Faith and football: Evangel head football coach Brenton Illum’s strategy for success
November 2, 2012 | Ian Richardson
Nineteenth in the NAIA rankings, 7-3 overall, 6-2 in the conference, 5-1 at home — numbers like these make it an exciting time to be an Evangel Crusaders football fan. The Crusaders will be carrying their success into the final game of the regular season this Saturday versus MidAmerica Nazarene University. But while many are talking about the Crusaders’ on-field prowess, exciting developments have been taking place off the field as well. Just ask head coach Brenton Illum.
In his third year at the helm of Evangel’s football program, Coach Illum is a witness to all the hard work that takes place between games. For him, football is more than a three-hour diversion on Saturdays. It is a learning experience that touches all aspects of life, an investment to turn his players into well-rounded, godly young men.
“The greatest takeaways from this game for me are the relationships with my coaches who disciplined me and invested in my life and the teammates who have become my best friends,” says Illum.
During his junior year of high school, Illum’s team reached the 6A state championship. In 1994, he came to Evangel to play linebacker. Illum played only one season for the Crusaders, unable to continue his playing career due to injuries from an automobile accident that he suffered during high school.
However, he was not about to give up football. He worked his way onto the Evangel coaching staff, continuing to coach in Evangel’s football program for two years following his graduation. This involvement only intensified his love for the game. “My overall experience here at Evangel in the 1990s hooked me into being a part of football for the rest of my life,” he says.
At the age of 24, Illum became the youngest defensive coordinator in the NCAA when he accepted the position at Fort Lewis College in Colorado.
After his tenure at Fort Lewis, Illum held coaching positions at Missouri State University and Western Colorado. He then returned to Evangel in December of 2009 to head the Crusaders’ football program.
While many organizations strive to form outstanding football players, Illum’s vision for Evangel’s program is to form outstanding men who are prepared to succeed in all aspects of life, whether they are on the football field, in the classroom or in the community.
“I see this collegiate sport as an opportunity to teach our players how to compete in the real world, how to overcome challenges, how to live a self-disciplined life, how to budget their time and how to achieve and reach God’s potential for them,” says Illum. “I want them to leave here with a degree in their hand and look back and say with confidence that they could not have gone anywhere else in the country and become the man that they are today.”
The integration of faith and football
To bring this about, Illum takes advantage of every opportunity he can to integrate faith with football. “Coach Illum encourages us to pray daily and lean on someone else if we do not know how to do something by ourselves,” says junior safety Denzel Billy. “He does not teach selfish ways, and I think that helps a lot.”
“Every Sunday, he will bring in a guest speaker who will share the gospel with us and challenge us to be better Christians,” says senior running back Tommy Meyer. “The team’s faith comes into practice and games daily because we realize that while we want to go and win for ourselves and for Evangel, we need to glorify God in every situation we can.”
Illum and the coaching staff also make sure that the players have opportunities to put their faith into action in the community.
“Not a week goes by during the school year where we are not involved in some way in the Springfield community,” Illum says.
“Whether by reading to kids at an elementary school or being at a Boys and Girls Club or going to an apartment complex and playing catch with kids, one way or another we are committed to having a presence with the youth of north Springfield.”
One such example came on September 29, when the Evangel football team welcomed 181 youth from the local Boys and Girls Club to enjoy a pre-game tailgate party and hang out with Evangel students during the game. Immediately after the team sealed the 54-44 victory over Benedictine, the kids flooded onto the field along with the rest of the Evangel crowd, witnessing Illum’s post-game speech, participating in the team prayer and having the chance to meet with the players face-to-face. In the past year, the team has worked with a total of over 1000 youth from the north Springfield area.
While the team’s focus on service has definitely blessed the lives of those around them, it certainly has not hurt their focus on winning football games. Sporting a winning record for the first time in several years, something is definitely clicking. Illum attributes the team’s recent success to the ability to learn from the past.
“Every experience builds on the last one,” he says. “We are passionate about learning from the good and the bad, falling forward, and calling on all past experiences to make sure that we get better and better as time goes on. “
Meyer agrees. “One factor that has led to our success is the belief in ourselves,” he says. “Last year we had a good team, but we weren’t ready to win at that moment. This year is different because we believe that we can do anything we set our mind to. No obstacle is too big to overcome.”
Regardless of how the remainder of the season turns out, the team’s can-do mentality and ability to learn from experience has helped them achieve some special things this year. There is a sense of cohesiveness and community on the team, which is something that trickles from the top down. “Our coaches are here from 6 a.m. until 9 p.m., or even later,” says Meyer. “When we see the dedication they have, we cannot let them down. They throw their lives into this program, so we want to give back as much as we can.”
With a desire to achieve growth in a holistic way, Illum’s work at the helm of the Evangel football program is leading to victory in more ways than one. His hard work ethic and contagious can-do attitude are influencing the young men around him, who are in turn learning to influence the people around them. Illum’s integration of faith and football is proving to be a winning strategy that will continue to flourish in the years to come, making the future of Evangel football a bright one.