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The Clarion

The Student News Site of Bethel University

The Clarion

The Student News Site of Bethel University

The Clarion

Football, family and C.S. Lewis

New Bethel University Head Football Coach Mike McElroy looks forward to the impact he’ll make both on and off the field.
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Photo submitted by Bethel Athletics
Mike McElroy observes a pregame drill. McElroy’s impact on the defense has been evident throughout his tenure at Bethel, especially in the secondary, where sophomore cornerback Devin Williams plays. “If you do something wrong, he’ll call it out,” Williams said. “He’ll address it and make sure you fix it because … small details make a big impact.”

Oct. 30, 2023, six-time MIAC coach of the year and 252 game-winner Steve Johnson announced he would retire from coaching Bethel University football at the end of the season. Upon hearing this, one major question regarding the future of the program immediately arose around the Bethel community:

Who will replace him? 

Despite a nationwide search by the Athletics Department, the answer was obvious to fifth-year senior Nate Farm. It had to be Mike McElroy. 

“He’s just the perfect guy,” Farm said. “We’re super happy to see Coach Mac got the job.” 

McElroy, who worked under Johnson for seven seasons as his defensive coordinator, was announced as Bethel’s 15th head coach Jan. 9. In a program as successful as Bethel’s during Johnson’s 35 years, including six MIAC championships and twelve NCAA tournament appearances, an inevitably large pair of shoes were left to be filled, but McElroy’s resume makes him an ideal candidate. 

From 2007 to 2011, McElroy played strong safety at the University of Southern Illinois, a Division I school. He twice earned a spot on the All-Missouri Valley Conference First Team, as well as a 2010 nomination for the Buck Buchanan Award under head coach Jerry Kill. After a couple of short stints coaching high school football, McElroy worked again under Kill as a graduate assistant at the University of Minnesota for two years. Between Johnson and Kill, McElroy has noticed some key similarities that he hopes to carry over into his own head coaching career. 

“Coach Kill and Coach J [are] guys you’d run through a wall for,” McElroy said. “I’ve had this unbelievable firsthand experience of what makes these guys really good is that … they weren’t trying to be somebody else.” 

McElroy’s experience has proven incredibly effective, especially in the 2023 season. Bethel’s defense ranked either first or second in the MIAC in nearly every major category. Despite this, he attributes much of the success to his players. 

“Our guys are diligent in how they prepare,” McElroy said. “[They] do a great job of learning through the week and then executing on Saturday.” 

Devanie Andre

Sophomore cornerback Devin Williams called McElroy a “stickler” on technique. When a player does something wrong, McElroy is not afraid to call it out, but he rarely raises his voice, knowing his players are mature enough to recognize what they did wrong. 

Additionally, Williams noted the closeness of all the players, which has contributed to the defense’s dominance. All eleven defenders know their spot on the field and read each other well enough to find each place they need to be on any given play. This chemistry comes from seven years of McElroy connecting with his players. 

“Before practice he’ll just be sitting in his office, and there’ll be upwards of five, six guys in there just watching film with him,” Williams said. “Everyone’s always together.” 

Great defense is never coached alone. Kyle Kilgore, a former defensive end for McElroy and now McElroy’s linebacker coach, knows that. Since McElroy’s strength is in the defensive backfield, he relies on a “symbiotic relationship” with Kilgore’s expertise on the front end to help put together a powerful defensive scheme. 

Even though McElroy — who said he will likely retain his defensive coordinator position — has the final say in any defensive decisions, he doesn’t want any of his coaches to be men who will simply do everything McElroy says. 

“Whether it’s stuff we see come up on tape or at practice, or schematics that we think of that would be helpful … he wants that input,” Kilgore said. “It is very collaborative and another reason I enjoy working for him.” 

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Despite the change from a 35-year veteran to a first-year head coach, Kilgore anticipates McElroy to add his own “flavor” to much of the foundation of Bethel football. Farm noted the emphasis McElroy has put on coaching to not only make better football players, but to make better men, similar to Johnson’s philosophy. 

