Small School, Big Heart: Hillsdale College

We’ve all heard the saying, “big things come in small packages.” In this case, it’s small college football in Michigan, but big-time tailgating at the NCAA Division II level for parents, students and fans of the Hillsdale College Chargers.

Located in the center of the bottom tier of counties in the tri-state (Ohio, Indiana, Michigan) area, Hillsdale County contains the highest elevations in southern Michigan and is the headwaters of five major rivers: the Grand, the Kalamazoo, the St. Joseph of Lake Michigan, the St. Joseph of the Maumee (River) and the Raisin River. The county’s population is just under 50,000 and is home to several thousand Amish families.

Hillsdale College, founded in 1844, is a four-year liberal arts institution with national recognition for its refusal to accept federal funding. Members of the board of trustees include “Wheel of Fortune’s” Pat Sajak and Colorado’s Jeffery Coors. With 1,400 students on a beautiful tree-lined, historic campus, the college boasts challenging and rigorous academics as well as a highly successful athletic program.

In 2011, the women’s volleyball team traveled to San Bernardino, California, for the final four. In 2011–2012, the men’s basketball team won a conference championship. In 2011 and 2012, the football team won conference championships. Hillsdale’s football team began collegiate competition in 1891 and celebrated 121 years of gridiron success in 2012. Competing against much larger private and public institutions in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (GLIAC), Hillsdale recruits nationally. With 16 schools in the conference, Hillsdale maintains rivalries with such institutions as Grand Valley State University, Wayne State University and Ashland (Ohio) University.

On Saturday afternoons, or evenings, the Charger football team attracts faithful fans, and when it comes to tailgating, few schools small or large can outdo Hillsdale. From players’ parents in surrounding parking areas to the school’s catering department and student services, pre-game culinary activities reign supreme.

Hillsdale students, known as “Otter’s Army” in reference to Charger Head Coach Keith Otterbein, get special treatment from Saga, the college’s food services department and catering unit. Saga provides a veritable pre-game feast for hungry students on the outdoor basketball courts adjacent to the football stadium.

Players’ parents and Charger fans have a tradition of preparing scrumptious pre-game delights. Mike Hornak, of Muskegon, Michigan, is a perfect example. His son Tim, a junior offensive lineman, and his brother, Pat, who is the director of Charger football operations, can brag about Mike’s expertise in putting together a tailgater’s delight. He likes to make chilidogs using two different types of chili: Cincinnati style, with beef, and chili sauce, with beans. With contributions from his wife, Tina, daughter, Michelle, and his parents, Marty and Darlene, he complements the dogs with potato salad, pasta salad and slow-cooked baked beans. The Hornaks add to the menu with a unique grape salsa that tastes almost like a dessert.

Tailgating at Charger games has long been a tradition during pre-game activities, as it is at most institutions of higher learning. But about a decade has past since the Hillsdale parents of players decided to upgrade tailgating activities with more color, more flags, more food and more games. The most popular tailgating activity at Hillsdale has to be playing catch with footballs. You see fraternity brothers toss-ing around the old pigskin, and they are joined by the little guys, eight-, nine- and 10-year-old future varsity players. As with just about every tailgating venue, corn hole grows in popularity every year.

Prior to every game, this writer, hoping to get an offer to sample the food, makes his way past the aerial bombardment of footballs and bean bags to the tailgating areas to greet old and new friends before making his way into the Frank “Muddy” Waters Stadium press box. For a dozen years, along with play-by-play man Jim Measle, I’ve handled the game analysis on the America One Network (a live Internet broadcast).

Brats, hot dogs, burgers and chicken are, of course, favorites, but some Hillsdale grillers prefer ribs, steaks or pork chops. Choices are made according to tastes, desires and, perhaps, the weather. Late in the season, wind, rain, snow or worse curtails much of the tailgating activities. However, not even the weather can dampen the spirit of players, parents, students and fans at a Hillsdale College Charger football game.


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