TERRE HAUTE —
From 2006 through 2009, Rose-Hulman’s football program posted four winning seasons with Steve Englehart as its head coach.
In 2010, after Englehart left to become offensive coordinator at Indiana State, Jayson Martin accepted the title of “interim head coach” and guided the Engineers to their fifth consecutive winning campaign at 6-4.
Now it is Jeff Sokol’s turn to keep the string alive.
Hired in January, Sokol had been offensive coordinator and recruiting coordinator at the University of Chicago for the previous 11 seasons.
In early June, he took a Rose team that consisted of last season’s seniors and returning players on an overseas trip to play the Austrian National Team. The Engineers emerged with a 35-34 exhibition triumph in Vienna.
“It was a lot of fun,” Sokol reflected before afternoon practice Tuesday. “Everyone had a great time. The parents and players and all the coaches who were there had a great time. We got to play a really competitive game against a really good Austrian National Team.”
“I think it was a real valuable experience,” noted Rose-Hulman junior running back Kyle Kovach, who led the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference (HCAC) in rushing last season with 1,056 yards.
“For me especially, it helped out a lot. I was able to come into [preseason training] camp now and teach [Sokol’s new offensive system] to guys who hadn’t learned it yet.”
Junior starting quarterback Mitch Snyder of Casey, Ill., said he appreciated “how much confidence we gained by beating a great Austria team, probably one of the biggest teams we’ll ever play against.”
“It was a very valuable experience for me to get a game coached under my belt,” Sokol pointed out. “We had a lot of situations that came up. We had to throw a Hail Mary [pass]. We had to do a quick kick. There were all kinds of crazy stuff that we ended up having to do.”
Sokol’s first preseason training camp debuted Aug. 15 and NCAA rules allowed the Engineers to begin two-a-day practices over the weekend.
“Everything has been really smooth,” Sokol emphasized. “The meat of our offense and defense is in. The players have picked up on what we’ve tried to install. Now we’re just trying to perfect and sharpen up our execution. We’re right on schedule and very happy with where we’re at right now.”
Rose players seemed to agree.
“I think everything definitely has been going smoothly,” Kovach mentioned. “Everything is on schedule. We’ve gotten a lot in. It’s a new coach coming in and teaching a lot of new things. Everybody’s catching on. We rose to the occasion… We’ve been catching on real well.”
“It’s been great,” Snyder echoed. “It’s been really smooth, as Kyle said. It’s been one of the best-run camps I’ve been a part of. Everything is on time. Everything is so organized. It’s been a great camp so far.”
Kovach and Snyder agreed that Sokol is easy to get along with, but hard-nosed when necessary.
“He’s a great guy,” Kovach said. “He’s down to earth. He can joke around with us, but at the same time he can get serious. He knows when that time to be serious is. He’s really good at balancing that out for us.”
“He’s fun to be around,” Snyder added. “But obviously his main job around here is to win football games. His main goal is to build a winning program. But he’s also a very down-to-earth guy and we enjoy being around him.”
Asked what his biggest challenge has been so far, Sokol struggled to find even one.
“The weather’s been great,” he said. “It’s been a little hot at times. But like I said, everything’s right on schedule. Everything’s going as planned.”
Sokol also has been pleased with the players’ reaction to him.
“For the players who are into it, who love football and want to be champions, it’s been great,” he stressed. “The response has been very positive.”
Regarding those who didn’t demonstrate the appropriate amount of dedication to the program, Sokol said they aren’t around anymore.
“They figured out pretty quick whether or not they could handle what we were doing,” he explained. “Now we feel like the guys who are here are the guys who are going to be a part of our football team for the long haul.”
On a personal level, the unmarried Sokol insisted that he hasn’t had to make any significant adjustments to the time schedule of being a collegiate head coach.
“We just make it work,” he said, referring to himself and the assistant coaches. “Everyone on the coaching staff does what they need to do. We work hard. The difference between when I was an assistant and being a head coach hasn’t been anything extraordinary.
“Everything just means a little bit more being a head coach because it’s ultimately your name that’s associated with every number on either side of that little dash [for totaling up wins and losses in a season]. So yeah, it’s been long hours. But everything’s been worth it. So far, everything’s been really gratifying.”
Sokol didn’t hesitate and didn’t stutter when asked about the Engineers’ 2011 goals.
“Our goals are to win the HCAC championship and go to the [NCAA Division III] national playoffs,” he stated.
Rose-Hulman’s first game will be Sept. 3 at home against DePauw.
“We will be more than ready,” Sokol promised.