He played for two national championship teams at Nebraska. He was the leader on the Carolina Panthers' 2003 Super Bowl squad. Everywhere Mike Minter goes, his team wins. He expects the trend to continue in his first head coaching job at Campbell University.
Story by Billy Ligget | Photos by Bennett Scarborough
Right away, Mike Minter knew his foot was broken.
With just over a quarter remaining in the biggest football game of his life, and with his Carolina Panthers trailing a New England Patriots team looking to start a dynasty, the Panthers’ safety hit tight end Daniel Graham — who outsized Minter by 5 inches and 60 pounds — with everything he had six yards from the end zone to prevent a score.
The collision was violent. But it was the moment before impact — Minter planting his foot into the artificial turf at Houston’s Reliant Stadium — when the pain hit.
“I felt a pop,” Minter recalls nine years later. “When you’re playing and the adrenaline is flowing in a game like that, you don’t feel the pain. When the play’s over? Ha … it was throbbing. Go back and watch it again, and you can see me hobbling around after every play.
“It was pretty bad.”
When sharing the legend of Mike Minter — the Carolina Panthers’ all-time leader in tackles, fumble recoveries and defensive touchdowns — it’s paramount to mention his performance in Super Bowl XXXVIII in 2004. Six of his career-high 18 tackles in that game came after the broken foot, and his performance helped the Panthers nearly pull off one of the biggest upsets in Super Bowl history (the Patriots won on a last-second field goal).
Minter remembers telling the trainers to simply tie his shoe tighter after the break. He even refused painkillers, relying instead on that adrenaline to get him through.
Passion. Grit. Heart. Leadership. These are but a few of the adjectives used to describe not only his career-defining game, but the entirety of Mike Minter’s nine-year NFL career.
And those words found their way to Buies Creek on Nov. 27, the day Minter was named head coach of Campbell University’s football program.
“Mike’s spirit, passion and will to win were evident to me from our very first conversation,” Campbell Athletic Director Bob Roller beamed before a packed room on the day of the announcement.
“I am convinced that Campbell University and Camel football is about to experience a transformational change.”
‘RUN THROUGH A WALL FOR THE MAN ...’
It's early February ... almost nine years to the day of his Super Bowl experience — and nearly three months since being tabbed to turn around Campbell’s struggling football program. Minter is still settling into his somewhat bare office that looks out over the under-renovation Barker-Lane Stadium.
It’s the day after Super Bowl XLVII — a nail-biter between the 49ers and Ravens much like the one he played in — and Minter is asked what he remembers most about playing on the ultimate stage. His answer has nothing to do with a broken foot.
“The disappointment that we didn’t get it done,” Minter says, his smile giving way to clenched teeth. “You have fond memories of preparation, all the games that led to it, running out of the tunnel and other things like that. But when I look back, it’s always that field goal at the end of the game that beat us. The first thing that comes to your mind after that is you were so close, and you didn’t get it done.”
Minter “got it done” twice as a safety and linebacker at the University of Nebraska, which won two national championships in the mid-90s during his time there. And he hopes his time at Campbell — his first gig as head coach on the collegiate level — leads to unchartered territory for a program that returned to football only five years ago.
Namely, Minter wants wins. And a Pioneer League title. And a shot at the FCS playoffs.
“The only way to grade my time here will be by wins and losses,” he says. “That’s how I grade myself. I want Campbell in Year 1 to have a winning record and compete for a league title. I don’t want us to be a laughing stock … I want teams to fear us.”
Getting the right coaches and players in will go a long way toward winning, Minter says. He also wants players who will raise the team GPA and players willing to pitch in and help their community (something else that’s always brought up when people speak of Minter’s time with the Panthers).
He takes over a Campbell program coming off its worst season since returning to football in 2008. A year after its first winning record, a 6-5 campaign under coach Dale Steele, the Camels dropped to 1-10 in 2012 and 0-8 in league play.
In three months, Minter has molded a coaching staff and in February announced his first signing class, a class that got the attention of some in the state for Minter’s ability to land big names despite Campbell’s status as a non-scholarship football program.
“We’ve definitely hit the ground running,” says Minter, who left Liberty University as an assistant under Turner Gill to come to Campbell. “I wasn’t coming into this job blindly, by any means. I watched what Coach Gill had to go through at Liberty, and I’ve talked a lot with him about what it takes to start off right with a program.”
The first thing Minter did with the players left over from that 1-10 squad was sit down with every single one of them … more than 90 students in all. That task took weeks, but Minter calls the meetings “fun,” and says it was necessary to move forward.
“I got to look into their eyes, and they looked back at mine. I hope they saw the kind of coach I’m going to be,” he says. “These guys want direction. They want energy. They want to be taught.”
One thing that surprised Minter about his team was its closeness.
“Everyone said this football team was a family,” he adds. “It’s a great family atmosphere around here. You don’t normally get that coming off a 1-10 season. You normally see bickering and fighting. So I don’t think I really have to focus on building ‘family’ here … we already have it.”
As Minter stated in his press conference back in November, he knows a thing or two about what it takes to rise to the top after a dreadful season. On his first day on the job, Minter recalled the Panthers’ 1-15 season in 2001, a season when the team lost 15 in a row after an opening day win. The following season, under new head coach John Fox (now head coach of the Denver Broncos), the Panthers improved to 7-9; and in 2003 went 11-5 and stormed through the playoffs in January 2004 to earn the franchise’s only Super Bowl berth.
From 1-15 to NFC champs in two seasons … it’s an experience Minter can point to when he’s tasked with proving to a recruit that Campbell can turn its program around and do it quickly.
“At the end of the day, that’s what life is all about … learning from your experiences and sharing those experiences so others can relate,” Minter says. “It’s one thing to come to Campbell and say I’ll help you get from 1-10 to a league championship. It’s another thing to be able to tell them I was in the same boat; and yes, we made it to the Super Bowl. You get more credibility when you’ve walked the walk.”
It’s likely that credibility played a big part in Campbell’s 16-man signing class, which included two highly touted quarterbacks — Middle Creek High School’s David Salmon and Brian Hudson, a transfer from Liberty who started two games for the Flames in 2012.
Salmon, who threw for 3,303 passing yards and a school-record 36 touchdowns as a senior for Middle Creek (located in Apex) and was named his conference’s Player of the Year in 2012, said he was considering Campbell even before Minter’s hire; but he was sold after just his first phone conversation with the coach.
“Just on the phone, he brings an energy that just makes you want to go run through a wall for the man,” says Salmon, whose father was a punter at N.C. State and played professionally for the Minnesota Vikings. “His fire, energy and love for the game were something I wanted to be a part of. He really wants to turn the program around, and I’m excited to be a part of starting a new era of Campbell football.”
Minter, who himself was highly recruited coming out of high school in Oklahoma in the early '90s, says his playing experience means a lot to recruits and their parents.
“It means a lot to them that I’ve been there … that I was on two national championship teams and that I played on Sunday,” Minter says. “More importantly, they see my vision of where this program can go, regardless of where we’re at or where we’ve been. I don’t make any bones about it … I want to coach these kids for the next level. I want guys drafted. I want them striving for the next level. When I took over the head coaching job at [First Assembly Christian Academy in Concord], we went from having no guys recruited to 12. We’re going to get it done.”