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updated: 8/26/2011 5:23 AM

Robert Morris University ready to kick off new football program

Suburban athletes round out new team

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  • Robert Morris University's inaugural season of football includes, from left, head coach Jared Williamson, tight end Tyler Warden (Glenbard West), linebacker Jason Olson (Hersey) and quarterback Matt Westerkamp (Montini).

       Robert Morris University's inaugural season of football includes, from left, head coach Jared Williamson, tight end Tyler Warden (Glenbard West), linebacker Jason Olson (Hersey) and quarterback Matt Westerkamp (Montini).
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Quarterback Matt Westkeramp came from two-time defending Class 5A state champion Montini to the first-year Robert Morris program.

       Quarterback Matt Westkeramp came from two-time defending Class 5A state champion Montini to the first-year Robert Morris program.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Tight end and former Glenbard West star Tyler Warden transferred from a Division I program at Buffalo to play for Robert Morris in its inaugural season. Warden's younger brother Beau is also playing for Robert Morris.

       Tight end and former Glenbard West star Tyler Warden transferred from a Division I program at Buffalo to play for Robert Morris in its inaugural season. Warden's younger brother Beau is also playing for Robert Morris.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Running back Andrew Williamson goes through practice drills as Robert Morris University prepares for the program's first game Saturday.

       Running back Andrew Williamson goes through practice drills as Robert Morris University prepares for the program's first game Saturday.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Head coach Jared Williamson is expecting a successful start in Robert Morris University's first year of football.

       Head coach Jared Williamson is expecting a successful start in Robert Morris University's first year of football.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Robert Morris University goes through practice drills at Morris Field in Arlington Heights. The program's first home game is Sept. 3 against Minnesota State.

       Robert Morris University goes through practice drills at Morris Field in Arlington Heights. The program's first home game is Sept. 3 against Minnesota State.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

 

Matt Westerkamp is used to winning.

As in winning state championships the last two years at Montini High School.

Now Westerkamp has gone from a starting quarterback in one of the state's premier programs to what is basically a college football expansion team. Westerkamp is part of the first-year Robert Morris University program, which plays its first game Saturday.

There would figure to be plenty of growing pains for a team that will play its four home games at the school's new campus in Arlington Heights.

But Westerkamp and head coach Jared Williamson didn't come here to stumble and bumble around the way, say, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers memorably did in their formative years in the 1970s.

"One of the points (Williamson) made in the first meeting was he wanted us to lead the NAIA in wins," Westerkamp said. "If we do things the right way and keep working hard, I think we would have a really good shot at doing that."

This is after Williamson scrapped the original plan of playing junior varsity teams and put together a regular 10-game varsity schedule.

"I think we have a shot to be one of the better college football programs, in terms of first-year record, maybe in the history of college football," Williamson said. "Every game we go into I feel we can win. You don't always feel that way at every place you're at."

And after a lot of planning, plotting and practicing, it all starts for real Saturday for Robert Morris. Ironically, it will be at Mayville State University in North Dakota, where Williamson was a record-setting quarterback.

Getting started

Starting a football program doesn't happen overnight. Just ask Megan Smith, who is entering her fifth year as athletic director at Robert Morris.

"It's been a long-range plan as long as I can remember," said Smith, who is also the softball coach and has been at the school since 2000. "It was always an initiative the university wanted to have but it was a matter of financially being in the right spot."

Smith said an even bigger factor was finding a place to play since there aren't a lot of options near Robert Morris' main downtown Chicago campus.

"Soldier Field wasn't willing to have us on for a full season," Smith joked.

Coming out to the Northwest suburbs and Morris Field, at the site of the old Forest View High School, might be even better considering all of the recent issues with the sod state of Soldier Field.

Once the school decided to start a football program it needed to find someone to lead it. Smith said the job was posted for a week and she received hundreds of resumes.

One of them was from Jared Williamson, who just finished his fourth year as an assistant coach at Illinois Wesleyan. Williamson said he learned about the opening from another coach and was intrigued by the school's academic and athletic reputation.

On June 28, 2010, Williamson was hired as the Robert Morris' first football coach.

"It's kind of a progression," Williamson said. "They say, 'Congratulations, you're hired.' Then you go to an empty office with your keys and say, 'Alright, let's start a program.'"

Williamson had to put together a coaching staff and find players. The NAIA has a limit of 24 scholarships which can be broken up however each school chooses.

Working at Illinois Wesleyan and the familiarity with recruiting the Chicago area was a big plus.

But there was no tradition of success to sell to potential recruits. Only the promise of building a tradition for the future for the roster of 90-plus players Williamson assembled.

For some players such as freshman linebacker Jason Olson, who played across town in Arlington Heights at Hersey, it was also a chance to play. Despite having a solid senior year Olson didn't attract much serious interest from other schools.

"It's exciting … to have people remember us as the first team for the school," Olson said. "To be part of the first team, I thought was pretty cool. All of the coaches were really nice and it looked like a good place to go."

Robert Morris tight end Tyler Warden was a big part of Glenbard West's success and he wound up going to Buffalo to try to play Division I football. He redshirted his freshman year but got caught in the middle of a coaching change and started looking to play somewhere else.

Robert Morris wound up getting a package deal since Warden's brother Beau, a linebacker last year at Glenbard West, was being recruited by Williamson.

"The visit with coach Williamson really made me feel like this would be a fun thing to go into," said Tyler Warden, who will have four years of eligibility at Robert Morris. "It made me feel comfortable coming into a whole new situation.

"It's exciting to go to a program with no expectations where everyone's optimistic."

Finally ready to play

All of the facilities are ready when Robert Morris plays the first of four home games this year at noon on Sept. 3 against Minnesota State.

Morris Field has a new scoreboard with more upgrades planned. There are two full-sized practice fields north of the main field and a football building with offices for the coaching staff, meeting rooms and player locker rooms.

"The most important thing was getting it college ready," Williamson said. "They've made it look very collegiate."

And after playing an independent schedule for its first two years, Robert Morris will join the Mid-States Football Association in 2013. It is one of the top NAIA conferences in the country and includes Olivet Nazarene, St. Francis in Joliet and St. Xavier on Chicago's South Side and Trinity International in Deerfield.

"It definitely shows they're serious about this and they want to win," Westerkamp said. "Coming out of Montini, it's a pretty intense program and I didn't want to go to a situation that didn't have a good group of guys."

Olson, Westerkamp and Warden were impressed with the early returns.

"The talent level is pretty high," Olson said.

"I didn't know what to think and I didn't know how much talent they could bring in with the situation here," Warden said. "I'm really surprised with how much talent have. It really showed with how many kids came from other places across the country."

Westerkamp said there was some initial apprehension with so many new faces from different places. But that didn't last long.

"It's probably the quickest I've seen a team pull together and have chemistry on it," Warden said. "It's kind of amazing."

And the chance to start actually coaching again and putting together this unique puzzle on the field added to Williamson's excitement level when early August rolled around.

"Probably the most surprising thing is how many of our guys wanted to be part of establishing a tradition," Williamson said. "I was really shocked at how many people want to be part of this groud-breaking and trendsetting team for the university."

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