Thank You, Tom Sawyer: contributed by Pete Watkins

Pete Watkins, Director of Athletic Communications

Over the course of 25 seasons and 26 years, Tom Sawyer stands out in the ways a great coach should. Earning 197 career wins reflects his successful teams on the field. Over a dozen academic All-American honorees and hundreds of NSIC All-Academic award winners shows an equal commitment to the classroom. Standout players who move on to higher levels, including opportunities in the CFL and NFL. A cadre of respected former assistant coaches and coordinators who carved their own path in high school, college, and even professional football coaching ranks.

Sawyer will retire second among all active NCAA Division II coaches in wins, and as one of just four college football coaches in Minnesota to coach over 20 years at one school in the modern era of college football. He guided ten Winona State teams to the post-season and every WSU football player who was on campus for four seasons enjoyed a playing career with far more wins than losses. The life lessons mattered even more.

The wins speak for themselves; 197 of them to be exact, each one its own story and important in its own right. Some are remembered more than others such as a 10-3 defensive slugfest 2003 NCAA Division II playoff win at home over Emporia State or a 43-41 Mineral Water Bowl victory over Missouri Western. Certainly beating Minnesota State – Mankato by a score of 18-16 at home in his last game will be up there, too.

In the realm of NCAA Division II football, Sawyers’ career is an anomaly in all the right ways.

Serving as a head football coach at one school for 25 seasons is almost unheard of. NCAA Division II football is often a proving ground: coaches with success move up, finding new colleges with open checkbooks, higher salaries, and burgeoning budgets. Coaches who don’t excel in the W’s and L’s move out; sometimes to lower levels, often to assistant coaching or coordinator positions until their next turn on the college football coaching carousel comes back around.

For Sawyer, it was different. Every season, the humble and down-to-earth mentor saw the potential in his program and the promise in his people. From his coaches to his players to his support staff, Sawyer’s success was predicated in his unique ability to make all persons feel important to the process. And, as great leaders do, to make the process important to all persons in the program.

Offensive schemes and defensive ideas come and go in football, like most aspects in the craft of coaching. Sawyer was as good

as any head coach in terms of matching his talent with his game plan and he surrounded himself with outstanding coordinators and coaches. Certainly, 197 wins are a testament to that.

More importantly, Sawyer’s leadership by example was the strongest thread that wove through the Warrior program and is what set Winona State football apart. Sawyer was always one of the first to arrive at Maxwell Field and one of the last to leave. Sawyer simply worked hard at getting better every day. His players saw it, and his coaches did too. What is understood does not need to be explained.

From the fan perspective – along with the amazing consistency in terms of leadership on the sideline – was the fact that Sawyer’s teams were fun to watch. Warrior football was always good for a trick play or two, was never afraid to throw the ball and often rolled out a defense that took immense pride in leaving their mark on an opponent. Winning is always the goal, but Sawyer and his teams gave the fans their money’s worth, win or lose. In this Mississippi River town of 25,000, Warrior football games were a Winona ticket worth having.

Within the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference, it is almost impossible to compare Sawyer’s run at Winona State to peer institutions. Over the course of 26 years – from 1996 to 2021 – the average NSIC football school went through an average of four head coaches. Some programs had as many as seven head coaches over that time frame.

Sometimes lost in the shuffle of wins, losses, and football, is the type of community member Tom Sawyer is in Winona. When the snow flies around town, he is often seen driving his Jeep, plow out in front, helping neighbors clear their driveways early in the morning. The Warrior mentor is a revered guest at the Kwik Trip on the corner of Huff and Sarnia just off the edge of campus. There, Sawyer was just as likely to pay for the cup of coffee of an unsuspecting guest behind him in line as he was to get advice from the counter person on how to better use play action with the Warrior running backs next game. Win, lose or draw, Tom Sawyer always remained approachable, involved, and invested in his community.

The 2021 edition of the Winona State football team earned Sawyer his 22nd winning season of his career. A group of talented newcomers and experienced veterans, the current team is notable in many ways, most especially the fact that so many seniors stuck around to play one more season with Sawyer.

Due to the impact of Covid, the 2020 NSIC football season was canceled, leaving many top student-athletes the opportunity
to move on to careers, graduate school and their next chapter of life. Instead, over a dozen young men donned the Warrior pads and helmet for one more fall, happy to be a part of the final ride with Coach Sawyer. Unlike the NCAA Division I level, where most players are on full scholarship, virtually all Winona State football student-athletes pay for much of their own schooling. The current group of outgoing seniors saw the chance to finish their careers with Sawyer as an important investment in their own education. Two-and-half decades worth of Warriors who went before this lucky group would say they are right. After
all, only one senior class gets to be that final senior class.

It has been said that a great person can be defined by a single sentence. Tom Sawyer used his 25 seasons of football to teach
the game of life to thousands of young men while serving as an example of the good in intercollegiate athletics.

In the 24/7/365 atmosphere and “what have you done for us lately” world that college sports has become, it is truly notable that one man, at one school, can have the impact Tom Sawyer did for Winona State University.

Go Warriors. And thank you, Coach Sawyer.