The Sporty Side of Grand Valley
Many of the founders of Grand Valley State College had a vision for an "ivory tower" school based on an academic system similar to European or British universities. Rooted in the classics, the ideal liberal arts curriculum would include a requirement for physical exercise, but no organized intercollegiate sports as they existed in most American educational institutions. (GVSU's academic roots are explored in the narrative history on this site, Sections One and Two.)
When students arrived on the Allendale campus in the fall of 1963, each was required to complete three quarters of "gym." Intramural club competition was organized in football, basketball, softball, track, golf, skiing, bowling and more, under the direction of Charles H. Irwin. Most of these activities took place in makeshift facilities in an old barn or off-campus. The seeds of Grand Valley's longest running sport were sown before opening day, however, when racing shells for the rowing competition known as crew were purchased with a fund organized for that purpose by Grand Rapids businessman Mike Keeler. A crew house, nicknamed "Muscle & Corpuscle," opened in November 1963 and athletes began to train for what would become the college's debut in national intercollegiate competition. (See Section One of the narrative history on this site, Part X. "A College in the Cornfields" for a photo of early racing shells.) Much of the impetus for participation in the traditional sport came from George Potter, Vice President of Academic Affairs and a native of England who attended Oxford University.
The Sporty Side of Grand Valley
Grand Valley did begin to field teams to compete with local colleges, starting with a varsity cross country team organized in fall 1964. In early 1965, Grand Valley State College scored its first victory. "We Did It!" shouted the headline in the student newspaper, The Keystone. "After almost 16 months of waiting, and 16 straight losses in intercollegiate sports, Grand Valley's basketball team won our first athletic contest in history," the story continued. "If hardcourt teams from GVSC go on to win 1000 or more games over the years, none will be any more exciting or satisfying than the 67-65 victory over the Muskegon Community College junior varsity Saturday, January 23, 1965."
Soon after, a contest was organized to choose a team name, colors and mascot. Six name finalists were chosen for a student vote: Bruisers (the colors chosen were black, blue and white, hence this suggestion), Warriors, Blue Jays, Ottawas, Archers, and Voyagers. Ever resistant to direction, Grand Valley students instead chose a write-in candidate submitted by Annie Kate McDonald, a sophomore from Grand Haven: The Lakers.
In 1967, Grand Valley's crew team dipped its oars into national competition, participating with teams from more established universities such as Purdue and Notre Dame in the Mid-American Regatta. In June that year, the college hosted the first Grand Valley International Crew Regatta, drawing over 1000 spectators to Riverside Park in Grand Rapids for competition with Michigan State and Wayne State Universities.
Although the academic community continued to resist the establishment of intercollegiate football (at one Faculty Assembly meeting in the spring of 1967, they proposed that instead of an intercollegiate football team, the college should field an intercollegiate soccer team), that changed with the appointment of Arend D. Lubbers as the College's second president in 1969. Lubbers came to Grand Valley from Central College in Pella, Iowa, which had a successful football tradition including a national championship. He saw the advantage of establishing a similar program, making perhaps the most significant change by allowing coaches to offer athletic scholarships. By the spring of 1970, nine varsity athletic teams had been fielded, a new Fieldhouse constructed, and accredited programs for physical education majors and minors established.
Women's sports at Grand Valley also were becoming stronger, organized first by Joan Boand, faculty member in the physical education department, who was asked to coach a softball team in 1968. Within a few years, Boand was leading teams in basketball and volleyball. In 1974, Grand Valley was the first college in Michigan to award an athletic scholarship to a woman. Boand, who later served as associate athletic director, recruited, then offered the scholarship to softball player Donna Sass Eaton.
Donald Dufek was hired in the spring of 1972 as the first full-time Athletic Director for the College, separating athletics from the physical education department. Charles Irwin remained as Chair of the P.E. Department for two more years, retiring in 1974. The Athletics Hall of Fame was named in his honor in 1986. The University's support group for intercollegiate athletics, the Irwin Club, also is named for him, more information at www.gvsulakers.com.
Football continued to rise as the dominant sport at the college. As Grand Valley became more of a residential college, said Don Lubbers, it "gave us the anchor, something you could build your weekend around." In the fall of 1973 the Lakers logged their first football win, topping Kalamazoo College in front of Grand Valley's biggest spectator crowd to date, 2,300 fans. That season, the first under the legendary coach Jim Harkema, is cited as the beginning of Grand Valley's football tradition.
