BIG RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The Ferris State Bulldogs, now only one win away from a shot at a national championship, are led by a staff that has coached literally thousands of high school students in West Michigan.
In five seasons with the Bulldogs, head coach Tony Annese has a 49-11 record. Now, the team is headed to the NCAA Division II national semifinal game for only the second time in the program’s history.
Before he was coaching college ball, Annese coached in the high school ranks for 22 years, most recently in Jenison and Muskegon, where he led the Big Reds to three state championships. He was elected to the Michigan High School Football Coaches Hall of Fame in 2011.
He still refers to himself as a high school coach.
“It is who I am,” Annese said. “I never really thought about being a college football coach. I just loved being a high school head coach. That’s kind of who I always wanted to be.”
He cited his father, who was a high school football head coach for 26 years, as his role model.
Other members of his coaching staff also had success at area high schools: wide receivers and passing coordinator Sparky McEwen, quarterbacks coach Dan Rohn and special teams coordinator Jack Schugars.
“We’re high school guys for sure, because we really care about kids and that’s what this business is all about, caring about kids,” Schugars said.
He’s also High School Hall of Fame coach who spent 42 years at Muskegon Oakridge — the last 32 as head coach — and led the Eagles to three state championships.
McEwen joined Annese’s staff five years ago.
“I always knew that I had a passion to work with kids and being with these coaches that have been around kids their entire lives, it’s been great,” he said.
McEwen is a former Bulldogs quarterback. After turning around the then-dormant program at Grand Rapids Creston, he was the head coach for the now-defunct Grand Rapids Rampage arena football league.
“I always admired his relationship with young people and to really get people to follow him, and that’s kind of my assessment of leadership,” Annese said of McEwen.
Rohn came on board with the Bulldogs this season. Before that, he spent nine seasons at Grand Rapids West Catholic, during which time the Falcons won four state championships.
“I knew that Tony liked to work with high school guys,” Rohn said. “I mean, he’s a high school guy. And Tony respects what high school coaches have done. And knowing that he’s walked that a lot of us have walked, this was the best fit for me.”
Rohn has been the perfect fit for a team playing two quarterbacks.
“He’s been incredible,” Annese said. “With the dynamic we have going on right now, we need that, and he’s done a great job communicating with those guys. He’s made those guys feel like they’re brothers.”
Each coach brings a little bit of what made them successful at the high school level and combines those elements into success at the collegiate level.
“A special time and a great opportunity and I really appreciate it,” Rohn said.
“You got to love kids in order to do this and, boy, I’ll tell you there’s a lot of love here on this staff,” McEwen said.
“So we’re just really excited to be here,” Schugars said.
“It’s just a cool thing to see,” Annese added.
The Division II national semifinal against No. 1 Northwest Missouri State (13-0) kicks off at 3:30 p.m. Saturday and will air on ESPN3. If the Bulldogs (No. 4, 12-2) win, they’ll be headed to their first national championship game.