Getting to the postseason isn’t a problem for the Franklin College football team.
Keeping pace with national championship contenders is another matter.
Franklin has been to the NCAA Division III playoffs six times in the past five years and has advanced past the first round three times, including this season.
But twice in the past three years, the Grizzlies have lost to eventual national champion Wisconsin-Whitewater. On Saturday, their season ended at second-ranked Mary Hardin-Baylor, which — along with No. 1 Mount Union — is expected to seriously contend for the title.
Although 10th-year coach Mike Leonard certainly has no complaints about the frequency with which the Grizzlies reach the playoffs, he is determined to position them for success beyond the first or second round.
He sees no reason why, in time, they can’t contend for a national championship, even if it means vastly extending recruiting boundaries to complement the wealth of in-state recruits, who constitute the great majority of the Grizzlies’ roster.
“We need to attract some guys if we’re going to really be at that level. We need to go fishing in a few other ponds for recruits,” Leonard said two days after Franklin’s 63-17 loss at Mary Hardin-Baylor in Belton, Texas. “That’s what we as coaches are trying to determine, whether recruiting in the South where there’s not quite as many Division III colleges to see if we can attract some players from Florida or Atlanta or Dallas.
“We love Indiana. Indiana is our hotbed, but it gets so (heavily) recruited by the Division II and NAIA schools.”
Both of which award athletics scholarships. Division III schools do not, which makes recruiting especially challenging at that level.
But as evidenced by Franklin’s multiple playoff appearances, Leonard and his staff have fared as well, or better, on the recruiting front than any of the 10 schools in the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference. The Grizzlies have won three straight HCAC championships and five of the past six.
Moreover, before Leonard’s arrival, Franklin had reached the postseason only twice in team history.
Today, it is regarded among Division III’s most consistently successful programs.
The Grizzlies finished 9-3 this season; had 12 players earn first-team All-HCAC honors, including Defensive MVP Zack Corpe; and were ranked No. 16 in the D3football.com Top 25 heading into the playoffs.
“It’s nice to be mentioned with those team that play for a national championship; and if we’re fortunate enough to do that one day, great,” Leonard said. “But I think that the chase for a title like that is the fun of it all.
“If winning a national championship is all that you’re about, it’s pretty shallow. To me, it’s about the journey and the chase.”
Franklin continues its journey next season with the anticipated return of 18 starters, including Corpe, a junior cornerback, and junior quarterback Jonny West, junior wide receiver Kyle Linville and freshman linebacker Keaton Lyons, the HCAC co-Freshman of the Year.
Also expected back are first-team All-HCAC selections Dominque Boyd, a junior defensive end; junior offensive tackle Colin Gallagher; junior linebacker Scott Moore; junior punter Michael Parks; junior linebacker Jordan Segner; offensive guard Nick Schultz; and sophomore specialist Grant Welp.
“We’re excited about that,” Leonard said of the comparatively light graduation losses. “We know the work ethic in the offseason and all that will be important. I’m confident our guys are going to maximize their potential that way.”
In the meantime, Leonard might explore ways to maximize recruiting potential outside Indiana.
“We think we can continue to win Heartland Conference championships and advance into the playoffs with the talent we get here. We love our guys. We love the Hoosiers,” Leonard said. “But if we’re going to take the next step, we might have to go fishing in some different ponds.”
At a glance: Franklin College football postseason history
NCAA Division III
Franklin 42, Adrian 10, at Adrian, Mich.
Mary Hardin-Baylor 63, Franklin 17, at Belton, Texas
Franklin 24, Thomas More 21, at Franklin
Wisconsin-Whitewater 41, Franklin 14, at Whitewater, Wis.
Wisconsin-Whitewater 52, Franklin 21, at Whitewater, Wis.
Franklin 62, Otterbein 45, at Westerville, Ohio
Franklin 38, North Central 28, at Naperville, Ill.
Wheaton 45, Franklin 28, at Franklin
North Central 44, Franklin 42, at Franklin
Northwestern (Iowa) 13, Franklin 6, at Northwestern
Mineral Water Bowl (non-league affiliated)
Franklin 40, Wayne State 12, at Excelsior Springs, Mo.