The Lakers had joined seven other Michigan institutions in 1972 to form the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, and it wasn't long before the Allendale school established itself as a powerhouse within the league. Women's tennis won the 1974 GLIAC tournament, and both men's and women's basketball won inaugural conference championships in 1975. The Laker women's team continued to win the next four championships. Women's softball also dominated the GLIAC championships throughout the 1970s. In 1977 the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics named the GV wrestling team as number one in the nation in its division.
Club sports such as field hockey, rugby, soccer and even Ultimate Frisbee also were gaining impetus, and in the late 1970s, women's crew dominated the state, winning three successive Michigan Rowing championships. A marathon was sponsored each year for more than a decade beginning in 1970. In 1978, Grand Valley held its first Homecoming celebration and first tailgate party.
During the late 1970s, athletic facilities on campus were overhauled and improved. The innovative domed Fieldhouse constructed in 1969 finally was condemned and demolished in 1980. (See Section Three of the narrative history, Part VIII. "Survival" for more about the dome.) President Lubbers succeeded during a very difficult financial time in Michigan in finding funding to construct a new athletic facility, raising a million dollars from the strapped legislature in Lansing, and from football fans and other private donations. In recognition, the new football stadium and track complex was named for the young president, who was uncharacteristically speechless at the announcement by the Board of Trustees. In 1980 ground was broken for a new $14.5 million complex to house a swimming pool and basketball arena on the site of the demolished dome.
Don Lubbers was named a charter member of the NCAA Presidents Commission in 1984, and in 1990 became the first president to be elected to the commission a second time.
Laker teams and players also were beginning to garner national attention. In 1980, Ron Essink was the first Grand Valley football player to be drafted into the NFL, picked by Seattle in the 10th round. Since then, nearly 30 Lakers have played professional football. The men's basketball team played in an NCAA Division II tournament for the first time in 1985; the women's team followed suit in 1988. The Laker baseball team played in its first NCAA Central Regional tournament in 1985.
Men's and women's swimming and diving teams were established in 1984, under head coach Dewey Newsome. Kristen Campbell was the first Laker to qualify for national championships as a diver. Newsome remained head coach for 23 years, stepping down because of health reasons in 2008.
In 1989 the Laker Football team posted its first undefeated season at 11-0 and finished third in the final NCAA Division II poll. Coached by Tom Beck, sophomore fullback Eric Lynch scored 21 touchdowns that season; he was later drafted by Detroit and would play four years for the Lions. Also that year, GLIAC dropped football as a conference sport. Grand Valley and other conference members joined the Heartland Collegiate Conference to form the Midwest Intercollegiate Football Conference; league play began in 1990.
Apparently it didn't matter which conference Grand Valley played in, as the Lakers won the first MIFC title. MIFC continued until 1999, when league members merged with the GLIAC.
Athletic Director Mike Kovalchik hired two coaches in 1991 who would see great successes in their sports: Brian Kelly (football) and Doug Woods (softball). Kelly had been an assistant coach under Beck, and Woods had been Grand Valley's athletic trainer and a faculty member in the Movement Science department. Pat Baker Grzyb returned for her second coaching stint with women's basketball and led the team to its first GLIAC postseason tournament that year.
In 1990, President Lubbers established a committee to develop plans for an on-campus golf course. From the beginning, a goal for the course was to respond to the environmental challenges of the site, which included important campus wetlands. The committee included faculty members from both the Biology and Geology departments. They chose architect Michael Hurdzan from Columbus, Ohio, whose firm Hurdzan/Fry Environmental Golf Design was known for working with environmentally sensitive sites. The Meadows opened in 1994 and included a practice facility and clubhouse. Since then it has hosted six NCAA national golf championships, with a seventh planned for 2011. It was named a "Top 10 Women Friendly Golf Course in the United States" by Golf for Women Magazine in 1998. Links Magazine ranked it among the top 25 college golf courses in the country, and Golf Digest has awarded it four and half out of five stars.
Read an article about The Meadows in Grand Valley Magazine, Spring 2003, available in the Grand Valley archives, or visit The Meadows web site.
