By Darwin Manning
While many students develop a great love for Grinnell and embrace the College and town as their second home and family, perhaps none feel such an unwavering connection as those who, after being students, go on to teach or coach.
This is undoubtedly the case for four head coaches who also graduated as student-athletes: Jeff Pedersen ’02, Football, Heather Benning ’96, Soccer, Andy Hamilton ’85, Tennis, and David Arseneault Jr. ’09, who coached the men’s basketball team last year and will assistant coach this year.
Additionally, Jen Jacobsen ’95 is the Wellness Coordinator and assistant track and field coach and Parker Koester ’09 is the men’s assistant soccer coach. Each of these individuals decided to continue their passions after graduation by coaching at their alma mater.
For all of these Grinnellians, there is a slightly different story as to how they came to Grinnell in the first place and how they returned to it. Coach Benning spent three years as a student at Cornell College before she discovered that Grinnell was a more fitting place for her to feel a competitive edge and advance her skills.
“Part of the reason why I chose to transfer to Grinnell is that I knew it had a very good soccer program and I never felt challenged by my experience at Cornell,” Benning said. “Coming to Grinnell and playing for that one year was the first time in college that I had to challenge for a starting spot and for time on the field.”
Coach Pedersen chose Grinnell for athletic reasons, as well, though he was motivated by the fact that he could play two sports as a Pioneer.
“The reason I ended up choosing Grinnell was they were the most willing and encouraging to playing two sports. I ended up playing basketball for two years and football all four,” Pedersen said.
For Coach Arseneault Jr., Grinnell was a rational choice because it allowed him to play for his father, head basketball coach David Arseneault Sr., and play “The System,” the basketball team’s unique style of play he grew up watching his father coach.
Coach Hamilton found Grinnell to be the perfect choice because of the institution’s willingness to allow him to be a music major and also a two-sport athlete, lettering in football four years and tennis for one. He stressed how fraternities were a necessary component to a student’s life at his other college choices, but at Grinnell this was not the case and a student could be both a musician and athlete.
“There was a great disconnect between fraternities [and] those in arts and sports at these other institutions. I found it refreshing at Grinnell that not only were there no fraternities, but you could be involved in both of these activities,” Hamilton said.
Recent changes on campus have been important for these student-athletes turned coaches. They noted that the transformation of the athletic center into a multi-million dollar facility has helped to recruit athletes with a much higher success rate.
“I’ve only been out of college a few years, but the new facility has certainly helped improve the quality of student-athletes that we’ve been able to recruit,” Arseneault Jr. said.
While the landscape has evolved, the culture has not, as the same values are important now as they were then. The commitment to acceptance and eagerness to participate in service is as strong as ever.
“Grinnell is a much more diverse student body, more diverse faculty. Interestingly, I don’t think the ethos or philosophy has changed a lot. Grinnell graduates are still very interested in service,” Hamilton said. “I think one of the reasons I came to Grinnell is there still is a level of acceptance, and I think that is quietly still one of Grinnell’s great pillars.”
Additionally, the heavy workload of Grinnell has not changed, still threatening to get in the way of an athlete’s commitment. This becomes a crucial tool because it makes coaches more relatable and able to understand the capacity of each player.
“The biggest benefit I have is being able to relate to them, and understand when they are using academics as a legitimate excuse,” Pedersen said. “Knowing from the beginning so we can eliminate that in the way we schedule team meetings and practices, but also knowing when to call B.S.”
Another item that has not evolved is the commitment of many coaches. Coaches are responsible for more than one team, teach classes and have administrative duties. This can sometimes be difficult to balance, but it places coaches in a similar position to students, and many of them find it rewarding and appreciate this distinct difference.
“Other places it is now much more ‘you are the football coach and that’s it,’” Pedersen said. “Here you are often a coach for two sports, and are much more involved with our student-athletes.”
Each of the four former student-athletes has a unique story for how they ended up back at Grinnell. For the youngest coach, Arseneault Jr., it was a natural transition out of college because of his father’s more than twenty-four years of experience here. Benning started as an assistant coach her senior year, due to athletic ineligibility because of her transferring. This led her to move onto graduate school at University of Iowa in sport management and psychology.
“This in turn allowed me to continue as the assistant coach for the next two years while I completed my master’s degree,” Benning said.
Coach Pedersen and Hamilton both described how they came back to Grinnell because of the incredible sense of community they felt here while students. They also came back because they wanted to be mentors to students and make sure they capitalized in different areas of campus, like Hamilton did with his music major.
“There are things that I now know I would appreciate a lot more if I had taken advantage of them,” Pedersen said. “I try my best to encourage the guys to get out and be active in things outside of football to get the full Grinnell experience.”