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The Wins Follow Him

Northwest Missouri State athletics director has the magic touch

Mel Tjeerdsma thrived as a coach with high school, small college and Division II teams. Northwest Missouri State University photo

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Mel Tjeerdsma was the director of athletics when Northwest Missouri State became the first Division II school to capture both the NCAA football and men’s basketball championships in the same academic year. The Bearcats accomplished the unprecedented feat in 2016-17.

Athletics success and Tjeerdsma have been linked since he walked onto campus in 1994, the year he signed on as football coach. Until then, Northwest Missouri State had never won a national title in any sport.

Tjeerdsma led the Bearcats to NCAA championships in 1998, 1999 and 2009 before retiring from coaching in 2010. Now, as an administrator, Tjeerdsma influences the entire Bearcats athletics department with his approach.

“Having the football and men’s basketball teams win national championships in the same year was special,” Tjeerdsma says. “I trust all of our coaches do their jobs, and my job is to provide support and help them in any way so they can be successful.”

The 2016 football national championship was the second consecutive title and the third in four years for the Bearcats. The 2017 NCAA men’s basketball title was the culmination for a program that suffered heartbreaking losses in the regional finals each of the previous three seasons.

“The fact that this team had worked so hard and kept bouncing back was special,” Tjeerdsma says. “They are a great group of young men.”

Where it started

After graduating from high school in Springfield, South Dakota, Tjeerdsma went to local Southern State College, where he got married during his undergraduate days. That decision meant he spent more time finding work to support his family. He earned his degree in physical education in 1967 and set out to become a high school football coach, settling in Iowa and winning a state championship in 1972 as a first-year, 26-year-old head coach.

Becoming a college coach

In 1975, Tjeerdsma took a job at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa, where he was the offensive coordinator for the football team and head track and field coach. Larry Korver, Northwestern’s head football coach at the time, became Tjeerdsma’s mentor.

“He trusted his coordinators to do our jobs and let us call the game,” says Tjeerdsma, who helped Northwestern College win the 1983 NAIA Division II national title. “That’s the way I coached when I became a head coach. I let my coordinators call the game. I also watched how he got the most out of his players. I learned how to deal with young people so they can get the most out of their ability.”

After eight years at Northwestern College, Tjeerdsma became the head coach at Austin College in Texas for 10 seasons.

On to Maryville, Missouri

Tjeerdsma was hired to coach Northwest Missouri State in 1994. When he took over, the program hadn’t had back-to-back winning seasons in 20 years.

“We went 0-11 the first season,” Tjeerdsma recalls. “One of my friends joked that I did a good job of lowering the expectations.”

By 1998, the Bearcats completed a 15-0 season and hoisted their first national championship trophy. They defended the title in 1999 and won another title in 2009. The last championship was especially sweet because the Bearcats had lost four straight national championship games from 2005 to 2008.

“I’ll never forget the feeling I had for the seniors on the 2009 team,” says Tjeerdsma, who was 183-43 in 17 seasons at Northwest Missouri State. “They were around for all four losses in the championship game. To go back and win it shows the resiliency of those kids.”

New role

After the 2010 season, Tjeerdsma retired from coaching and moved to Sherman, Texas, so he and his wife could be closer to their grandchildren. He also took a job as a fundraiser for Austin College.

“I wasn’t happy with what I was doing, and I knew I wanted to work,” Tjeerdsma says. He was entertaining a return to coaching, but then the athletics director job at Northwest Missouri State came open in 2013 — and it provided an ideal re-entry for Tjeerdsma. Besides the success in the win-loss records of its athletics teams, the department is preparing to open a new $18 million multipurpose indoor facility in the summer of 2018.

About Champion

Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.

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