Ferris sacks Pierce

Longtime head football coach fired Wednesday; ‘it is time for a change’

BIG RAPIDS — Jeff Pierce’s tenure at Ferris State began in 1995 under the best of circumstances.

The Bulldogs finished the year winning their fourth consecutive GLIAC title with a second-straight undefeated regular season and a school-best semifinal appearance in the NCAA-II playoffs while Pierce earned GLIAC Coach of the Year honors.

That tenure ended under much more somber circumstances Wednesday, with Pierce being fired as coach after 17 seasons.

It was a decision Ferris State athletics director Perk Weisenburger struggled with. Ultimately, Weisenburger said he didn’t feel the program was headed in the right direction despite some improvement in the Bulldogs’ product on the field.

LET GO: Ferris State football coach Jeff Pierce was fired after 17 seasons as coach of the Bulldogs. Pierce leaves FSU as the school's all-time leader in wins with 102. (Pioneer file photo)

Pierce’s long history with the Bulldogs and presence in the program as an athletics fundraiser added weight to what already was a program-altering decision.

“I think the team itself expected more improvement,” Weisenburger said. “I looked at games that didn’t go well (this season) and wondered why. The consistency wasn’t there.

“I have a great deal of respect for Jeff,” he added. “He’s been in the community a lot longer than I have, and I tried to take that into consideration and be respectful of Jeff. I just didn’t think (the football program) could move forward in a way I and the athletic department felt it should.”

Pierce served for 12 years as a Bulldog assistant coach, including the final seven as defensive coordinator, before being tabbed as the school’s 12th head coach. He guided the Bulldogs to NCAA Division II Playoff appearances in each of his first two campaigns in 1995 and 1996. He leaves Ferris State with a career record of 102-85, picking up a milestone 100th win this season against Lake Erie.

His teams struggled in recent seasons, however, going 12-21 in his last three campaigns. The Bulldogs appeared to be headed in a positive direction in 2011, starting the season 5-2, before finishing the year 1-3.

Pierce, the school’s all-time leader in wins, established firm roots with the Bulldogs after graduating from Sault Ste. Marie High School in 1974. He was a Bulldog defensive back from 1974-77 and started his collegiate coaching career as a graduate assistant at FSU in 1983 under Nick Coso. He later coached the linebackers under Dan Underwood and continued on with Keith Otterbein’s staff in 1986 before being promoted to defensive coordinator in 1988.

Ferris State offensive coordinator Chris Boden, who took over play-calling duties in 2010, will serve as interim coach until a search for a new coach is complete.

A national search for a successor will begin immediately, according to Weisenburger.

Boden said he was shocked to learn that Pierce had been let go.

“Shocked is the first word that comes to mind,” he said. “He gave me the opportunity two years ago to do what I wanted to do offensively. You don’t always get those opportunities in coaching.

“He’s a great man, and it’s been such a rough day with mixed emotions,” he added. “I’m definitely hurting inside. It’s a rough deal.”

The Bulldogs had been under the microscope recently, particularly following a 1-10 campaign in 2009. After Boden arrived, bringing with him the spread offense, FSU took a step in right direction with a 5-6 record in 2010.

Ferris State experienced modest improvement in 2011, as well, going 6-5 for its first winning season since 2008, while averaging 28 points per game after scoring just 11 points per game two season prior.

Boden thought those numbers provided enough proof that things were headed in the right direction.

“Offensively, I felt like if you looked at the statistics, we had a pretty darn good year,” he said. “As the year went on, injuries really hurt us. In all my years, I’ve never lost such a large number of offensive linemen (due to injury), as well as our starting tailback, Skyler Stoker.

“At the end of the year, I don’t know if it’s fair to say we got better, but looking at the overall view, I thought we had improved dramatically (over the last two seasons),” Boden added.

Weisenburger said he began observing the direction of the football program after he arrived as athletics director in September 2010. He reserved making any decisions until after the 2011 season to observe if the program would show improvement.

“I wanted to give the program a full season to show what it could be,” he said. “I didn’t want to get into that until after the last snap was taken out of respect to the coaches and players.”

Weisenburger hopes to conduct a search as quickly as possible but get the best possible candidate in filling the position.

