on the other end of it. I’ve been on teams that couldn’t win a game. So when you get a team like this, when you have a chance at every one, every single game?
“That’s pretty cool.’’Amalie Benjamin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @amaliebenjamin.