“He loves God, he loves football and he loves his family,” Farm said. 

One of McElroy’s favorite parts about working at Bethel is its family-friendly aspect. He’s not afraid to show his family examples of young men maturing in a positive environment, an example he’s trying to set for his three sons. His wife Austyn, who just gave birth to their third son Caius, often brings their older sons, Asa and Ira, to practices. The older boys, ages six and three, run around with the players during water breaks, and McElroy hopes to turn them into defensive backs of his own someday. 

“I feel like I get sharpened here. I’m with guys that care about the same stuff and are passionate about following Jesus,” McElroy said. “So I get filled up here and I get to go give that to my family.” 

McElroy makes sure this high emphasis on work-life balance applies to his colleagues as well. If a coach’s son has a basketball game, McElroy makes sure the coach is there to support his son. He also allows them all to take their kids to school in the morning to provide quality time for their families. 

McElroy says that fatherhood has changed the way he coaches. He has learned patience as a key value, and knowing how he would want a coach to treat his own boys, he treats his players with the same kind of respect. 

Since McElroy knows he’s raising more than just football players, he’s committed to being available to any of the 18 to 28-year-old men who may need anything from encouragement to utilize Bethel’s tutoring services to help writing an email. McElroy recognizes the unique position he’s in at a university that is intentional in raising the Johnson-coined “soft-hearted, tough suckers.”

 That being said, McElroy doesn’t hold any of his players’ hands. 

“He’s made it very clear it doesn’t have to be a football issue for you to come to him,” Williams said. “He understands we’re all at that age where if we need help, then we’re gonna have to be mature enough to ask for it.” 

Anytime a player comes to McElroy, whether it’s about an issue or just to chat, chances are the player will get recommended a book. On a shelf in his office is “Mac’s free library,” where players can take a book, many of which are by C. S. Lewis, and hear a synopsis about it from McElroy. 

McElroy began enjoying reading in college when he realized there were books outside of his required class readings. From Lewis’s “The Screwtape Letters” to John Mark Comer’s “The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry,” McElroy is never short on wisdom to share with players and coaches. But his favorite things to read are Lewis’s essays, particularly his “God in the Dock” collection. 

“There is so much wisdom in the old books,” McElroy said. 

Kilgore recalls the first time he met McElroy was during Kilgore’s junior year. McElroy met with all the defensive players one-on-one before the season began, giving each a book recommendation at the meeting’s end. For Kilgore, who was less than thrilled to read a book at the time, McElroy’s passion has proven beneficial over time. Kilgore now has his own small collection of books in his office.

Seeing guys grow up and be mature and then sent back out into the community and into their families and in their cities and jobs, that keeps you coming back.

— Mike McElroy, Head Football Coach

Farm appreciates the ways McElroy can transfer the wisdom reaped from his readings to growing his players. Many defensive meetings start with a devotion or a small portion from a book McElroy read earlier in the day. 

“The way he coaches is not only to make you a better player, but to make you a better man,” Farm said. “Those two kinds of things, they go hand in hand.” 

To Farm, this is what makes McElroy the perfect man to replace Johnson, whose standards McElroy intends to maintain. His highlights from his time so far have little to do with anything on the field. Rather, he enjoys watching the freshman “knuckleheads” turn into godly seniors ready to take on the world.

“Seeing guys grow up and be mature and then sent back out into the community and into their families and in their cities and jobs– that keeps you coming back,” McElroy said.

As for his goals on the field…

“I want people to hate to play us.”

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About the Contributors
Aiden Penner, Staff Reporter
Aiden Penner, 19, is a freshman journalism major. His favorite activities are snatching every rebound in pick-up basketball, driving the combine during harvest on his farm and researching obscure statistics on Baseball-Reference. His biggest flex is that he met Carl Azuz. [email protected] | 507.621.4619
Devanie Andre, Staff Designer
Devanie Andre, 20, is a junior graphic design major. She enjoys being a member of Bethel’s volleyball team, playing intense card games like Dutch Blitz and contemplating what tattoo to get next.

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