Posted by: Ryan Maurer
SPRINGFIELD, Ohio — The Wittenberg University athletic department of 2005 hardly resembles the Wittenberg University athletic department of 50 years ago. The watershed moment that changed the Wittenberg athletic landscape forever occurred on April 3, 1955, with the most important hiring in the department's illustrious history.
On that date, "Big" Bill Edwards, Wittenberg class of 1931, was introduced as the university's new athletic director and head football coach. That set a series of events into motion instrumental in the creation of the small college athletic powerhouse that continues today at Wittenberg.
"We feel fortunate in the coming of Bill Edwards, because, in addition to his outstanding record as a football coach, he is interested in helping to build a strong department of athletics and physical education on the Wittenberg campus," said Clarence C. Stoughton, Wittenberg president in 1955. "Bill Edwards will contribute greatly to Wittenberg's three-fold program of vigorous intramurals, intensive physical education teacher-preparation and wholesome participation in intercollegiate athletics."
Little did Stoughton know how prophetic that statement would turn out to be. As Edwards later noted, "I was 50 years old, and I thought Wittenberg was the place I could make a contribution."
That he did. The football and men's basketball programs have since ascended to the No. 1 position among all NCAA Division III programs in total victories and have won seven national titles between them. Edwards, who had high school, college and professional coaching experience before taking a pay cut to return to his alma mater, patrolled the sidelines for three national titles in the 1960s while compiling a 98-20-4 record in 14 years as Wittenberg's head football coach. He was later inducted into the National College Football Hall of Fame, one of four Wittenberg athletes or coaches to gain such acclaim, and he was in the inaugural class of the university's Athletics Hall of Honor in 1985.
Amazingly, since 1955, Wittenberg has had just one losing football season (1989) and one non-winning men's basketball season (1969). That success has also carried over into other sports, most notably field hockey (21 straight non-losing seasons and seven NCAA Tournament berths), volleyball (eight conference titles in a row and 10 NCAA Tournament berths since 1993) and women's basketball (15 straight winning seasons, 10 conference titles since 1989-90).
Individual Wittenberg athletes have also enjoyed tremendous success with three track national championships (Bob Cherry in 1964; Sheila Simon in 1983; Skip Ivery in 2003) and dozens of All-America designations spanning almost every one of the 23 varsity sports that Wittenberg now sponsors. The football team alone has garnered more than 300 all-conference and 27 first-team All-America designations since Edwards, a native of Massillon, Ohio, made his triumphant return to Springfield 50 years ago.
Wittenberg wasn't always a hotbed of small college athletics. Edwards took over a football program that had been mostly mired in mediocrity, with nine losing seasons in the previous 11 years (not counting 1943 and 1944, when the football program was suspended as a results of World War II). He turned things around immediately, eventually leading Wittenberg to a 69-9-1 record in the 1960s, the most wins in small college football during the decade.
Edwards, who passed away in 1987, surrounded himself with quality individuals, starting with men's basketball head coach Ray Mears in 1956. Mears led a program that had enjoyed little success previously to some of its greatest heights almost immediately, capturing the College Division national title in 1961 before leaving Wittenberg for the University of Tennessee in 1962. He was the first of five straight Wittenberg men's basketball head coaches to go straight from the sidelines in Springfield to an NCAA Division I program.
Another Edwards hire was Dave Maurer, who served as a football assistant for more than a decade and then succeeded him at the program's helm. Between 1969 and 1983, Maurer went a remarkable 129-23-3 and won two national titles and led the Tigers to two other runner-up finishes. He was also inducted into the National College Football Hall of Fame and the Wittenberg University Athletics Hall of Honor. Bill Edwards and Dave Maurer share the distinction of having the Tigers' home stadium name - Edwards-Maurer Field.
All of that winning - including hundreds of conference championships across almost every sport on the program's landscape - can be traced back to Edwards' hiring. Upon his retirement, however, it wasn't the wins and losses, the accolades from such college football notables as Woody Hayes, Paul "Bear" Bryant and John McKay or the championship trophies that made him most proud.
"The best thing is to see the players when they come back after graduation as successful men in their careers, and as successful husbands, fathers and citizens of their communities," Edwards said upon his retirement in 1973. "When you see those things, you feel deep down that maybe you made a contribution."