By Joe Collins, Photos by Carrie Legg
With 16 years in the books for Marietta Pioneers Men’s Basketball coach, Jon VanderWal, and the rest of the team, the season ends with a 17-11 finish and a loss in the Ohio Athletic Conference championship to Mount Union, a team who just lost the Division III NCAA National championship. While this was a disappointing finish considering what could have been, it is just one more in a long string of impressive seasons by the Pioneers. This is due, in large part, to the team’s head coach.
The team VanderWal has built is exceptionally different compared to what it was when he first accepted the job. The Marietta College Pioneers were once considered the laughingstock of the OAC with eight losing seasons in nine years, just 15 wins out of 75 games in the last three seasons and no clear direction of where the program was going. That was the situation VanderWal walked into when he first interviewed for the head coach position back in 2007.
“I was 28 at the time,” VanderWal says. “I wanted somebody to give me a chance. I was different than Marietta at the time [because] I had big dreams and aspirations, and, at the time, I don’t think Marietta did. They were just looking for a change.”
VanderWal, as many young coaches do, had dreams of coaching at a high level. Basketball had been one of the most important things in his life up to that point. He played the sport in high school and always dreamed of continuing at the collegiate level.
“I had a lot of success early on and just fell in love with the game after that,” VanderWal says.
After his days playing basketball ended, he originally sought to become a teacher but found it boring. What he really wanted to do was coach basketball. He spent much of his early 20s working various assistant coaching jobs until the opportunity finally came for him to pursue a career as a head coach.
VanderWal recalls everything that happened the day he ambitiously walked into a room full of members of the Marietta Athletic department.
“I remember meeting with the committee and them asking me where they thought I could get the program. They were in last place in the league. I told them in year five, I’ll have four recruiting classes and have them competing for the top of the league,” VanderWal says. “Everybody snickered in the room and gave each other these weird looks. I specifically remember thinking, ‘That answer may have cost me the job.’ They felt I was unrealistic.”
VanderWal left the room unsure of whether or not he had just made a huge mistake. He did some reflecting, however, and after seeing the facilities, players and fans in the city, he had one takeaway.
“They have the passion. They have the ability,” VanderWal says. “They just don’t believe.”
A thought crept into his mind: he had to build this program from the ground up. It takes a good coach to turn a good team into a great team, but it takes a great coach to turn a bad team into a great one. He knew that if he brought this school, the city and its people some form of success, something big could come his way.
The changes did not come overnight, however. In his first season, the Pioneers went 6-19, an increase of just one win compared to the previous year. The team soon started showing signs of improvement, however, doubling their win total from the previous year and going 12-14 the next season. This was a special year because it was the first season with solely VanderWal recruits, the start of a new regime. It was in year four, 2010-11, that everything would change.
The Pioneers set numerous school records: going 27-4, winning the League tournament and going to the Sweet 16 for the first time in school history. When asked what his favorite coaching moment was, VanderWal says it was the 2010-11 season.
“Two of my first recruits, Trevor Halter and Kevin Nabb, were inducted into the Marietta Athletic Hall of Fame,” VanderWal says. “When they were juniors, we went 27-4 and won the conference for the first time since 1975.”
“Winning that league title, we went from playing in an empty gym to selling out every game about halfway through the year. People were lining up at the door to buy tickets, it was like something out of a movie.”
In his first interview with Marietta, VanderWal says he hoped to have them competing by year five. By year four, the Pioneers were already one of the top teams in Division III.
This success was not short-lived. Since the 2011 season, the Pioneers have won eight OAC regular season titles, five OAC tournament titles and made nine NCAA D3 Tournament appearances. This has made VanderWal not only one of the best coaches in Division III but also in all of college basketball. VanderWal has turned the small, historic city of Marietta into a hotspot for D3 athletes.
“I don’t think most people realize, it’s a couple of inches and a little bit of athletic differences between us and the guys down at Ohio University,” VanderWal says. “I think there’s a fine line between Division II and III. There are a couple guys on my roster that turned down Division II full rides to play for us.”
With all that success over a 16-year period, VanderWal has received many calls from bigger programs asking him to come interview for a head-coaching job. Through it all, he has remained loyal to Marietta.
“People often ask me why I’m still here,” VanderWal says. “It’s because of the people of Marietta and how much the school has invested in us. I went from having one of the worst jobs in the country to one of the best small college jobs in the country. It’s the people and the environment we get to play in.”
VanderWal finds it rewarding to build something not only to be successful in the present but also to have continued success in the future. If you have the love of a program, a city and its people, then everything you could ever need is right in front of you.