by Bridget Tharp

Pro athletes emerge during first 50 years of Falcon Club

by Bridget Tharp

Behind the past 50 years of unforgettable moments in BGSU athletics is a group of exceptionally devoted fans: Falcon Club. These Falcon loyalists support athletic scholarships, supply uniforms and training equipment, and cheer for their favorite teams.

If not for that Falcon spirit, men’s basketball might have missed out on the program’s “greatest win,” BGSU Athletic Hall of Fame archivist Mickey Cochrane said: the unexpected victory against undefeated Loyola on Feb. 16, 1963. Enthusiastic Falcon fans broke the glass near the entrance during the overwhelming excitement to fill Anderson Arena, overflowed into the aisles and doorways, and yelled through the game, Cochrane recalled. It is fitting that Falcon Club was founded the year after this level of school spirit was displayed.

The generosity of Falcon Club members increased by $400,000 last year, and helped to deliver quality education and an outstanding competitive experience to BGSU student-athletes. That’s worth celebrating, according to Athletics Director Chris Kingston.

“At the end of the day, successful people leave a legacy, sometimes with financial support and also by returning to speak with students,” Kingston said. “You don’t have to be playing professional sports to have the ability to come back and inspire student-athletes who are currently working toward a degree and doing what they love on the field, court or in the pool.”

The impact of the generosity of Falcon Club donors is evident. From coaches at the top of their game to pro-athletes building their names, this dedicated group has touched every sport and every student-athlete on campus.

Falcons tackling the NFL: Kory Lichtensteiger and Chris Jones, football

NFL starter Kory Lichtensteiger ’07 and rookie Chris Jones ’13 share more than experience defending in The Doyt. Similarities were evident when they met before the spring game in 2013, about a month before Jones, then a BGSU senior, became the latest Falcon to be drafted by the league.  

“When people describe Kory Lichtensteiger here as a player, its eerily similar to how we would describe Chris Jones. Great leader. Great teammate,” said Dave Clawson, head coach for Falcon football. “These guys were extremely mature for their age, and had that rare ability at 21 years old to see the big picture.”

In the weight room before the annual scrimmage, Jones eagerly listened as Lichtensteiger shared his own experience preparing for the draft and surviving his rookie year.

“We just shared something,” said Jones, who is now playing for the New England Patriots. Jones was originally drafted by the Houston Texans. “He was just one of those quiet, hard-working guys, and that’s what I try to emulate myself. Just put my head down and work through things.”

Kory Lichtensteiger ‘87, starter for the Washington Redskins, feels a deep appreciation for Falcon Club donors.

Lichtensteiger was an offensive lineman and BGSU’S MVP in 2007. He also earned
All-American, All-MAC and Academic All-MAC honors. He is in his fourth year as a full-time starter, and inked a five-year deal with the Washington Redskins in March.

A fourth-round NFL draft pick, he played in all 16 regular season games in 2008 for the Denver Broncos coached by Mike Shanahan, who was fired at the end of an 8-8 season. In 2009, the team released Lichtensteiger just one year and six weeks into his four-year contract. The Minnesota Vikings picked him up soon after, but then cut him within 30 days.

He spent the last couple months of 2009 worried his NFL career might be over.

“It’s a scary feeling,” Lichtensteiger said. “But you’ve always got to hope you have someone in your corner. Luckily, I’ve had Mike Shanahan in mine. If you have someone who believes in you at this level, it goes a long way. But at the same time, you have to make it worth it for them. You have to go out there and perform.”

In January 2010, Lichtensteiger considered interest from two other teams. But first, he asked his agent to seek a deal with the Redskins, now coached by Shanahan.

“I thought, ‘I’d better go with the guy who originally trusted me enough to draft me,’” Lichtensteiger said.

Before Lichtensteiger was drafted, he got his own pep talk from a Falcon in the NFL: retired San Diego Charger Scott Mruczkowski ’09. Now, he’s done the same for Jones.

“There’s not a whole lot of people who have the chance to go and play at the next level after Bowling Green, so I thought it was special,” Lichtensteiger said. “I was really impressed with meeting Chris. He’s a real quiet, humble kid.”

Jones and Lichtensteiger both feel a deep appreciation for the Falcon Club donors who shaped their experiences as student-athletes.

“We had a couple who would donate every year. They would be at every away game. When we got back they would be outside the bus cheering us on whether we won or lost. I think there are a lot of special people at Bowling Green,” Lichtensteiger said.

When his younger sister was considering another Midwestern university, Lichtensteiger gave her “a little push in the right direction.” She is now a BGSU student.

