Only about 25 miles separate Gillette Stadium and Henry G. Steinbrenner Stadium (named after George’s dad), but the attention commanded by the teams that call those respective venues home is divided by light years.
As the scorching-hot Patriots rev up for Sunday’s matinee against a group of defensive juggernauts from Detroit, poised for a seventh straight win and hoping for much more in the months to come, a bunch of kids who reside just a little ways north of Foxborough are getting ready to engineer a little history of their own.
Welcome to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a breeding ground for scientific discovery, 81 Nobel laureates, and the host of famed analytics conferences.
Oh, and home of a 9-0 football team.
This year, the Engineers enjoyed their first unbeaten campaign since going 3-0 in their first season of 1881. With this regular season in the books, MIT will spend Saturday afternoon in Bangor, Maine, for a first-round NCAA Division III playoff matchup with Husson at Winkin Complex. The Eagles are 8-1.
This is the first time in school history the club has won a conference title or earned an invite to the postseason and it looked almost effortless along the way with MIT outscoring its opponents by an average of roughly 40-23. Only two of its wins, over Western New England and Endicott, were decided by fewer than 10 points.
In what’s hardly a regional college football hotbed, the fact the Engineers’ success has gone largely unnoticed off-campus is no surprise, but the rapid progression that’s unfolded in Cambridge could be considered a borderline shock to casual spectators.
MIT’s football program was disbanded in 1901, left dormant before being resurrected in 1988 (save for a 10-year period as a club team). In the next 20 years, the Engineers endured 15 losing seasons, a combined 65-115-1 record, and never won more than six games over a single schedule.
The school’s greatest football-related achievement before then, it’s joked, was when students from the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity “hacked” The Game between Harvard and Yale in 1982.
Then Chad Martinovich arrived.
The 42-year old head coach is in his sixth year at MIT after four years leading the defense at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Under Martinovich’s leadership, the school is 24-30 since 2009, but has seen marked improvement almost annually. Following consecutive 1-8 seasons, the Engineers won two games in 2011, then five, and last year matched a school-record with six. This group’s nine victories – and counting – shattered that plateau and provided the program with its first string of back-to-back winning seasons.
“It’s been a great ride so far,” said Martinovich, commending the work of his assistant coaches, support staff, and administrators. “Really it’s a tribute to the kids on the roster, the seniors in particular. When they came in as freshmen, they were 2-7 and they’ve helped really improve the program each year, along with the three recruiting classes since then.”
Martinovich, the New England Football Conference Coach of the Year, marveled at his team’s willingness to make football a year-round commitment, given their limited time outside the classroom. There was a different feel this year, he said -- an enhanced level of confidence dating back to the very first practice in the offseason.
Like his players, the coach had high expectations for his team entering the year, particularly with 10 of 11 starters returning on offense. The biggest question marks existed on defense with the losses of graduated seniors Rhys Borchert, Jake Laux, Joel Santisteban, and Derek Vaughn, to name a few. Martinovich knew there would be an adjustment getting new, younger players properly integrated, but felt their athleticism would be good enough to cover up most mental mistakes.
Mental mistakes. Imagine that for a bunch of kids majoring in such things as mathematics, computer science, and aerospace or electrical engineering.
As you might guess when working with a bunch of perceived geniuses, most errors early on were a result of over-thinking, as though an issue on the field could be solved like an equation.
Martinovich had to preach to his kids, “Don’t think, just play.”
“They are analytical because they’re math and science kids,” explained the coach, “so that’s a hurdle in terms of getting them to play football without thinking; just getting them to trust they’ve been trained the right way and use their muscle memory and trust their keys and reads and so on, and just play, rather than over-analyzing. With some it’s a process to get them through that. With others they just have the ability to do that and flip that switch when they step between the white lines, and we’re fortunate enough to have quite a few of those kids right now.”
Aided by the ability to quickly and easily memorize and conceptualize signals, plays, and schemes – imagine if a few players to pass through Foxborough in recent years had that skill? – Martinovich’s team has had the flexibility to be more complex in its game-planning and in-game adjustments throughout the year. That has been especially beneficial for both seasonal development and to better absorb strategies in limited practice time.
Given the students’ heavy workloads, it’s not uncommon for players to miss practice to focus on their academics. Unlike at most Division I schools, where classroom responsibilities are widely considered secondary for student-athletes with aspirations of cultivating a career in professional sports, MIT’s emphasis is on textbooks, labs, internships, and whatever else is necessary to create job opportunities after graduation.
