January 22, 2016

‘It’s a big part of who I am’: Faith, family and football mark the heart of Marian coach’s two special journeys

Marian University head football coach Mark Henninger, who led his team to the 2015 championship of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, has a passion for the sport, his family and his Catholic faith. (Submitted photo)

Marian University head football coach Mark Henninger, who led his team to the 2015 championship of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, has a passion for the sport, his family and his Catholic faith. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

Within six months, Mark Henninger experienced two of the most memorable journeys of his life.

In June, the head football coach of Franciscan-based Marian University in Indianapolis traveled to Italy as part of a university-sponsored pilgrimage to Rome and Assisi, the hometown of St. Francis.

That trip also led him to a remarkable moment in the Vatican near the tomb of St. John XXIII, the pope who is the namesake of Roncalli High School in Indianapolis—where Henninger graduated in 1992.

“Being a Roncalli grad, that was the most special time to me,” he says. “I was selected to do a reading [during Mass] that day. The chapel was full, and there weren’t that many seats so I had to sit up at the altar. I’m three feet away from his tomb. I shouldn’t tell you this, but I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to Mass that day. Going to Roncalli and learning so much about Pope John XXIII, and then being that close, it was just amazing.”

So was the feeling Henninger had on Dec. 19 when his football team completed its season-long journey by winning a national championship—defeating Southern Oregon University by a score of 31-14 to earn the 2015 title for the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA).

During an interview with The Criterion, the 42-year-old Henninger shared his thoughts on the pilgrimage, the championship, his faith, his experience with Catholic education, and his life with his wife of 16 years, Jen, and their three children, 13-year-old Jack, 9-year-old Mary and 6-year-old Abigail.

Here is an edited version of that interview.

Q. You made it to last year’s championship game and lost. What impact did that have on this year’s team?

A. “Our players were disappointed last year. We got back last year from that game on a Saturday, and we had players in the weight room on Sunday, working to get back to the national championship game. Our players worked really hard. We worked literally for 365 days with the hope of getting back to that game. For them to finish it off with a win and have their hard work rewarded was probably the best part about winning it.”

Q. What were the ingredients that led to this year’s success?

A. “I think a lot of it is the type of people we have. Number one, football is important at Marian, and Marian does an outstanding job as an entire community supporting not just football but all its athletic teams. It starts with President [Daniel] Elsener. He talks about athletics being the laboratory to teach leadership. The mission of Marian is to put leaders into our society. Football and athletics are important here. You can’t have success if you don’t have support from your administration, and Marian is ultra-supportive.

“On top of that, we have outstanding young men in our locker room. They’re great young people who are fun to be around. We have outstanding team chemistry. Our players truly love one another. They care for each other. And when you have all those different ingredients and you work hard and do things the right way, you’ll have the opportunity to be successful.”

Q. This was your third year as the head coach at Marian. For the 2014 season and now for the 2015 season, you were named the NAIA Football Coach of the Year. How would you describe your approach to coaching?

A. “When I was playing, one of my coaches used to say all the time, ‘At the end of it, when you’re done and gone and graduated from school, and football has since long been over, what you’ll have is the experience. You’ll have the friendships and the experiences of playing college football.’

“My goal as a head coach is to make sure that when these young men get to be my age, and they look back on their experience as a college athlete, that it is the best experience of their life, that they truly enjoyed the four years they spent playing football.

“There are also a lot of life lessons you can learn from playing football. All shapes and sizes play it. And to be successful, you have to rely on your teammates. It’s not an individual game. It’s also important for me as a coach to prepare our guys so that when they graduate they’re ready to be competitive out there in the world. Our approach as a staff is to be tough and demanding and to hold our players accountable—and be truthful, fair and honest; to do everything we can to make sure their experience here is great.”

Q. What led you to apply for the head coaching position at Marian when it opened in 2013?

A. “My wife and I were living in North Carolina at the time. We’d been down there for nine years. We’re both Indianapolis natives. So this is home for us. North Carolina is great, but it’s 12 hours from home, 12 hours from family. We had great friends and met great people down there, but it’s not the Midwest. It’s not home.

