Brian Ward says he’ll never forget Blake Reed.
Ward has been gone as McPherson College head football coach since 2009 when his Bulldogs were 9-2 and made the NAIA national playoffs for the first time in school history, a feat they repeated the following year when Ward’s assistant coach Joe Bettasso took over and guided the 'Dogs to a 10-1 record and their only home national playoff game.
Ward, a 1997 McPherson College graduate and defensive standout under coach Bruce Grose, said Blake was as important to the team as record-setting quarterback Shane Mascaranas, star running back Aaron Lafitte and the other Bulldogs who were highly decorated.
Blake was the Bulldogs’ student assistant coach despite the fact he was confined to a motorized wheelchair as he was afflicted with Muscular Dystrophy. Rain, sleet or snow, Blake was on the sidelines exorting the Bulldogs.
“Blake was a big part of our success,” Ward said by telephone on Wednesday as he’s now the defensive coordinator at Syracuse University of the ACC that includes Clemson and Florida State. “He epitomized what football is all about. It’s a brotherhood. Blake liked being around the guys and they liked being around him. He would hold the players accountable and they knew that.”
Ward said Blake, who eventually succumbed to his illness in 2010, was a fixture and was known throughout the conference.
“If he wasn’t there, he felt like he was letting people down,” Ward said. "He wasn't somebody who was just hanging around. He was as important as any player we had."
Saturday night is the annual Mac-2-Mac Blake Reed Memorial Scholarship Game at McPherson Stadium and donations toward the Blake Reed Scholarship Fund will be accepted at the gate. The game has raised more than $50,000 in five years and each year a Bulldog is recognized for having the heart, courage and character of Blake. Senior defensive back Kavoderic McIntyre will be recognized at halftime of the game as the Bulldogs make their home debut against Southwestern.
Ward has made a meteoric rise in the coaching ranks. It seems like everywhere he goes, the year after he leaves the team either wins or is in contention for a conference championship, much like when Mac won its first KCAC title in 58 years in 2010 as Ward had led the team to a runner-up KCAC finish in 2009 before departing.
Ward was the defensive coordinator last year at Bowling Green, which won the Mid-America Conference championship. Other stops before that since McPherson College were at Western Illinois (his 2013 defense ranked 7th in the country), Drake (the team won the Pioneer League championship in 2011) and North Dakota State (a past NCAA Division II national champion).
Before coming to Mac, Ward had been at Tulsa Union High School in 2006 and the team won the state championship the following year. He’s also had stints at Glendale Community College, Wabash College and Missouri Southern University. He said he's taken a little bit from each stop and applied it to his coaching acumen.
Syracuse could be Ward’s biggest challenge. He was hired in January of this year by new head coach Dino Babers and so far the team is 1-1, having lost last week to national championship contender Louisville after having opened with a lopsided win over Colgate.
Ward admits getting ready to take on Clemson and Florida State isn’t like going up against Bethany and Tabor. The Orangemen have a proud tradition dating back to Heisman Trophy winners Jim Brown and Ernie Davis, but have fallen on hard times in recent years.
Ward said recruiting has been down at Syracuse, but three of the freshmen brought in by Babers and Ward are starting on the defensive side. Ward said there will be some growing pains as it’s difficult to win in a Power 5 Conference with freshmen. He noted that practically all of Lousville’s offensive operatives were seniors and juniors, one reason the Cardinals raced to a 62-24 victory.
But Ward has been around winning programs wherever he’s been. He believes the administration will give Babers and his staff the time it needs to be successful. The bar is low this year as Syracuse is picked last in the ACC and is only expected to win one game, which it achieved the first week.
Ward still holds fond memories of McPherson College. He said his wife, Amy, always tells him it was the toughest place for them to leave.
“I’d like to see what we could have done there,” said Ward who was 17-14 in his three years but had the program trending skyward as he was a recruiting demon. He had the connections to get the skill-postion athletes and the Bulldogs, with Ward being a defensive coach, had a fly-to-the-ball mentality.
Ward said he’ll be thinking of Blake and the Bulldogs on Saturday. If they play with the same effort that Blake used to give as a student assistant coach, he believes they’ll come out on top.