“We’re not tied down to any dates,” he said. “We’re anxious to get into the (coaching search) process.”

Ferris State linebacker Zach Rosman said he was surprised when Pierce addressed the team at around 6 p.m., telling them he would no longer be their coach.

Rumors had been circulating on Tuesday, Rosman said, but he hadn’t heard anything official until the team meeting. The tone from both Pierce and the players at the meeting was subdued.

“Most of us didn’t really know what to think,” Rosman said. “There had been some rumors floating around but we hadn’t heard anything solid from the coaches. It was definitely a surprise.”

Rosman said Pierce, who recruited him as a high school player at Morley Stanwood, was the epitome of “a Bulldog.”

“He’s a great guy — definitely a Bulldog, through and through,” he said. “To be here as long as he was and to be let go, I think he was shocked. To have something that you love to do … gone … that sucks.”

Regardless of who coaches the Bulldogs going forward, Rosman said he believes the players will stick together during a tough time.

“We have faith in the coaches on staff to get a good recruiting class and the athletic department to find another great coach,” he said. “We’re a tight team. We need to keep our nose to the grindstone.”

Having the opportunity to both play for and coach with Pierce, Travis Eising said the longtime head coach is the reason he’s still at Ferris State. Eising completed his fourth season on the Bulldog staff in 2011, working with the defensive backs. He also played for Pierce from 2005-08.

“He gave me a shot to play ball for him and then to coach with him,” he said. “I couldn’t ask for anything more.”

Eising said his experiences with Pierce differed as a coach after having the chance to coach with him. The pair talked extensively about recruiting players from the Upper Peninsula — a memory that stands out.

“He did things the right way, and treated me as a coach — he didn’t treat me as a (former) player,” he said. “He expected a lot from you. It’s a (bad) situation, but this stuff happens. That’s college football.”

Former defensive lineman and Division II All-American Jake Visser said Pierce’s role as a fundraiser for the program was what stood out about him as a leader.

In an attempt to put the Bulldogs on an even playing field by collecting more money for scholarships, Pierce spearheaded fundraising campaigns that clearly showed his devotion to improving the program.

“You could tell how much he cared about Ferris Sate football,” he said. “When we won, it wasn’t to further his own agenda, it was for the program and the community. After he was done recruiting, he’d be out beating down doors with the alumni to try and get more funding. Honestly, you don’t see head coaches do that the way that he did.”

Visser, who grew close to Pierce and his family during his time at Ferris from 2004-08, said the coach’s understanding of the big picture is what made him special.

“How much he meant to myself and my wife and teammates, it’s overwhelming to think about,” he said. “People ask me if I wish I’d gone somewhere bigger to play football. Looking back, I wouldn’t trade my experience for anything in the world. It amazes me how much he developed character and turned boys into men.”

Weisenburger said all of Pierce’s assistant coaches remain on staff and will be on the road recruiting the rest of the week. Their status will not change until a new coach has been appointed who has the opportunity to put their staff in place.

Boden said he hasn’t finalized a decision as to whether he’ll put his hat in the ring as a potential head coaching candidate, and won’t until he’s had time to process the news.

“I need to sit down with my wife and visit this (in depth),” he said. “I feel strongly that more than likely the answer is ‘yes.’ I have to think through some things and plan things out. It’s a good job and position with a lot of good people here.”

As for Pierce, Boden firmly believes the veteran coach will land on his feet.

“He’s a tremendous guy,” he said. “A lot of guys you work with in this business are busy, but (Pierce) loved to shoot the breeze and genuinely cared about you and your family, and that means a lot. That shows the quality of person that he is.”

Pierce graduated from Ferris State with a degree in trade-technical teacher education in 1979, earning a pair of President’s Academic Awards along the way. He completed graduate school in 1985 with a master’s degree in athletic administration from Central Michigan University.

In 1978, Pierce was an assistant varsity football coach at Sault Ste. Marie High. From 1979-83, he logged two years as head junior varsity football coach, two years as head varsity football coach and four years as head varsity track coach at old Big Bay De Noc High School, which is located in the Upper Peninsula.

Pierce was not available for comment Wednesday.

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