The teamm behind the Ashland University football team is marking its 10th anniversary season with a pre-game gathering on Saturday (Nov. 5) prior to the Eagles' 2016 home finale against Walsh.
Ashland's Gridiron Club is marking a decade as the Eagle football program's booster club, and for President Don Graham, the initial discussions of a group like this with former Ashland baseball player and senior associate vice president for development Ralph Tomassi seems like it happened not that long ago.
"It's flown by," said Graham, who also serves as AU football's color analyst on WNCO-AM 1340 radio broadcasts. "When he asked me if I was willing to serve, it seems like just a few years ago he did that. The people I work with, the board, the coaching staff, they have been great about developing a club that we think is second to none in Division II football."
The Gridiron Club's mission is to support the Ashland football program, and the organization is comprised of former Eagle players, alumni, coaches and friends of the university. The Gridiron Club's membership number of 175 in 2016 is the third-highest total, trailing only 2010 (190) and 2013 (179). Its 27 Gold members ($1,000 annually) are the most ever, and it has a Platinum member ($5,000 annually) for the first time this year.
The Gridiron Club, among its many functions, plans and promotes social events such as Football Alumni Day, pre-game tailgate parties, the program's annual kickoff brunch, the Football Alumni Golf Outing, the Purple & Gold spring game, National Letter of Intent day and other related activities.
In addition, there is a significant Gridiron Club presence at Eagle home games at Jack Miller Stadium/Martinelli Field – from its room in the Robert Troop Center being filled to the work being done on the concourse where students have a chance to win $1,000 scholarships.
"We want our club to be very, very active on game day," said Graham, "and we want people to know we are an active organization. We are helping to earn the money and gain the visibility, and to promote our great program."
In 2006, when the Gridiron Club began, the Eagles still were playing at Community Stadium, sharing a field with Ashland High School. Since the club's formation, Ashland has a new stadium, new office space and four NCAA Division II postseason appearances.
"If you just look at the (Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference) championships and the games we won, the way the program has elevated in terms of success on and off the field, I don't think it's by coincidence," said Ashland head coach Lee Owens. "It's the support they've provided that has given us the edge that you have to have.
"We can do things now like fly to Northern Michigan, Michigan Tech, that we wouldn't be able to do. Or have shiny helmets. Those kinds of things help to separate us and give us an edge."
"The thing that really helped us is the fact that we were able to reach out to all the football alumni," Graham said. "Ralph was the guy who knew almost everybody. When we reached out, it's the great loyalty of those who had a great experience at Ashland who helped us right from the get-go."
In the last decade, the Gridiron Club has funded state-of-the-art software technology for coaches for player evaluation and game/practice preparation, graduate assistantships and equipment not covered by budgets, created internship opportunities, contributed to the purchase of championship rings and put on fundraisers, among other accomplishments.
"These people are volunteers, and look at all the work they do as volunteers," Graham said. "And I think the student body recognizes that."
Graham has no plans to step away from a position he's had for the last decade, but when he does, he knows the Gridiron Club will be in good hands.
"The infrastructure in place and the organization chart has set a standard for the club to continue," Graham said. "I'm having a lot of fun with it. I don't see any end in the near future. As of right now, we're really set up for perpetuation."
Owens said, "To have as vibrant a club, with as good of leadership and as quality of board as we do is unique. I've never ever been at a Gridiron Club event without making note of the fact that, really, this is a brainchild of Ralph Tomassi. Without Ralph's input, this could never have happened.
"Don's eventual leadership – organizational skills, leadership skills, motivational skills – it's not by chance that Don Graham was a successful high school football coach, and has been a very successful entrepreneur. He's a natural leader, and he's a tireless worker and servant of Ashland University and Ashland University football."