In 1994, Joan Boand resigned from coaching, after amassing over 500 wins in volleyball and six conference titles. Her successor, Deanne Scanlon, continued to bring success to the program, leading the Lakers to a 24-11 record in 1995.
Some sports were added in the early 1990s and one was eliminated: wrestling. At the time, President Lubbers said that continuing it as a varsity sport would mean Grand Valley wasn't compliant with Federal Title IX legislation, which made it illegal for public universities to discriminate against women's sports. Wrestling continues to be a popular club sport at Grand Valley, and team members have won five National Collegiate Wrestling Association championships since 2001.
In 1996, women's soccer was added and Dago Cortes was named first head coach. The addition created a roster of ten varsity sports for women and nine for men, which would hold until 2009 when women's lacrosse would be added as a varsity sport. Also that year, the Laker mascot received a makeover. The Lakers had been represented by "the Great Laker," a rugged old fisherman. Tim Selgo, who had been named Athletic Director in February 1996, and former marketing director Rob "Odie" Odejewski renamed the mascot "Louie" and worked to brand the character. Since Louie's inception, his character has gone through minor revisions but remains one of Grand Valley's most visible identities.
Freestyler Katie Flynn ended an outstanding collegiate swimming career in 1997, when she was named NCAA All-American in six events. Flynn was named to the All-American team each of the four years she swam for Grand Valley, a school first. Flynn earned 15 All-American honors during her career.
In 1998, coach Claudette Charney led the women's basketball team to its third NCAA tournament and its first victory, a 73-58 win over Lewis in the tournament's first round. The Lakers lost to Northern Michigan, 80-69, in the second round.
Selgo increased the number of scholarships for women's golf and hired its first full-time coach, Lori Stinson, in 1999. That same year Jerry Baltes was hired to coach men's and women's track and cross country programs. Baltes quickly made the Lakers a conference powerhouse and national contender, as the women's cross country team placed fifth at the NCAA national championships that year.
In the decade Baltes has led Grand Valley's programs, the Lakers have won 48 out of 54 possible GLIAC championships in cross country, indoor and outdoor track and field.
Lisa Sweany was named senior associate athletic director in 2000. In 2001, the Laker volleyball team advanced to its first NCAA final four tournament, held at the GV Fieldhouse. Grand Valley lost in the semifinal game to South Dakota State. Scanlon led the Lakers to final four appearances in 2002 and 2003.
Laker softball won the Great Lakes Regional tournament in 2002 and advanced to the national championships. The Lakers met unbeaten St. Mary's in the championship game and lost, 4-0. A year later coach Woods won his 500th game.
Permanent lights were added to Lubbers Stadium before the start of the 2001 football season. Night games and success led to increased crowds. In 2008 at a game against Ferris State, Laker fans set a GVSU attendance record at 14,612. The addition of live Webcasts of games in 2002 and the Grand Valley Sports Network gave Laker fans across the country more opportunities to follow their team. More at www.gvsulakers.com.
The football team posted a 10-0 regular season record in 2001 and advanced to the national championship in Florence, Alabama, before losing to North Dakota, 17-14, in the game's last minutes. "Finish What We Started" was the team motto a year later, and the mantra worked. Led by quarterback Curt Anes, who won the Harlon Hill trophy as the nation's best Division II player, the Lakers beat Valdosta State in 2002 to win the university's first national title. Kelly brought the Lakers back to Alabama for the championship game in 2003, and the team beat North Dakota, 10-3, to win back-to-back national football championships. Photos of the victorious teams can be seen in the main narrative of this history, Section Five, Part IV "Among the Best".
Other teams also saw success in 2003. Under coach Lori Stinson, the women's golf team finished fifth at its first NCAA Division II national tournament. For the first time, Laker baseball and coach Steve Lyon advanced to the College World Series; Jason Van Elst and Mandi Zemba paced the track and field teams and won national individual titles in, respectively, the 35-pound weight throw and 1,500-meter run.
Grand Valley's team championships and postseason appearances in 2003-04 led to the university winning its first Directors' Cup trophy, presented by the National Association of Collegiate Directors of America to the top athletic program in the country. That year began a streak of six consecutive Directors' Cup wins for Grand Valley. The streak is concurrent with the GLIAC Presidents' Cup Trophy for the top athletic program in the conference. GVSU has won that honor 11 years in a row.
