Few programs in college football, at any level, have made more progress over the past seven seasons than Marietta College.
A graph charting the win totals of the Pioneers would veer steadily upward: from 0-10 in 2012 to 1-9, 2-8, 2-8, 3-7 and then 6-4 last season. This season, Marietta has started 5-0, its best record through five games since 1923.
Overseeing the resurrection on the banks of the Ohio River is Andy Waddle, a 1997 Greenon High School graduate who played a part in some of the greatest teams in Wittenberg Tigers history as a defensive back and as a defensive coordinator. Marietta gave Waddle his first head coaching job in 2013 after he spent eight seasons on Wittenberg head coach Joe Fincham’s staff.
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Waddle has turned a program with the most losses in Ohio Athletic Conference history into a contender, though he also realizes there’s a long way to go.
“We’re kind of in the middle of it right now,” Waddle said Monday, “so I don’t think you have too much time to think about anything other than preparing for your next opponent. We realize we have some very tough opponents in front of us. The way the schedule has worked out is the only teams we have beaten so far are the teams we beat last year. We’ve got some big tasks and challenges in front of us, so we really don’t think about reflecting on where we are.”
Marietta has more victories in the last two seasons than it did in Waddle’s first four seasons. It’s winning in style, too, and by making bold decisions.
Marietta beat Capital 51-50 on Sept. 8 in part by twice adding 2-point conversions after touchdowns in the fourth quarter. In a 43-42 victory over Ohio Northern on Sept. 29, Marietta added a 2-point conversion after a touchdown with 22 seconds to play instead of kicking the extra point to send the game to overtime.
“It’s a game-flow thing,” Waddle said. “To be perfectly honest, that’s part of it. I didn’t go into the game saying if we’re tied with one minute left in the game, then we’re going to go for two. That wasn’t the thought process going into the week. But we’ve been very good in my time here with our two-point plays.”
There was more drama last Saturday as Tanner Clarke’s 1-yard touchdown run with 1:19 to play led to a 38-34 victory at Heidelberg.
Asked if the season has been more fun or more nerve-wracking, Waddle didn’t hesitate before saying, “Fun.”
“What’s crazy a little bit about that is there’s certainly nerves involved and whatnot,” Waddle said, “but our guys and staff, you get in those situations and you just have that confidence that we’re going to figure out a way, and we have figured out a way. So that’s fun.”
Marietta shares first place in the OAC with No. 1 Mount Union, the defending national champion and perennial Division III powerhouse that has won all but one OAC title since 1995. Both teams are 4-0 in conference play.
The Pioneers play at Mount Union in the regular-season finale Nov. 10 and face two other top OAC teams in the coming weeks: at John Carroll (4-1, 3-1) on Oct. 20 and home vs. Baldwin-Wallace (4-1, 3-1) on Oct. 27.
Despite the tough road ahead, Waddle likes the mindset of his team, which expects to win now. That wasn’t always the case in the early years of his tenure.
“When I got here, we would have something go our way and we would have two things go against us,” Waddle said. “It almost felt like the universe was against us. It seemed like everything that could go wrong would go wrong. That’s kind of the opposite of what we’re experiencing right now. Some things have gone our way, and we’ve managed to win some close games. Some of it may just be purely luck or timing, but some of it is the expectation that you’re going to be able to make a play, and some of it is the young men in the program right are young men who are winners. That’s pretty awesome.”
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Waddle admitted getting the program to this point turned out to be harder than he expected. The losses took an emotional toll on him and his family. In his mind, though, he saw the potential in Marietta.
“When I interviewed at Marietta, I always felt there was a high ceiling here and that you’d be able to maybe do something even though it really maybe hadn’t been done before,” Waddle said. “We had some uniqueness in our majors. I felt we had a beautiful campus. I thought there were some things there you could build on. Obviously, there were some challenges to just get recruits to buy into it, to get players on your team to buy into it. to get players on your team to fight through some of the hard times. That was a challenge. But it’s fun, too, because even in the losses you could see the team improve from the start of the year my first year until the end of the year. You could see the small improvements the next year and the small improvements the next year. So I think we’ve been able to see growth over the past six years. That’s always helped my faith that we were doing the right things even though the growth wasn’t as fast I wanted it to be.”