“We really spent the last four or five years that we were down in North Carolina talking pretty seriously about wanting to get back to the Midwest. When we were driving back to Indianapolis one time, Jen pulled out some paper and said, ‘Let’s start naming schools,’ and asked, ‘Where would you like to go?’

“Marian was at the top of the list. It’s right in our hometown. It’s a Catholic university. They had been able to build something successful here in football. So there were so many things about Marian that made it attractive to our family. Now that I’m in it, it’s a dream job for me.”

Q. You were part of a pilgrimage to Rome and Assisi this past summer. What was that experience like for you?

A. “It was a life-changing type of experience. It changes the way you look at a lot of things. It gave me such an appreciation for being at Marian, and the values that make Marian such a special place. Everything we do is based on the Franciscan values. To see where these ideals started was an amazing experience. It’s deepened my connection to Marian.

“And to have that experience in Italy with my wife made it all the more special.”

Q. What impact, if any, did that pilgrimage have on your faith?

A. “It strengthened my faith. Obviously, we learned a lot about St. Francis and St. Clare. We learned their story, their upbringing, the world they lived in, and the incredibly difficult decisions that they made to go off and follow something that they really believed in. That was really powerful.

“And to be in Assisi where the streets are thousands of years old and the buildings are a thousand years old, it was just amazing to go in the different churches and chapels. And seeing the San Damiano cross—to have my eyes look on the same cross that St. Francis looked at, and that spoke to him … it was just an amazing time.”

Q. You and your family are members of St. Malachy Parish in Brownsburg. What place does your Catholic faith have in your life?

A. “It’s who I am really. I credit my parents. They sacrificed to send me to Catholic schools. My wife was not Catholic when we met. She became Catholic through the RCIA [Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults] program. She’s a much better Catholic than I am. She made the decision to do it. I was just lucky I was baptized Catholic.

“We love St. Malachy. We love our parish, and we love the school. It’s raising our kids to be Catholic. We value that. It’s a big part of who I am. It’s what I am.”

Q. How important is it to you to have your children have a Catholic education?

A. “The fact that they have religion class and they’re taught about their faith is important to us. There’s nothing wrong with public education. We live in Brownsburg, and the Brownsburg school district is outstanding. But there’s something about a Catholic school. My kids have priests come into the classroom to talk with them. They go to weekly Mass. The academics at St. Malachy are outstanding, and the faith-based education, it’s just a great thing.”

Q. You’re a 1992 graduate of Roncalli. Talk about the impact of Roncalli on your life, your faith and your football career.

A. “I wouldn’t be where I am if I hadn’t been sent to Roncalli. I met lifelong friends there, and most of the influential people in my life. A lot of them are still there—Coach [Bruce] Scifres and for me, Coach [Joseph] Hollowell, although he hasn’t been a coach for a long time. And Coach [Chuck] Weisenbach.

“Coach Hollowell [now the school’s president] was my freshman football coach. The first time I really loved football was when I played for him. Mr. Weisenbach [now the school’s principal] was my basketball coach. I had a lot of respect for him. And Coach Scifres was influential in a lot of the ways I want to coach.

“We have so many players on our team at Marian who come from single-parent homes, who don’t have fathers who were really influential in their lives. To watch Coach Scifres be not just an outstanding football coach, but to put value and importance on being a husband and a father, I had a great example right there when I was 16, 17 and 18. The things I learned from those three guys especially have shaped what I strive to be as I coach.”

Q. As a couple, you and Jen seem to put faith and family at the center of your lives. Talk about that perspective.

A. “We’re trying to set an example for our children to live a life where faith and religion are important. I try to have my family around the team as much as possible. I want to set a good example for our players—like Coach Scifres was for me—of how to be a good husband, how to be a good father. I try to let my players see me in that role as much as possible.” †

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