By Zach Baker
It might seem that everything has changed about Heidelberg's football program in the last six years.
In 2006, the Student Princes were 0-10. This year they are 9-1.
The players have changed. The head coach changed. The attitude has changed. The venue for home games has changed.
Even the name of the school has changed, from Heidelberg College to Heidelberg University.
So, as the program prepares for its first playoff game since 1972, it seems everything has changed.
Or has it?
For all the differences that have become apparent in this and recent seasons, a few remnants from that last winless team remain.
Call them the Final Four: The four assistant coaches who were part of the program in 2006, and who have remained and thrived under head coach Mike Hallett and his rebuilding effort.
The Final Four:
Name: Scott Donaldson
Position: Defensive coordinator
Years at Heidelberg: 10
Playing career: Linebacker at SUNY Brockport, a part of three Division III playoff teams.
Quotable: "It wasn't scary. We knew the situation. We were fired."
Name: Corey Fillipovich
Position: Defensive line coach/recruiting coordinator
Years at Heidelberg: 9
Playing career: Former lineman at Muskingum University, played offense and defense and was three-year letterwinner.
Quotable: "We are playing some teams we can play with, but that mindset is hard to get across when you're getting beat 63-3."
Name: Branden Jakubcin
Position: Defensive backs coach
Years at Heidelberg: 7
Playing career: Free safety who started his career at Ohio Dominican and transferred to Heidelberg in 2006. Injuries derailed his career after that season, but found his niche as a coach for Hallett, someone he never played for.
Quotable: "The memories you have of it are trying to play, thinking you could win every game ... you knew the guys out there wanted to win as much as you did, or else they wouldn't have been on the team anymore."
Name: Matt Grieves
Position: Graduate assistant/works with defensive line
Years at Heidelberg: 7
Playing career: Played four years for Student Princes; was an All-American defensive tackle in 2009. Has been a graduate assistant for Hallett's staff since. The only member on Heidelberg's staff who played on the 0-10 2006 team and then played for Hallett.
Quotable: "I'd never went through an offseason before that. Right when [Hallett] came in, it was 'All right, tomorrow we're starting 6 a.m. workouts.' I remember looking around the room at everyone, and it was 'what the heck is this?'"
Of the hundreds of people who have been part of Heidelberg's program as either a player or a coach, only Donaldson, Fillipovich, Jakubcin and Grieves have seen the transformation that has occurred in the last six years.
Donaldson and Fillipovich were young assistants in 2006, not sure what the future held after then-head coach Brian Cochran resigned in the middle of his second straight winless season. Cochran coached out the rest of the year, then became an assistant at John Carroll, where he still coaches.
Hallett was hired in December 2006. Fillipovich and Donaldson knew there were no guarantees about their futures.
The remaining assistants, who included Donaldson, Fillipovich, the late-Jason Bendekovic, George Penree and Mike Vosburgh, had a chance to meet with Hallett soon after the hiring.
"One of the first things (Hallett) said was 'every day's an interview,'" Donaldson said. "'We're not gonna sit here for four hours and interview you, we're gonna let you guys work.' ...That's always been a motto I've lived by since. Every single day you go to work, it's an interview."
Bendekovic and Hallett knew each other before the latter took the Princes' job, and were comfortable with each other. Hallett said he wanted things to be done a certain way, and Fillipovich and Donaldson "were like sponges."
"They got better and better and better, and both had great work ethic," Hallett said.
Hallett said Penree and Vosburgh did too, but later moved on to other places.
As for the players, Jakubcin was ready to play for Hallett, but wasn't able to. He had played on an operated knee in 2006 for the Princes, then had a physical the following summer. It was then he found out he wouldn't be cleared, and his career was over.
"I knew coach Hallett from January to June, July," he said. "I called him, he goes 'do you want to be a student-coach?'"
Jakubcin accepted. As for Grieves, he had just started his playing career. He was down about his freshman experience, and wasn't sure about the new coaching staff.
"I wasn't even certain if I wanted to play anymore," Grieves said.
But he stuck with it, and soon because one of the Berg's best defensive players.
When Heidelberg beat Baldwin-Wallace Saturday - in what turned out to be a playoff-clinching win - players and fans rushed the field in a wild celebration. That brought back memories of a September Saturday in 2007 against Oberlin at Frost-Kalnow Stadium. It was Hallett's first game, and the Student Princes responded with a dominant win. The players, students and fans rushed the field. Hallett got a Gatorade bath. A 36-game losing streak was over.
"I don't think I got more excited for a win in my life, right there," Grieves said.
"It's kind of that feeling you get on landmarks in your life," Donaldson said. "Getting our first win in three and a half years was a huge landmark."
Fillipovich said everyone was excited, but Hallett threw some water on it.
"I remember after the game, when we beat Oberlin, coach Hallett was looking around, and said 'what is everyone so excited about? We're 1-0.'"
The message was that winning was expected. The next three years were filled with ups and downs. Heidelberg improved to a four-win team in 2007, and won a combined 13 games over the next three seasons. There were continual tough losses to teams like Capital, Otterbein, John Carroll and Ohio Northern, and tragedy, when Bendekovic died during the 2010 season.
Through it all, Donaldson, Fillipovich, Jakubcin and Grieves - who became a graduate assistant in 2010 - kept going.
"It really was all part of Hallett's process," Donaldson said. "When you take over a program as distraught as Heidelberg was during those years, we knew it was a process. In the OAC you can't win right away, if you do it the right way with good people."
Things started to shift in 2011. Heidelberg started the season 0-1 in Ohio Athletic Conference (losing to Baldwin-Wallace), then won in Otterbein, 41-20.
Up next was Capital, a team Heidelberg hadn't beaten in more than a decade. Most expected a close game. What they got was a preview of what HU was capable of.
"We just shut a team down," Donaldson said.
Heidelberg crushed the Crusaders, 55-3, It was, perhaps, the moment Heidelberg changed from a middle-rung OAC team to a top-tier program. It finished 2011 8-2.
The journey to a playoff team was capped Saturday, with the wild win over BW, and the following day, when the staff and players found out they made the postseason for the first time since 1972.
For Jakubcin, it was, simply, special.
"After the BW game, it came full circle," he said. "Being a player, when it was rough, to being a student-coach when we were getting there, and being a graduate student, getting there.
"When you get to be a full-time coach, and see how the last six, seven, eight years have paid off for our program, it's a great thing."
So this week presents another new opportunity for the assistants: Preparing for Saturday's postseason game against Wittenberg.
It's different, but then again, not so much. Ever since the Week 8 loss to No. 1 Mount Union in Alliance, and in reality well before that, the coaches have been treating each week like the playoffs.
They had to, since any loss would be crippling to postseason hopes.
"That's one thing the OAC does," Donaldson said. "It prepares you to play great football teams."
And, after years of work Donaldson, Fillipovich, Jakubcin and Grieves are a part of a great football team.