Steve Ryan: A Rare Breed
The winningest coach in Morningside football history is now enshrined with the greats of the NAIA.
Morningside University Head Football Coach Steve Ryan was inducted into the NAIA Hall of Fame following the 2022 season. He has led the Mustangs to 13 Great Plains Athletic Conference Championships (12 straight) and three NAIA national titles. He also has the most wins and the best winning percentage in the history of Morningside football.
“I think our kids are tough by our definition of toughness, which is the ability to keep your courage and confidence under pressure,” Ryan said. “They also benefit from the team environment. Especially early on, we made everything we did team-orientated. For example, there used to be Camp Goodwill. We’d go over there for a couple days and would climb the mountain with our seniors. There was a junior trip that we would take as well.We just did a lot of team offseason activities in terms of building ‘team.’ It was intended to put high standards in place, a sense of toughness, and we started doing those things from day one.”
When Coach Ryan first walked onto Morningside’s campus in 2001, there were concerns about the state of Morningside and its football program. Reflecting, the recent NAIA Hall of Fame inductee believed that if it weren’t for those hardships, the school and his program wouldn’t be where they are today.
“Those early years were very difficult, but they had to be difficult,” Ryan said. “Morningside is in a great place now. It’s a phenomenal place to be at. Part of that is because people made tough decisions and we made it through those tough days. That’s kind of the way life is sometimes, you’ve got to go through the tough times if you want to have something special. This is a special place.”
Coach Ryan’s Mustangs first broke onto the national scene when they appeared in the NAIA playoff in 2004. Ryan won his first GPAC Coach of the Year award that same season. In 2005, Ryan picked up his second conference Coach of the Year award and his first AFCA NAIA Region 4 Coach of the Year award when the Mustangs won their first conference championship. He is now an 11-time GPAC and Region 4 Coach of the Year honoree.
While the honors that the team and coaching staff have amassed help in recruiting truly talented students to Morningside today, attracting local athletes to Morningside was challenging in the early days of the Ryan tenure. Mustangs football was at a low point and the University overall was struggling with enrollment and needed major updates to the campus. As the school started trending back upward, though, so did the football program.
“The battle in terms of local people was that they thought Morningside was going under, that we weren’t going to make it,” Ryan said. “It was just all of the negative press around Morningside. We just struggled to get local young men to come here in those early years. It wasn’t until 2004-05 when we started winning that we started getting local athletes.”
The Mustangs’ first national championship game appearance came in 2012, but it was six years prior in 2006 when coach Ryan started to feel the program turn a corner. He remembers that time as being the start of the run of great athletes who were dedicated to helping build the program. While the group from 2006 to 2011 didn’t win any conference championships, they set the groundwork for what the program is today.
The Mustangs ultimately came up short in that first national championship appearance in 2012. While Ryan says that was a difficult moment for him and the program, he also shares that it was a moment when he more fully understood just how far the program had come and how much it all meant to his athletes.
“In 2012, I felt we should have won the national championship,” Ryan said. “The next week, I started getting letters and emails from former players, and it was a moving experience for me. I kept all of those. When I look back and think about it, it’s those letters and those moments that are what it is all about.”
Since that time, the Mustangs have consistently been in control of the GPAC and in the hunt for the national championship. Coach Ryan acknowledges that the coaching staff around him has been central to that success. Assistant coaches Casey Jacobsen and Nate Turner have been with the program for 19 and 17 years respectively. Taylor James played for Ryan and has stuck around as a coach ever since. The strong and stable leadership they have provided alongside Coach Ryan have allowed the program to soar to incredible heights.
“You have this continuation of coaches that allows you to be more successful in recruiting,” Ryan said. “They’re focused on this program. They have done a lot for the program, and they aren’t looking for the next job all of the time. They invest in the players. There’s so much that I get credit for that really belongs to those coaches because they love and care for the players. They’re going to their weddings, they’re helping them with their academics. The players feel that, and I know that so much of our success is tied to how amazing those assistant coaches are at what they do.”
Today, recruiting looks much different for Coach Ryan and his team. The tri-state area of Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota and beyond have provided Morningside with a steady stream of talented athletes eager to be part of a powerhouse football team on a campus that has been almost totally transformed over the last two decades. Plus, time and talent eventually allowed Ryan and the Mustangs to reach the pinnacle of the NAIA Football National Championship series once again in 2018. They emerged from that contest victorious.
“I joke, but that’s kind of the way it is, that my favorite championship is the next one because you always have to be thinking ahead,” Ryan said. “In all seriousness, though, it was 2018 because it was the first one. We just had to go one more step. We had struggled all those years to get one more step. Then once we went that one more step, everything was just wide open for us.”
There has been little debate about where Morningside ranks among the NAIA since that fateful victory. The Mustangs were repeat champions in 2019. After the 2020 season was moved to the spring, Morningside came up just short of the title game, but returned to glory in the fall of 2021 to win its third title in four seasons.
While the Mustangs came up short in 2022, there is still plenty to celebrate for Coach Ryan and the team, including 38 seniors who had a tremendous impact on the program.
“I remember in my early years I had a player who was just phenomenal. An All-American athlete, academic All-American, phenomenal student on campus, great person. The athletic director at the time told me, ‘That’s a once in a generation player, so I hope you enjoy it.’ As I think about it, though, I've had dozens of players at that caliber. Guys that you're just like, man, I can't believe I had the privilege of coaching that young man here,” shared Ryan. “Graduating 38 seniors this year, we are really losing an entire class of incredible young men. It’s just been a privilege and an honor to coach and to be around a whole generation of guys who are that exceptional.”
And for Coach Ryan and the Mustang football program, everything goes back to the players and the sense of community around them.
“The best thing about this place is not the buildings or the campus itself. Those things are great, but it’s really just the people, the coaches, the players, and even beyond that. The professors, the other coaches, the staff. They have all helped build success here at Morningside, too, and they continue to build on that success. When you have so many people on this campus out there unselfishly dedicating themselves to our students, you've got a great place.”