Jones felt the impact of philanthropy through the Champions Circle program, which symbolically pairs scholarship donors with student-athletes. Other support provided little extras that Jones especially appreciated, like “protein powder after a lift.”

“It was just great to see how passionate they are about us, sports in general and BG. It’s awesome,” Jones said. “I would love to give back to BG, because I know I really found myself there.”

Dan Bylsma ‘92 is head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins and will coach the U.S. Olympic hockey team during the Winter Games in Russia.

Calling shots in the NHL: Dan Bylsma, hockey

Dan Bylsma ’92 expected that playing Falcon hockey would deliver four years of great memories and a scholarship to prepare for a future career in accounting. Instead, his experience on the team and relationship with championship Coach Jerry York ignited his interest in coaching.

Now, he’s an NHL coach with his eyes on gold. In February 2014, he will coach the U.S. Olympic hockey team during the Winter Games in Russia.

“I’ve wanted to be the coach of the U.S. Olympic Hockey team for a number of years now,” Bylsma said of his upcoming role. “To win a gold medal for your country is an honor, and it’s a humbling experience to have that opportunity.”

And that’s just his side gig. Bylsma is head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins. When he accepted the position in 2009, he was the youngest coach in the National Hockey League at 38 years old. That same year he turned the team around and led them to win the Stanley Cup, an impressive feat just four months after he started the job.

As a Falcon hockey player, Bylsma developed a habit of “jotting things down” when Coach York was delivering new drills and plays or simply doling out wisdom. The notes filled binders and binders — and he still has those souvenirs of his college years. He also maintained the habit during his 12-year career playing in the NHL.

Somewhere in those pages are notes of an important conversation with York that Bylsma recalls as shaping his hockey career. It happened after his first season with the team, which failed to be “real productive,” Bylsma said. York told him that he needed to focus more on the team because Bylsma was “not a point guy, not a power play guy.”

“At the time, I didn’t necessarily agree with it or like it, but it put me in a great direction as a player,” Bylsma said. “I think we all dream of scoring points and being the number one player on the team. But that was not for me.”

One of his older brothers, Scott Bylsma ’85, helped York’s Falcons win the 1984 NCAA Hockey Championship during four overtimes — which remains one of the longest Division I hockey matches in history. So the younger Bylsma already had BGSU on his short list of prospective universities when he was recruited.

Bylsma has a reputation as the coach that players want, which Bylsma theorizes is because he’s never irate or screaming but instills player accountability by being a “real matter-of-fact coach who wants to have a plan.” He’s also a down-to-earth guy who runs a hockey camp for kids and uses his personal website to answer questions from youths and their parents.

Since Bylsma graduated two decades ago, he has found time to return to campus just about every year to attend a Falcon hockey game or play in the team’s golf fundraiser. It’s important to him to stay connected to the orange and brown.

“I see people who have gone out into the world and taken Bowling Green with them,” Bylsma said. “Falcons are everywhere, and they’re making an impact.”

Milwaukee Brewers relief pitcher Burke Badenhop ‘05 is proud of more than just his impressive pitching stats; he has also recruited 150 young alumni to join Falcon Club.

Hitting a home run for Falcon Club: Burke Badenhop, baseball

Milwaukee Brewers relief pitcher Burke Badenhop ’05 has generated some impressive numbers during his years of professional baseball.

In his first full season at Class A West Michigan, Badenhop posted a 14-3 record to go along with a stellar 2.84 earned run average (ERA). For his efforts, he was named 2006 Detroit Tigers Minor League Pitcher of the Year. Following the 2007 season, he was part of a trade to the Florida Marlins that brought American League MVP Miguel Cabrera to Detroit.

Badenhop made his major league debut with the Marlins in 2008 and remained in Florida when another trade sent him to the Tampa Bay Rays in 2012. He posted career bests with Tampa in ERA (3.03) and games pitched (66). Now pitching for the Milwaukee Brewers, Badenhop is poised to build on that foundation.    

Pitching stats aren’t the only numbers Badenhop is proud of — there are also the 150 young alumni he recruited to join Falcon Club. He used his early paychecks in the MLB to donate money to challenge recent graduates to join. Badenhop fronted $25 for new members so each could join for half price. His motivation for the Young Alumni Challenge came from the impact he saw from Falcon Club, first as a student-athlete, but again later as an assistant to Falcon Club Director Jane Myers.

“He’s a fan favorite, a good guy and a great role model,” Myers said of Badenhop. “He stood out on many fronts because he was bright, he was personable, and he was a great example of a Falcon student-athlete.”

