The Lackner Era: 35 years of football, athletics

Coach Rich Lackner has been with Carnegie Mellon for the past 35 years. He has won the University Athletic Association Coach of the Year award five times, small rewards compared to his improvements to the football program and his impressive record. (credit: Celia Ludwinski/Photo Editor) Coach Rich Lackner has been with Carnegie Mellon for the past 35 years. He has won the University Athletic Association Coach of the Year award five times, small rewards compared to his improvements to the football program and his impressive record. (credit: Celia Ludwinski/Photo Editor)

A quick peek at the more than 100 players listed on the Carnegie Mellon football team’s roster for 2010 shows a plethora of hometowns from across the nation, including six who are listed as hailing from good old Pittsburgh, Pa.
Pretty standard, right?

Not according to Head Coach Rich Lackner, who has been a part of Carnegie Mellon football since 1975. Lackner, a native Pittsburgher who played football for Mt. Lebanon High School, entered Carnegie Mellon as a first-year in 1975. In his experience as a player and as coach over the past 35 years, Lackner says the biggest difference is the players’ origins.

“I would say the biggest difference in terms of football coaching, I think, is the school itself,” Lackner said. “In the time that I was here, we were really an excellent university and we probably had more of a regional flavor.... Just looking as a football coach specifically, if there were 32 of us in the freshman class, probably 25 or 27 of us were from Pittsburgh or the surrounding areas. Now, you look at the roster and maybe five are from Pittsburgh and the surrounding areas, and the rest are from all over the place.”

It is because of this, Lackner explained, that recruiting has changed drastically over his tenure as coach. Originally, recruiting talent mainly involved looking within a local radius; nowadays, however, recruiting involves far more outreach and travel as it becomes a nationwide effort. Cell phones and the Internet, Lackner said, are two developments that have not only helped with recruiting, but also helped shape the process.

“Absolutely, you talk about two things that have really changed things, those are two of them,” Lackner said. “There are now also programs that help point students toward colleges in terms of both an athletic and academic standing, which have also helped. We’re in touch with a few of those as well.”

Lackner majored in history during his academic career, completing an education degree while planning for a career as a high school history teacher and football coach. However, following his graduation from the university in 1979, a coaching position became open and Lackner was asked to stay with the team as an assistant. Lackner held his position until ascending to the head coaching position in 1986, the first year in which he worked with assistants Rich Erdelyi and Terry Bodnar. Erdelyi and Bodnar are still on Lackner’s staff as the three enter their 25th season as the core of Carnegie Mellon football.

When asked if he could name any particular Tartans squad as his favorite to coach, Coach Lackner’s eyes lit up.
“1990 and 2006,” he answered with a smile. “I wouldn’t necessarily call any seasons ‘favorites,’ but those, we enjoyed the most success in those two years. Obviously every year we’ve been blessed to have some great players and great leaders. But 1990 and 2006 especially were enjoyable because of the success we had.”

Both seasons saw Tartans football go undefeated through the regular season and clinch an NCAA Division III playoff spot.

“[In] 1990 we made it to the first round of the playoffs,” Lackner said, “but we traveled to Lycoming and lost there. [In] 2006 we beat Millsaps here [at Carnegie Mellon] in the first round and then got beat in the second round when we traveled to Wesley.”

Currently, 1990 and 2006 are the bookend years for Lackner’s five University Athletic Association Coach of the Year awards. He also won the award in 1991, 1993, and 1997. The year 2006 also saw Lackner named the All-South Region Coach of the Year.

Lackner also commands high respect from his team. “Coach Lackner’s performance is second to none,” junior defensive lineman Andrew Medenbach said. “He has a firm dedication to his players on and off the field, and he is willing to sacrifice for us. I don’t know another head coach that will actually put themselves in the middle of a live drill in order to improve the players’ understanding of the game.”

When it comes to the development of Carnegie Mellon athletics over the past 35 years, Lackner had nothing but good things to say, especially about the past five years under current Athletics Director Susan Bassett.

“Susan definitely has the determination to put all Carnegie Mellon athletic teams in the best position to succeed,” Lackner said. “One of the huge developments she’s made has been the [Cost Varsity Weight Room] in Skibo Gym. Before that, the varsity weight room was a tiny room in the basement of Donner Hall, and the hot water pipe would drip right onto the squat machine.

“Another big thing that Susan has put into place is the new intramural field. I think it’s a great thing for intramural sports, for club sports, and for the soccer program.”

Lackner said that although the athletics department has had to make budget cuts over recent years, money has never really been an issue for the football team.

“Everyone has to make budget cuts,” Lackner said. “I’m not one to get jealous or anything and think that some other team’s getting more money than I am. No. I’ve never really felt like budget has been an issue. Yes, sometimes we have to tighten our belts, and I’ve felt the best way of addressing that is to tell the team exactly what’s going on.”

“Sometimes people don’t like that, and they take issue with it or whatever, but the reality is it has to happen,” Lackner added. “And it also is what happens in the real world. Sometimes payments don’t come through the way you want them to, and you have to stop spending on certain things.”

That is just one of the many ways that Lackner feels that being a student athlete helps a person develop and succeed both in and after college.

“You can use buzzwords like ‘leadership,’ ‘organization of time,’ ‘team player,’” Lackner said. “What also happens is that employers like to see that you played a varsity sport because it shows you can be in a team environment. You can work with others and you can deal with pressure, because you’ve been in situations before when that’s necessary because you dealt with it as a student athlete.”

It’s easy to see that Lackner embodies Carnegie Mellon athletics. He believes fully in the importance of the program from an academic, athletic, and individual standpoint and has devoted himself to improving an already successful football program in every way he can. As Lackner’s team takes the field this season, it’s hard not to be proud of the tradition and history that he has helped shape over the last 35 years, and to expect more success for many years to come.