Macalester football looks to reverse its losing tradition

Macalester football practice
Two Macalester College football players practice a passing play.
MPR Photo/Jim Bickal

Macalester College in St. Paul has a reputation for rigorous academics and a commitment to internationalism, but not for football.

In fact when it comes to football, Macalester is best known for losing 50 straight games in the late 1970s. In 2001, the school considered dropping the sport altogether. But this year, there is a spirit of optimism in the Fighting Scots football program.

Putting together a football team at Macalester can require some creativity. Last year, head coach Tony Jennison found himself without a place kicker.

"We've got a couple guys on our team that kicked a little bit in high school," Jennison said. "But one's a wide receiver, one was defensive lineman. They're position players who kick in their spare time. We didn't have any kickers."

So, he worked out a deal with the Macalester soccer coach in which they would share a couple of players.

"It was actually the soccer coach who came to us," he said. "Ian Barker, great guy, great coach, came to us and said 'I think I can help you out.' I said, 'we'd love it'"

But last year, the football team and the soccer team often played at the same time and the shared players opted for soccer.

Coach Jennison
Macalester College Head Football Coach Tony Jennison.
MPR Photo/Jim Bickal

"This year, we've got two guys, also off the soccer team, that we believe are going to be at all the games," Jennison said. "You know, they've never kicked a football before, so they're still trying to figure it out, but trust me, they kick it a little differently than the guys we currently have on our team."

Despite the lack of an experienced kicker, Coach Jennison feels the Macalester football program is headed in the right direction.

Macalester President Brian Rosenberg agrees. He said the football program is in much better shape than it was when Macalester dropped out of the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference after the 2001 season.

"It had reached the point where participating in football in the MIAC was literally bringing our students in harms way," Rosenberg said. "It was a health risk to field a team with 30 or 35 students against some of the programs in the MIAC."

Rosenberg says he'd like to see 60 or 70 students on the playing roster. This year's team has 55 players. One of them is Jake McDonnell who is starting his fourth year at Macalester.

Jake McDonnell
Macalester College football player Jake McDonnell.
MPR Photo/Jim Bickal

"We've got the biggest team I've had since I've been here, McDonnell said, "and probably the best athletes since I've been here."

McDonnell is an impressive athlete himself. He holds a number of rushing and receiving records at Macalester. Coach Jennison said he has the ability to dominate a game.

"I think he's one of the top players at the Division Three level, Jennison said. "He is an unbelievable competitor and whenever he gets the ball in his hands he is able to do some great things with it. In our team scrimmage, he touched it five or six times and must have scored on three or four of them."

McDonnell said coming out of high school he could have played college football at a more competitive Division Two school, but chose Macalester because of the strong academics. President Rosenberg said he'd like to see more students like McDonnell at Macalester in the future.

"Jake is an example of the kind of student that we should be able to recruit at a place like Macalester," Rosenberg said. "He is, as Tony said, a terrific athlete and he could play Division Three football virtually anyplace in the country. But he's also a really bright kid and he's attracted to Macalester for all the right reasons."

Rosenberg said his definition of a successful football program is different than it is for many other college presidents.

"I don't think that in any of our sports our central goal is year in and year out to win championships," Rosenberg said. "Ultimately, our goal is to provide an experience that is positive and is contributing to the education students get at Macalester that they can look back on as being a positive part of their experience here.

"That means you can't lose all the time. It doesn't mean you have to win all the time, but losing only builds character to a point."

Macalester has won eight and lost eleven over the last two seasons. Jake McDonnell said his teammates have a goal this year, to win more games than they lose. If that happens, it would be the first time in 23 years for Macalester football.

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Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the conference Macalester played in.

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