After a season in which the University of Puget Sound lost every football game, then its football coach, the last thing Tyler Vlasak wanted to lose was hope.
He needed a boost. He sat in a classroom with about 60 football players at the UPS Fieldhouse last winter, waiting to hear a speech from a new head coach candidate in town to make his pitch.
Vlasak’s mind was clouded with thoughts of rebuilding, more losing and where he’d fit into that sort of scenario as he entered his final season with the Loggers.
Then Jeff Thomas spoke up, and Vlasak’s negative notions melted away. “I’ve wanted to win since I’ve been here,” Vlasak said. “I haven’t really gotten a taste of victory as many times as I would’ve liked. Right when I heard him give the speech, I saw the fire in him. He’s got that young exuberance and definitely wants us to win and knows how to win.”
When Puget Sound opens its 2010 season at Baker Stadium on Saturday against Pacific, Thomas will be leading the Loggers from the sideline.
And when the UPS defense takes the field, Vlasak will be crouched in his familiar inside linebacker spot, only he might not resemble the same, soft-spoken leader from the past.
Already the Loggers’ top returning football player and a consensus draft services second-team NCAA Division III preseason All-American, Vlasak tackled more responsibility in the spring when he accepted the role of team captain, after a vote by his teammates.
In Thomas’ new regime, that meant the big bear of a football player would need a growl to go with his burly physique. Normally reserved, Vlasak needed to break out of his shell.
“I can’t be everyone’s friend,” Vlasak said. “When players are down, I’m the one who picks up the intensity.”
Vlasak, a 6-foot, 245-pound senior from Sumner, already had a way of inspiring others with hustle that produced a team-leading 90 tackles last season. He’s been so busy with his new vocal role that he’s made his voice hoarse.
“He’s definitely making progress,” defensive coordinator Brant McAdams said. “That’s a good thing when your leader on the field loses his voice, too.”
“I’m just really excited about the season,” Vlasak said. “More excited than I’ve been about any season in my life. I’m sure pretty much everyone else feels that way.”
Vlasak was accustomed to winning at Sumner High School. But then he came to UPS, arriving a year after the Loggers’ last winning season in 2006 (5-4), and endured seasons of 4-5, 3-6 and 0-9.
After last year’s winless season, coach Phil Willenbrock was let go and the Loggers landed Thomas, the high-energy former assistant coach and star defensive back at University of Redlands in California.
“Going into my last year, I was kind of worried about getting a new coach if this was going to be a rebuilding thing,” Vlasak said. “When Coach Thomas came in, right off the bat, he said ‘This isn’t going to be a rebuilding year. We have a great group of seniors and they deserve to win.’ Right off the bat, that changed the whole winter lifting program, getting up at 6:15 every day, everybody buying in. I saw such a difference in the commitment level of the players.”
These sort of habits were already old hat to Vlasak, a dedicated weightlifter who aspires to play football after he earns degrees in English and philosophy at UPS.
Thomas recognized Vlasak’s leadership qualities and writing skills and put him to work as the program’s primary messenger.
In the spring, Thomas started a private online forum for UPS football players and encouraged Vlasak to start up conversations and answer questions from new players. Those entries turned into lengthy essays that at times were both informative and inspiring.
“He has just an eloquent way of wording things that most 18- to 22-year-old guys flat out don’t do,” Thomas said.
Thomas comes from a program accustomed to success at Redlands. He said the starters he has inherited at Puget Sound “are really good,” and he is excited to see his team begin a new era at home Saturday.
The Loggers will switch from a wing-T to a spread offense behind senior quarterback Duncan White, while the defense goes from a 4-3 to 3-4 alignment with Vlasak leading the way.
Vlasak also plays on special teams and could find his way onto offense, too, Thomas said.
“The defense I was part of last year was No. 7 in the country. It was tremendously talented,” Thomas said. “He would be one of, if not the best, defensive player from last year at Redlands. He’s as good as it gets from the inside linebacking spot.”