He wasn’t making big bucks during his first couple years with the Detroit Tigers’ farm teams, so he worked for Falcon Club while he spent the off-seasons living with his parents in Perrysburg. He helped to plan fan appreciation events, mailed membership and thank you cards, and made calls to raise money for the Falcons’ 18 sports.

“Athletic funding depends on fan support and donor support. The fans and the people who support the teams are the most important people,” he said.

Badenhop is the kind of guy who doesn’t take his success for granted, and invests in the program that helped him to make it big. But Badenhop wasn’t always counting on making it in the majors. He even had a job lined up after graduation. The way Badenhop tells it, he might be behind a desk had he not been pitching well when scouts were out for one of his Falcon teammates.

“The scouts were kind of off of me,” Badenhop said. “I’ve been very fortunate and lucky.”
As a Falcon baseball player, Badenhop cracked the top 10 records in his sport. He’s among the University’s all-time best for innings pitched, wins, appearances, strikeouts — and he’s second for complete games pitched. He was also an outstanding student who was the only student-athlete to achieve Academic All-American status during his senior year.

Badenhop “was just a great young man and hard worker,” Baseball Coach Danny Schmitz said. He was “not only very gifted as a baseball player, but just a very gifted student.”

Badenhop built the foundation of his success at BGSU — the same place his father, Dr. Dalynn Badenhop ’73, ’76, played intercollegiate basketball. Maybe soon, he’ll be bringing his own daughter to Falcon sporting events as Badenhop and his wife (they’re Falcon Flames) welcomed their first child in October.

Claire Batista ‘86 credits Falcon connections for her success in women’s golf.

Making room on the green: Shirley Spork, Claire Batista, Heidi Wright-Tennyson, women’s golf

Long before female student-athletes were recognized with All-American status, Falcon women were making their own opportunities through club sports like golf. One Falcon golfer — Shirley Spork — had a role in expanding opportunities in the sport to women, including BGSU alumnae Claire Batista ’86 and Heidi Wright-Tennyson ’91, who might not be nationally recognized golf professionals without the Ladies Professional Golf Association.

Spork left BGSU just a year after starting as a graduate student and faculty member in physical education to join the first tour as one of 13 co-founders of the LPGA. The organization is now the world’s oldest active professional platform for female athletes of any sport.

Spork’s greatest contributions to the sport are as an educator. She initiated the teaching division of the LPGA in 1959 and still gives lessons at the Monterey Country Club in Palm Desert, Calif.
“Golf takes a lot of time and patience. I tell my students, ‘When you begin to learn the game, you’re going to be learning it your entire life,’” Spork said.

Teachers are always learning too, by regularly experimenting with new methods and technologies, from sensors to monitor ball flight patterns, to scales that show how golfers shift weight as they swing.

Batista has served about two decades as a resident golf educator and head of the Claire Batista Golf Academy at The Legacy Golf Club in Ottawa Lake, Michigan. Her laptop stays close during lessons to display video of students’ swings and make copies to review as homework.

“I would say my teaching has gotten a lot better in the last few years,” Batista said.
Batista played on the boy’s golf team in high school before securing a spot among BGSU’s top all-time individual women golfers. She became the founding coach of the University of Toledo Women’s Golf program where she made an unlikely Falcon connection: future BGSU Coach Stephanie Young was one of her UT student-athletes.

Pictured left is Shirley Spork, LPGA co-founder and former BGSU student and faculty member.

Teaching is one of many duties of Wright-Tennyson’s role as PGA director of golf for Moss Creek Golf Club in Hilton Head, S.C. On any given day, she may be planning or running a golf tournament, ordering for the retail shop she owns on site, collaborating with other section managers to operate the facility or meeting with her 18-member staff.

Falcon golf was what attracted her to BGSU, and she resisted when marketing professors tried to line up sales interviews for her before graduation.

“I just knew if I got a job and started making money I would never try to play golf,” she said.

Wright-Tennyson admits she didn’t put much thought into a back-up plan, but it turned out that working summers at Inverness Club in Toledo and studying marketing at BGSU prepared her well. She qualified for the two-year PGA apprenticeship after graduation, which ultimately led to her current position.

She’s been pleased to watch women’s golf explode during her career. Last year, Falcon Women’s Golf competed in the annual collegiate event Wright-Tennyson organizes.

“When I was there, we were the only team in the MAC,” Wright-Tennyson said. Now, BGSU competes against eight other teams. “Bowling Green has just grown so much.”

Updated: 12/01/2017 11:59PM