Jim Margraff watches over his team's practice Wednesday as the Blue Jays prepared for their first-round game in the Division III football playoffs.
Jim Margraff watches over his team's practice Wednesday as the Blue Jays prepared for their first-round game in the Division III football playoffs. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun)

To get a sense of the culture around the Johns Hopkins football team, consider the way coach Jim Margraff greets every incoming freshman — not with a simple hello or by his jersey number, but by his first name.

That may seem like a simple gesture, but it still resonates with senior safety Ryan Rice.

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"That's huge, because you can go to any other school and the coach might not know your name until midway through the season," Rice said. "When you come here on Day One, you're a nervous freshman, but when he comes up to you in the stretching line and calls you by your first name, you know that everything is going to be OK."

That kind of personal touch has defined Margraff's 25-year tenure with the Blue Jays, who have enjoyed unprecedented success under their former quarterback.

Since 2002, the program has won 10 Centennial Conference titles, becoming the first team in the league's history to win that many. Over that same span, Johns Hopkins has won 111 games, with just 31 losses, and the Blue Jays have gone undefeated in the regular season three of the past four years.

Hopkins (10-0) will make its fourth consecutive appearance in the NCAA Division III playoffs, and sixth overall, when Rowan (7-3) visits Homewood Field on Saturday for a noon first-round game.

No one questions Margraff's expertise when it comes to the Xs and Os. But many within the program insist that what he has done off the field has laid the foundation for the program's success.

It starts with Margraff's personality and his ability to communicate with his team. Senior left tackle Kyle Flynn said Margraff doesn't berate his players.

"If something needs to be done, Coach Margraff simply has to tell us and just from the way he's led us and from putting his faith in us as well, we want to get it done, and we want to get it done the right way," Flynn said.

Margraff said he will occasionally raise his voice, but added, "I've just found that I'm more effective and people learn more when I talk to them and teach them."

Offensive cooardinator Greg Chimera said Margraff's calm extends to games. When Muhlenberg used a blocked punt return and an interception return for touchdowns to help shave a 22-point deficit down to five in the fourth quarter earlier this season, Margraff didn't panic.

"Our sideline just doesn't waver at all, and [the players] kind of take on his personality in that respect," Chimera said. "We're ready for any adversity."

Margraff, 54, has entrusted two young coordinators, the 27-year-old Chimera and 28-year-old defensive coordinator Mickey Rehring, who have a great degree of autonomy when dealing with their units.

Chimera, a former Johns Hopkins fullback in his first season as the offensive coordinator, has added four- and five-receiver sets and receiver stacks to the offense's run-heavy philosophy. Rehring, a former defensive lineman at Centennial Conference foe Franklin & Marshall, moved Rice, an all-conference cornerback, to safety and installed a hybrid outside linebacker-free safety in shifting the defense to a 4-3 alignment.

"We work extremely hard because it's important to us because we know how important it is to Coach Margraff," Rehring said.

While the coordinators' youth has given the parents of some recruits pause, Margraff remembers when he was given a similar amount of freedom as a young offensive line coach for former Albany coach Bob Ford.

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"My ego is more about winning than anything else," Margraff said of delegating responsibilities. "So if someone is better at something than I am, I'm fine with that."

Margraff also has a jovial side to him. During a practice session before last week's regular-season finale against McDaniel, the seniors were allowed to wear their high school football jerseys. At the end of practice, Margraff whipped off his jacket to reveal his No. 3 Blue Jays jersey.

"We loved it, and it kind of reminded us that he was here before," Rice said. "We loved seeing that."

For all of Johns Hopkins' regular-season success, the program is just 3-5 in the playoffs and was bounced from the first round in two of the past three appearances. But Margraff said he doesn't feel any external pressure to win in the postseason now.

"We were in the playoffs last year, and I'm not sure who else had three first-team academic All Americans and the Scholar Athlete of the Year in Division III," he said. "I think when you research that stuff and put the college and football together, this has been a pretty special program over the last five or 10 years. Now I'd like to do better, that's for sure. But again, it's an exciting time of the year. It's playoff football."

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