“I’ve learned a great deal from these kids in terms of what they can handle from a football standpoint in terms of time and what weeks are hard in certain majors,” admitted Martinovich, who added his coaching staff has made great strides in that area in his six years on campus and even uses online-based video editing systems to allowing players to watch film at their leisure. “Sometimes they’ll just be inundated with problem-sets and exams and so on and you’ve got to kind of take the pulse of the captains and the rest of the team and sometimes we have to pull back the reigns in terms of what we’re doing physically or mentally and cater to that so they can be fresh and ready to go come Saturday.”
Can you picture those words coming out of the mouths of Nick Saban, Jimbo Fisher, Urban Meyer, or Mark Helfrich?
For the vast majority of MIT’s kids, “Engineers” is more than an all-too-fitting nickname; it’s a future career, and it’s imperative they plan accordingly.
However, that doesn’t mean Martinovich is ruling out the possibility of one of his players pursuing a livelihood on the field.
“Some of them may have those aspirations and a couple of them, talent-wise, you never know,” said the coach, who elected to single out running back and NEFC Offensive Player of the Year Justin Wallace. The senior captain from Palatine, Illinois, is an electrical engineering and computer science major, and also happens to be only the second player in program history to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season. With 1,425 yards and 16 touchdowns this year, he’s done so twice, giving him a school-record 4,430 yards.
“You see those stories of Division III players making it in the NFL (such as Mount Union’s Pierre Garcon and Cecil Shorts III, or Coe’s Fred Jackson), being the last ones on the roster and becoming something pretty special down the road,” Martinovich continued. “We may or may not have some of those kids on the roster right now or in the future. You never say never. There are guys going on to the NFL from Harvard all the time, and they have the same academic pedigree. We have some kids that could definitely play at the Ivy League level.”
But, what’s most realistic?
“They have a better chance of owning an NFL team than actually playing on one,” joked the coach with one of his go-to quips.
There’s an expression: there’s a grain of truth in every joke. In this case, there’s a lot of truth in the coach’s humorous remark.
This collection of Engineers hasn’t only pulverized virtually every opponent that’s stood in their way; they’ve also blasted the stereotype that nerds can’t play sports.
“My freshman and sophomore year a lot of teams would talk crap,” MIT’s senior linebacker, NEFC First Team defender, and leading tackler Cameron Wagar told Fox Sports. “You know, ‘Oh, shouldn’t you guys be doing homework?’ or calling us nerds or whatever. But last year it decreased quite a bit, and this year barely anybody talks about us being nerds. It’s hard to do that when we’re whooping up on them.”
Respect for what Wagar and his teammates have accomplished this season has not only grown on the field, but also on campus, where their classmates have started attending games in droves.
“There seems to be a little more excitement around the program,” observed Martinovich, who noted about 25 percent of MIT’s undergraduate population is comprised of varsity athletes, most in Division III. “I’m noticing, especially the last couple weeks, people on campus – whether I’m walking through this facility or over at the student center – take the time to congratulate our kids, or recognize them. It’s nice that people are starting to take notice. All of the athletes on campus really support each other.”
By this point, in the wake of an undefeated regular season, the national spotlight has followed.
“It’s very exciting,” gushed the coach. “It’s great to get positive publicity for the program, for the institute. The mentality here at MIT is really to be the very best at everything you take on and they’ve really bought into everything we’re trying to do, and we’re reaping the rewards for it.
“It’s great for these kids to get this kind of exposure athletically. I know a lot of them are going to be superstars, not only academically, but when they go on to do great things in the world, whether it be at Fortune 500 companies or things along those lines, so it’s nice for them to get that exposure and that attention now for what they’re doing on the football field.”
Come Saturday afternoon’s 12 p.m. kickoff, though, none of that will matter.
“Our motto has been ‘1-0’ each week,” Martinovich said, turning his attention to Husson and praising the Eastern Collegiate Football Conference winning Eagles’ athleticism. “I don’t want to put a ceiling on it.”
When the year is over, whenever that time arrives, the coach said he and his kids will reflect on what a perfect regular season, first playoff appearance, and staggering growth to the program has meant to them. For now, the close-knit crew is happily living in the moment.
But, the success has to help with future recruitment so more years like this one aren’t far behind, right?
“I’m hoping quite a bit,” laughed Martinovich. “We’ll find out in the next couple years.”