On Saturday, Sept. 15, Keith Otterbein stood on the sideline for the 179th time as the head football coach of the Hillsdale College Chargers. The stakes were high; the Chargers were on the road, under the lights, facing the No. 12 team in the country. One thing was on Otterbein’s mind: beating the Ohio Dominican University Panthers.
The Chargers got the job done and beat the Panthers, 34 – 18. With the victory, Otterbein became just the third coach in 126 years of Hillsdale football to win 100 games.
Now in his 17th season as head coach, Otterbein’s focus has always been the same. The most important game is the one at hand. After Hillsdale’s victory on Saturday, as always, Otterbein’s “24-hour rule” went into effect. No matter the result, win or loss, the team had 24 hours to either celebrate a victory or regret a defeat. Then it’s on to the next one.
Saturday’s win was critical because it came against a nationally-ranked opponent on the road, at a place where that opponent hadn’t lost since 2016. Ohio Dominican won the G-MAC last season and is favored to finish first in the conference this year. But for Otterbein, the game meant even more.
“That’s a lot of players and coaches. So appreciative of the efforts of so many people for what is given to me as a milestone, when in reality, all those guys were a part of that thing,” Otterbein said. “It’s a tradition of 125-plus years. That’s all part of the bigger picture. Pretty cool for me obviously.”
Otterbein’s 100 wins rank only behind Frank “Muddy” Waters and Dick Lowry in the Hillsdale coaching record books. Waters, after whom the Chargers’ stadium is named, won 138 games as head coach from 1954 – 1973. Lowry won 134 games from 1980 – 1996.
Otterbein is quick to credit the coaches and players he’s worked with during his time at Hillsdale. He’s coached 12 players who went ahead to be either drafted or signed by NFL teams, including current Denver Broncos left tackle Jared Veldheer and Buffalo Bills wide receiver Andre Holmes. He’s coached three GLIAC Players of the Year and one GLIAC Freshman of the Year.
He’s led the Chargers to three GLIAC division championships, two conference championships, and two NCAA Division II playoff appearances. He won the GLIAC Coach of the Year award in 2009 and 2011. But he doesn’t spend much time dwelling on his accomplishments. It’s always the next opportunity that propels him forward.
“I guess 100 means I’m getting pretty old and have been around a while. But to have been there that long — 17 years — seems like a blink of an eye to me,” Otterbein said. “Proud that it’s here at my alma mater; that sort of thing is cool, but it’s like every other win you’ve ever had where it feels good, but now you start thinking about the next one.”
Otterbein played linebacker for the Chargers from 1975 – 1978 when he was a student at Hillsdale. His college coaching career began as an assistant for Hillsdale in 1979. He went on to coach at Central Michigan University, Ferris State University, and Ball State University before returning to Hillsdale in 2002.
“I’m going to keep coaching as long as I love what I’m doing. I’ve been doing this for 39 years, and I’ve never gone to work,” Otterbein said. “I don’t feel like it’s a job. It’s fun and it’s challenging, and it’s invigorating, and that’s what drives me to come in every day.”
Winning 100 games was never a benchmark goal Otterbein was working toward for satisfaction or a sense of accomplishment. It’s just the tip of the iceberg, a reflection on his unwavering dedication to “the process.”
Otterbein appeals to the word “arete”, Greek for excellence. Excellence is at the core of Hillsdale football’s mission. You can find “arete” posted around the the football facilities at the Roche Sports Complex and “Muddy” Waters Stadium. To Otterbein, “arete” means to make the most of your opportunities and always do your best without reservation.
“You’ve got one chance. Prepare your best, do your best, and you can live with the results,” Otterbein said. “You want to stay focused and you want to concentrate so the results allow you to have not any regrets, not to say ‘I wish I would have, I think I could have.’”
Excellence in life is something Otterbein is familiar with. He sat as a student in Hillsdale’s classrooms. He’s raised a family of Hillsdale graduates. All three of his children went to Hillsdale after he took the head coaching job. His sons, Steve and Brad, both played football at Hillsdale and are now assistant coaches on their dad’s staff.
“We weren’t made to do sports, but we all drifted towards sports, so we’ve got a very sports-oriented family,” Keith Otterbein said. “Doesn’t matter if it’s golf or euchre, we’re going to compete. Our little Hillsdale story is a magnet of all of that family love and dedication and passion.”
Otterbein’s players recognize that passion and credit his leadership and character for their success and growth, both on and off the field.
“He’s a great coach and an even better teacher of life lessons,” senior defensive back Wyatt Batdorff said. “That’s what makes him so great; he realizes it’s more than just the game. He’s trying to make better men. I really respect him and I’m really happy for him.”
Senior quarterback Chance Stewart said Otterbein has impacted him by believing in him. Stewart transferred to Hillsdale from Western Michigan University in 2015 and earned the starting job halfway through the season. He’s been the Chargers’ starting quarterback ever since.
“When I transferred here, he gave me a opportunity to play quarterback when a lot of coaches didn’t,” Stewart said. “He’s always meant a ton to me because he gave me an opportunity to prove that I could play this position. I’m forever grateful for that opportunity.”
Earlier this season, Stewart moved into second place all time in Chargers history for passing yards, and now trails only Troy Weatherhead, who played quarterback under Otterbein from 2007 – 2010. Stewart takes pride in being “Otter’s quarterback.”
“To be his quarterback and help him get his 100th win, it’s pretty cool,” Stewart said. “Really happy for Coach Otter, and happy I was able to be a part of it.”
Other players say Otterbein knows how to reach them where they’re at, to get into their mind and treat them right. Junior running back David Graham calls Otterbein “the best coach I’ve ever had.”
To win 100 games as a coach for a school you used to play for and attend is rewarding enough. To coach two sons and then coach alongside them is what Otterbein calls “icing on the cake.” But ultimately, what makes an already successful career so worthwhile is that it’s been done the right way.
“Life is very short. I must be the corniest guy in the world, but to live life to its fullest and to engage with our guys, to handle myself in the right manner, be a good example to them, teach them life lessons, it’s all rolled into one,” Otterbein said.
Otterbein already has more career coaching wins than any coach in the G-MAC. He’ll now try to lead Hillsdale to its first G-MAC championship just a year after the school joined the conference. Saturday’s win against the defending champions was the first step. Now it’s on to the next one.