Small College Sports

Steve Ryan has built an NAIA dynasty at Morningside College

Ogden column: 2-time defending national champs are doing things a little bit different

Morningside head coach Steve Ryan watches the scoreboard during the second half of the NAIA Championship college footbal
Morningside head coach Steve Ryan watches the scoreboard during the second half of the NAIA Championship college football game against Benedictine in 2018, in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

When Iowa kicks off its football season on Oct. 24, Iowa State will be coming off its second bye week and playing its fifth game of the season.

Assuming all goes as planned.

Morningside College in Sioux City — another Iowa college playing football this fall — will be getting ready for a home game against Dakota Wesleyan, game No. 6 on the Mustangs’ schedule.

There’s a pretty good chance Morningside will be 5-0 at that point, again, assuming all goes as planned.

You might think it’s a bit presumptuous to predict the Mustangs will win their first five games, but a quick scan of this program tells you that’s a pretty safe bet.

You see, Morningside has the No. 1 college football program in the state and, I’m guessing, a lot of folks on the eastern side of Iowa don’t know much about it.

The Mustangs have won two straight NAIA championships, 31 straight games and 44 of their last 45. They haven’t lost a game in the Great Plains Athletic Conference since 2014. And their last regular-season loss was to Wisconsin-Whitewater on Sept. 24. 2016. Whitewater, by the way, is an NCAA Division III program that played into the third round of that division’s playoffs in 2016 and last year played in the national championship game.

“We’ll play anyone,” Coach Steve Ryan said.

Ryan’s numbers are pretty impressive, as well. In this 20th season, he owns a 184-36 record and is a three-time American Football Coaches Association National Coach of the Year in his division.

Not bad.

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“God has blessed me,” he said about his team’s success. “We’ve been fortunate.”

Ryan, 53, admits he dreamed of bigger things when he was younger. A former North Scott prep from Eldridge, his father was a high school coach and teacher and “it’s all I ever wanted to do.”

He hoped to pay his dues, work his way up the ladder and land an NCAA Division I job at some point. But he found his niche and a home in Sioux City.

“If this is where I’m going to be, I’m going to make it incredible,” he said he finally decided. “I’m going to make it the greatest football program possible.”

He obviously has met that goal, but Ryan wanted to do more than just find success on the football field.

“We just do our program differently,” he said.

To him, the “definition of manhood” is living a “life of significance, not just success.”

Like all football coaches — all coaches really — Ryan loves to talk about the benefits of sports. It builds character, teaches people how to work hard and work as a team in a diverse setting.

It’s all true, of course, but Ryan takes it a step further. Each year his players pick a destination, somewhere they can go as a team to help people in need. They were in Cuba in March when the coronavirus shut everything down in the United States. They’ve also gone to Uganda, Haiti and many places in the United States.

They climb a 14,000-foot mountain every summer. Together.

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“We give great experiences here,” Ryan said. “It gives them an experience that’s beyond football.”

The football is a bit different, too.

“We do play a high-tempo game,” he said. “It’s no huddle and it’s fast.”

The Mustangs have scored more than 40 points in both wins this fall — 45-31 over Northwestern and 42-7 over Midland on Saturday. Last year, they scored more than 50 points nine times, including 80-0 over St. Francis (Ill.).

“Our goal is to get 50 offensive plays in the first half,” Ryan said. “It helps us develop players ... When you go fast, you’re playing a lot more kids.”

Winning, it appears, is a byproduct of coaching fun football with a mission outside the lines.

Comments: jr.ogden@thegazette.com

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