Valparaiso director of athletics Mark LaBarbera walked onto Brown Field this afternoon to announce to the football team that Dale Carlson was out as the head coach after four years and 40 losses. The announcement sent shockwaves through not only the team, but two distinctly different alumni groups: recent alums who played under Carlson and older alums who are watching the situation unfold from afar.
Impact on the current team
“There are a lot of emotions going on right now,” said a senior member of the team who wished not to be identified. “Everyone is shocked. We didn’t see this coming today.”
The players were set to practice at 4:30 on Sunday afternoon, typical protocol for the day following a game. The team practices on Sunday and then uses Monday as an off-day. As the players gathered on the field, ready to start their final week of practice, the coaches were nowhere to be seen.
“We’re out there and now it’s 4:45 and we know something is wrong,” the senior player said. “LaBarbera came out onto the field and addressed the team. Coach (Carlson) was still in his office and some of us went over there to talk with him.”
The timing of the announcement caught the team by surprise. A team source indicates that there was plenty of speculation that Carlson’s days were numbered, but that no one expected the firing to occur before the season ended. Valparaiso hosts Dayton this Saturday in the season finale.
“We made a decision as a team that we’re going to let all this stuff go and just focus on our next game,” the senior player said. “We already have a lot on our plate. We need a signature win and we have an opportunity to do that on Saturday. We’re concentrating on playing our last football game. We have one more game left and we want to leave a positive imprint on our careers. Coach (Carlson) won’t be there, but we’re confident in (Interim) Coach (Mike) Gravier. We have this last shot to play this last game and it’s the last time that many of us will ever play football again.”
While the seniors have banded together as a unit with a singular focus in mind, the player said he expected a lot of the younger players to be confused. Many of the fifth-year seniors have already been through one coaching change at Valparaiso when Stacy Adams left the program in 2009.
“Some of the younger guys are probably uneasy about everything right now,” the senior player said. “It’s out of our hands. That’s for the athletic director and the coaches. We’ve all decided as a team that we’re playing for each other.”
Impact on Carlson alums
As the current players were sorting through their emotions shortly after the announcement was made, recent Valparaiso football alums (those who played under Carlson) had a variety of responses on social media. There was a fair share of former players who agreed with (and even celebrated) Carlson’s removal while there were others who looked at a broader picture and preached player accountability. Merrillville product and former starting defensive back Anthony Curry (@ACthaBeasT) cautioned players to look at themselves first before criticizing Carlson (or any coach) in a series of tweets that went live late Sunday evening:
“Was Dale out there throwing ints, missing blocks, dropping passes, missing tackles and blowing assignments? Pretty sure he did none of those”
“Point of all this is players have just as much blame as the coach. He's just the expendable one in this situation”
“So when you go saying, "he got what he deserved," look at yourself in the mirror and realize maybe you deserve the same fate as Dale”
“And I was one when I played who said "oh our coaches are dumb blah blah blah," but that never stopped me from ballin game in and game out”
Reaction from former players
In addition to the current crop of alums that played under Carlson airing their thoughts on Twitter, a group of impassioned former players from the Tom Horne/Stacy Adams Eras shared their opinions in a private Facebook group where the topic revolved around how to improve the program long-term. An alum who wished to remain unidentified echoed some of the thoughts the group shared with each other.
“The only time that we ever hear from anyone at Valpo is when they need money,” the recent alum said. “I’m an assistant football coach now and Valpo was going after some of my kids. I reached out to the coach to let him know who I was and my connection to the program. I never heard anything back. It’s hard to sell a program to your kids when you don’t get anything back. That’s an underlying thing and they’ve lost a lot of alumni support.”
A group of alums from the 2003 Pioneer Football League championship team returned to campus for Homecoming this season. According to multiple members of the team who were on campus that weekend, the group raised more than $15,000 for the football program.
“I still keep in touch with those guys,” the former player (who wasn’t a member of the 2003 team) said. “They wanted an excuse to get back together so they decided to come to Valpo. They helped raise some money for the program. It’s hard to write that check when you’re not connected to the program. I’m not so far gone that I don’t care anymore, but the people that get paid to think about these things, (getting alumni involved) has got to be their next move. I wouldn’t have reached out (to The Times) if I didn’t care about it.”
The former player, who competed against San Diego when Jim Harbaugh served as the head coach, hopes that Valparaiso can find a coach that will make some noise and rally an alumni base that is seemingly desperate to be heard.
“Valpo needs that splash head coach,” the former player said. “The way to get back a program is to invigorate the alumni. I didn’t know Carlson personally, never really had anything to do with him, but I saw he was trying to bring energy to the program. Valpo is basically a glorified Division III program and a NAIA coach isn’t invigorating a lot of people. I’m not saying you need to get an Alabama assistant or anything like that, but somebody that has a decent size name that will throw their hat in the ring. If he turns around the program, sure, he’ll only be there for three years, but you’re never going to make Valpo football a destination place. You need someone who will come in and turn the whole thing around. I haven’t been back for a couple years and I know a lot of other guys who haven’t been back. We want to come back.”