Baseball advanced to the World Series championship game in 2004 but lost to Delta State, 12-8. Football saw a coaching change in 2004 when Chuck Martin, former Laker defensive coordinator, was named head coach. He won 10 games in his first season, more than the previous four Laker head coaches in their initial seasons.
Golfer Melissa Sneller won Grand Valley's first individual golf national championship in 2005. Sneller and a Florida Southern golfer were tied after four rounds in Albuquerque, New Mexico, when Sneller sank a five-foot birdie on the 18th hole to win. As a team, the Laker golfers finished sixth nationally.
Volleyball continued to be a powerhouse in 2005, advancing to the national championships in Kearney, Nebraska. Before a record Division II volleyball crowd of more than 5,000, Grand Valley beat host Nebraska-Kearney, 3-1, to win the university's first national title in a women's sport.
Football took a 9-0 record into postseason play in 2005; the last game of the regular season was cancelled because of lightning. The Lakers advanced to the Division II championship game, their fourth appearance in five years, and beat Northwest Missouri State, 21-17, to win their third national championship.
Zemba was the best women's cross country runner in fall 2005, winning a Division II individual championship in Pomona, California with a time of 21:01.7. Her win helped the Laker women's team finish second in the country. Zemba won two more individual championships (3,000 and 5,000 meters) at the 2007 national outdoor track championships.
The women's basketball team, under coach Dawn Plitzuweit, won its first national championship in 2006. The team lost only one game that year and beat American International College, 58-52, for the national crown. The soccer team and coach Dave DiIanni advanced to the national championship game in 2006 but lost a 1-0 heartbreaker to Metro State.
Football again advanced to the national championship game in 2006, bringing a 14-0 record to Florence, Alabama, where the Lakers captured their fourth title with a 17-14 win over Northwest Missouri State. Cullen Finnerty ended his career as the country's all-time winningest starting quarterback with 51 victories.
In 2007, men's basketball made the first of two straight trips to the NCAA Elite Eight under coach Ric Wesley. The 2007 season opened with an exciting exhibition win in East Lansing over Michigan State in double overtime, 85-82.
Grand Valley's achievements on athletic fields and courts were noted nationally in 2008 when NCAA President Myles Brand visited campus to meet with student-athletes and coaches, attend a football game and present the Directors' Cup trophy.
In 2009, the soccer team beat Cal State Dominguez Hills, 1-0, to win the national championship. GVSU finished that year undefeated at 22-0-4. The athletic program was expanded in 2009 with the addition of women's lacrosse as a varsity sport, and football coach Chuck Martin announced that he would leave GVSU to become defensive backs coach at the University of Notre Dame under former GVSU coach Brian Kelly. In January 2010, former Laker defensive coordinator Matt Mitchell was named head football coach.
Both of President Lubbers' successors, Mark Murray and Thomas Haas, have been very supportive of the Grand Valley athletic program, and President Haas (affectionately known as T. Haas on campus) can often be seen in the student cheering section during Laker football games, coaxed out to join the raucous fun by chants of "T. Haas, T. Haas."
Throughout its 50-year history, a mainstay of Laker athletics has been to ensure that student-athletes are students first. The Laker Advising Center provides academic support to Grand Valley's 500 student-athletes. Countless student-athletes have been named to Academic All-America teams. Notably, in 2008 soccer's Katy Tafler received the prestigious NCAA Top XIII Award, one of eight outstanding student-athletes selected for academic achievement, athletic success and community service. Tafler also earned an NCAA postgraduate scholarship to help with medical school expenses.
Each Laker team participates in regular community service projects. In 2007, a third of the football team traveled to Mississippi to help build homes for Hurricane Katrina victims still struggling from the 2005 disaster.
The volunteer efforts, academic success and athletic accomplishments create a sports program that fits well with Grand Valley's mission of striving for excellence. "We've found our niche in college athletics," said Tim Selgo in a 2009 interview, "and will continue to try to be the best program in Division II."
This section includes writing and research by Michele Coffill of Grand Valley's News and Information Services, created for the book "Grand Valley Celebrates 50 Years of Shaping Lives." The 50th anniversary commemorative book, including a stunning array of photographs, can be purchased at the Grand Valley Bookstore or on-line at this anniversary web site.