Head Coach Rod Sandberg’s office has the faint smell of vegetables when I walk in, as he removes a plastic food container from the table he had been sitting at.
“I never miss a meal,” Sandberg said.
As I sit down, I notice the poster of Walter Payton low on the wall next to his desk with a caption that describes him as the greatest Chicago Bear of all time. Sandberg’s Whitworth Pirates jacket hangs on a peg behind the door.
Sandberg’s office looks typical of those inhabited by coaches highly invested in their job, with paperwork scattered on tables and picture frames filled with images of former players from his time at Wheaton hanging from the wall across from his desk. There are stacks of folders filled with seemingly infinite bundles of paper next to his keyboard and on the ground when he seemed to run out of space. There are a few comfortable looking chairs in front of his desk and a few at a small coffee table he eats his lunch at. With all of these attributes, Sandberg’s office is an office that seems to invite conversation for those who enter it. However, it is also an office that Sandberg said has historically been alien to many players on the team.
“I got here and no players came in to the offices. I’m here for like a month and my coaches that I brought with me from the program I was at were saying, ‘Where is everybody?’” Sandberg said. “I interviewed every single player in this office for about 45 minutes and you don’t know how many of them told me that they had never even been in here before.”
In addition, much like his embracement of open-door policies, Sandberg brings in a new set of philosophies to the program.
“I have a vision. The vision for Whitworth football is that it should be life-changing for the players that are in our program,” Sandberg said. “That’s pretty wide open, and the reason I like that is that it becomes not about what the athlete can do for us, but it puts it on our coaching staff [to say] ‘what can we do for the athlete? How can we invest in him, get to know him and maximize all the incredible opportunities that exist at a school like Whitworth.’”
Sandberg has even instilled a motto for this season of “We Believe.” It is displayed proudly on a banner above the back door of Graves Gym in capitalized red, block letters. The motto applies to the team and to the season ahead of them, Sandberg said.
“We don’t want to have a football team. Football teams are not special. There’s a thousand million trillion football teams,” Sandberg said. “We want to have a football family and that takes being honest and vulnerable and open. I have to be authentic and real and share my struggles and problems.”
Sandberg laid out his four program goals in a letter he gave to his players. In it, he emphasized Faith, Future, Family and Fun. Sandberg writes that if he does not feel as though he or his coaching staff has lived up to challenging the players on all of these fronts, “we will feel like we failed him [the athlete].”
Even with the change, the team took to Sandberg right from the start, senior quarterback Bryan Peterson said.
“[The team] really bought in to his methods of doing things because he’s a fantastic leader and someone you can trust, someone who reaches out and makes personal connections,” Peterson said.
On the practice field, Sandberg brings a high level of enthusiasm to the program every day, Peterson said.
“He’s always in a good mood, always full of enthusiasm and that just lifts me up and makes me feel better. So that’s a great quality he has and I really appreciate that about him,” Peterson said.
However, even with the resignation of long-time Head Coach John Tully coming after a 4-6 overall record last year, some aspects of the program remained the same. For instance, Tully’s son Jay was kept on the coaching staff along with a number of other assistant coaches.
“I think the biggest challenge is becoming a part of a new coaching staff, understanding the new routines and expectations. Just making sure that I fulfill the expectations that he has for me as an assistant coach,” Tully said.
Despite the new energy and attitude that Sandberg brings to practice, the team and coaches are not focused so much on winning as they are on achieving their goals.
“As far as the record goes, each week we are trying to better ourselves and that’s not necessarily going to speak in record,” Peterson said. “If we improve each week and we do the things [we need to do] and win our own battles, the record should speak for itself.”
With two wins already in the books, Sandberg and the revitalized Pirates will take on La Verne in California next weekend in an effort to remain undefeated.