It’s a message Tony Aker delivers frequently.
You’ll hear Lawrence University’s new head football coach say it when imploring his players to embrace the academic and athletic rigors that come with being a scholar athlete. You’ll hear it when he talks with his coaches about the challenges of rebuilding a winning tradition in a football program that was once among the nation’s Division III elite but hasn’t won consistently in years. And you’ll hear it when he talks about re-establishing the Fox Valley, the state of Wisconsin, and the upper Midwest as essential recruiting territory for Lawrence football.
“We talk about not flinching, coming in and accepting the challenge,” Aker said as he settled into his office in the lower level of Alexander Gymnasium in mid-January, a month into his first foray as a collegiate head coach. “It’s about these guys knowing they have to go and attack it, never backing down from any challenge. … When you have setbacks on the field or classes start to pick up and it gets a little tougher, we tell them, that’s what we signed up for. We tell our scholar athletes we want them to be excited about studying for an exam. I want them to walk up and slam that exam down and feel really, really good that they put the work in and they’ve done everything they could to put themselves in a position to be successful.
“And as coaches, we have to live it out. We have to have that don’t flinch mentality. We’re going to go in and attack everything, and that’s the same way we’re going to play football.”
A conference first
Aker, 32, makes a bit of history upon his arrival at Lawrence. He is the first African American head football coach in the Midwest Conference, the second among all Wisconsin colleges. The first African American head football coach at the collegiate level in Wisconsin was Fred Reese at Lakeland University in the early 1990s.
Aker said he counts a number of talented African American head coaches at the high school level in Wisconsin as mentors. He points in particular to Dennis Thompson, who became the first African American high school coach to win a state football championship at Racine Park High School in 2005.
“It’s an honor, it’s something I’m proud of,” Aker said of crossing that barrier in the Midwest Conference. “But I don’t really think about it. I’m proud of it but I definitely don’t want it to define me. At the end of the day, I’m a football coach and an educator and I take great pride in developing my scholar athletes. I’m just excited about the opportunity to be a head football coach.”
With challenges come opportunities
If enthusiasm alone was the ticket to success, Aker would already have the Lawrence program turned around. He knows the challenges are many. The Vikings are coming off a 1-8 season. The Banta Bowl, as beautiful a setting as you’ll find in Division III football, has failed to draw sizable crowds. Lawrence football has mostly fallen off the Appleton community’s radar. High school coaches in Wisconsin haven’t regularly looked to Lawrence as a landing spot for their players.
Aker isn’t flinching. Challenge accepted, he said.
Earlier in January, he attended the annual Red Smith Sports Award Banquet in Appleton, an annual event that brings together coaches, athletics administrators, and sports fans from around the state. It was a chance to introduce himself, to shake some hands, to begin the process of building positive relations here in the Fox Valley and across the state.
Aker, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s 2005 Wisconsin High School Athlete of the Year while at Brown Deer High School and later an all-conference selection as a wide receiver at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, had been working the past four years as an assistant coach at Carroll University. He knew Lawrence well, its proud football history and its recent struggles.
“It was very, very intriguing,” he said of the coaching opportunity. “And quite frankly, we have some work to do, and that appeals to me as well. I’m a firm believer in nothing that’s worth having comes easy. I wanted to come here and have the opportunity to help us get back to some of those past successes that we’ve had in the football program.”
From December: Lawrence names new football coach
Staying true to Wisconsin
“First and foremost, I’m a Wisconsin guy,” Aker said.
Originally from southern Indiana, he and his family moved to Milwaukee as he was entering eighth grade. He excelled at multiple sports at Brown Deer before going on to play football for Rochester Community and Technical College in Minnesota and then Stevens Point. He graduated from UWSP, having majored in sociology, and joined its coaching staff as a graduate assistant. That led him to Carroll, where he worked as an associate head coach/offensive coordinator and coached the quarterbacks, and most recently served as interim head coach.
Aker and his partner, Haley, have an 18-month-old son and a baby on the way, due in April.
Those Wisconsin roots, he said, will drive much of his philosophy as he looks to put a renewed recruiting focus closer to home.
“I take great pride in recruiting and being able to re-establish our footprint in the state of Wisconsin,” Aker said. “When you look at some of our past teams, especially our most successful ones, we’ve had a lot of scholar athletes from Wisconsin, Illinois, that upper Midwest and Great Lakes region. And we need to get back to that. I think that’s important. We are still a Wisconsin university, and we need to have that represented. Even as we continue to make headway and continue some of the national recruiting we’ve done, I would really like to have an inside out focus as we move forward.”
That includes a new emphasis on recruiting scholar athletes from in and around the Fox Cities.
“We have to try to do our best to protect the back yard,” Aker said. “Go in and find the best and the brightest and sell our vision and sell our great university and make them understand that you don’t need to go someplace else to succeed. You can accomplish all that and more right here. It’s something we have to take great pride in.
“We’re going to be visible. I plan to be out on many, many sidelines and in many, many bleachers come fall as we enjoy those Friday night lights, watching the great high school programs around the area.”
With that inside out recruiting focus, Aker believes, will come renewed excitement in the community for Vikings football. And better attendance and more energy at the Banta Bowl on Saturday afternoons.
“We’ve got to do a little bit of work in the community to make it fun again,” Aker said. “It’s a great setting, and this is a great university, and this is a great campus and a great town. We’ve got to get people here to show it off.
“We’re a part of the community and they’re a part of us, and we’re trying to get back to that as much as we can.”