Greatness (however commonly defined) seems to fit the IWU men’s basketball program. Across all levels of college basketball since 2013, the Wildcats rank first with 3 national titles and 24 postseason victories. They join Gonzaga and Villanova as the top three programs in total wins.

Despite typical measures of success, a different kind of greatness resides in the hearts of the IWU coaching staff. “We have been on a journey over the past 14 seasons of putting God first and others second in our program, and we have been amazed at where God has taken us,” says IWU Head Coach Greg Tonagel. “We felt God was pushing us to give away some of what we were learning about IAm3rd leadership.”

As discipleship momentum slowly built, the staff created a podcast—which can be found at IWUHoops.net—featuring the players and coaches sharing stories about the highs and lows of ‘trading the pursuit of me for the pursuit of 3.’ With nearly 30,000 downloads, the response exceeded the coaches’ expectations.

 

“We began to hear from coaches, administrators, and leaders from all across the country who shared in our hunger to seek God first and others second,” says Associate Head Coach and Associate Athletic Director of Mission Initiatives Jeff Clark. “It only grew our conviction that we are in a culture that is desperate for more men and women who will bring Christ into their leadership context.”

 

The impact went beyond the world of Christian athletics and into programs at some of the highest levels of basketball. One coach from a secular school on the west coast responded. “Through the podcast, I learned more about IWU’s philosophy and how it was put into practice. We implemented IAm3rd to our players, most of whom had never even considered God as a part of their lives. Slowly over the season, we saw our players embrace this concept and it had a huge impact on every part of our culture and in the player’s lives.”

The coaches in the IWU Athletic Department have long prioritized discipleship of student-athletes. A new push for the program to multiply their influence was from an endowment created by Trent Dailey, the President of Insurance Management Group (with offices near IWU’s main campus). The ‘Greater Endowment’ allowed the staff to pray and dream about playing a part in ‘re-defining greatness’ in leadership.

Tonagel and his staff took their first step in using these endowment funds by hosting several ‘Greater Retreats’. The retreats connected dozens of high school and college basketball coaches and other leaders countrywide who desired more engagements as IAm3rd leaders.

 

The momentum has continued to take the IAm3rd message into new contexts. The staff has been invited to speak and lead conferences within the local church. The Amplify Conference, hosted by The Wesleyan Church, included it in the launch of a new initiative of ‘Marketplace Multipliers.’ This multi-national and multi-lingual group of high capacity laity represented spheres of influence within business, government and health care who shared a passion to make disciples of Christ.

Nations of Coaches, the leading national ministry for college basketball coaches, caught wind of what God was doing at IWU and visited. This led to a deepening partnership that included an invitation to Tonagel and Clark to speak at NOC’s premier leadership event. They joined leaders such as Tim Tassopoulos (President of Chick-fil-A), Rick Barnes (University of Tennessee Head Coach), and Allen Houston (former NBA All-Star and current senior advisor to the General Manager of the New York Knicks).

“Nations of Coaches seems to be on the leading edge of raising up a generation of coaches for Christ,” says Tonagel. “The opportunity to be a part of a high-level event like the Legacy Summit is one of many examples of the growing awareness of IWUHoops and its influence nationally.”

 

WHAT IS I AM THIRD? 

  • The IAm3rd philosophy is embedded into the culture of the IWU men’s basketball program. It means ‘if you want to be first, first find a way to be third.’ Based on Philippians 2: 1-11, IAm3rd is about choosing to put God first, others second and myself third. Embracing this mindset on and off the court has turned IWU men’s basketball into a discipleship program where success is measured not by wins and losses, but by how your teammates grow.
  • “We hold firmly to the belief that if you want to be first, you first need to find a way to be third,” says Tonagel. “We continue to dream big and ask God for creative ways to bring the gospel into our areas of influence. We believe he is connecting us with other kingdom-minded people who we can partner with for deeper impact. What God has done over the past 14 years is amazing, but we believe he is just getting started. He continues to open up new avenues for our program to be Third, and we are asking him to grow our fearlessness to share the gospel in fresh ways to a culture that is increasingly hungry for Christ.”

 

To hear more stories on how God is working in and through Wildcat Athletics, please visit http://IWUWildcats.com/MissionInAction.

This story was first published in the Fall 2019 Triangle magazine. For the complete issue click HERE.