It did not take long for Tom Sawyer to turn the Winona State football program into a power. After becoming the program’s 21st head coach in 1996, Sawyer has pushed the Warriors to heights previously unseen.
Now the dean of NSIC head coaches, Sawyer has won 10 or more games in a single season five times during his illustrious career. He is first in program history in both wins and career winning percentage. Sawyer is 12th among active NCAA Division II coaches in winning percentage and sixth in total victories.
The Warriors have played in the NCAA Division II Playoffs five times under Sawyer as well as making three Mineral Water Bowl appearances.
Sawyer has recruited and developed outstanding football talent, including six Harlon Hill Award candidates, 47 All-Americans, and 355 All-NSIC selections. Sawyer has also coached several Warriors who have gone on to play professional football.
In all, five Warriors have earned NSIC Offensive Player of the Year accolades under Sawyer while five others have been the NSIC’s Defensive Player of the Year.
Sawyer led the Warriors to a 9-2 record in 1997 in his second year as head coach, orchestrating a five win jump from his rookie campaign. His efforts earned him NSIC Coach of the Year honors, as the Warriors were undefeated in conference play on their way to the team’s first conference title under Sawyer. The nine victories were a then-school record. Travis Walch was named NSIC Offensive Player of the Year, joining Matt Brandt who won the award in 1996.
Winona State won nine games again in 1998 and repeated as NSIC Champions. Quarterback Jake Goettl earned NSIC Offensive Player of the Year honors, the sixth consecutive year a Warrior had earned the award, dating back to 1993. No other program in conference history has had more then three consecutive league Offensive Players of the Year.
In 2000 Sawyer won his third NSIC Championship in five seasons, as he coached the Warriors to a 9-3 overall record and 7-1 mark in the NSIC. The Warriors made history by receiving an invitation to play in the Mineral Water Bowl, the first postseason appearance for a WSU team since 1993 and second in school history. The contest between Winona State and Missouri Western State was epic, going three overtimes before the Warriors could claim a 43-41 victory. Warrior Kevin Curtin was named the game’s Offensive MVP and Nick Jager the Defensive MVP. Sawyer was named the NSIC Coach of the Year after the season for the second time in his first five seasons at the helm of the Warriors.
The 2001 season was historic on many levels for Winona State. Sawyer led the Warriors to a 10-2 overall record, the first time in program history a team had reached double-digit victories. The Warriors also advanced to the NCAA Division II Playoffs for the first time in school history. The team claimed the conference championship and Sawyer was named NSIC Coach of the Year for the second consecutive season.
In 2002, Sawyer led the Warriors to a second place finish in the NSIC with a record of 8-1 league mark and earned a second invitation from the Mineral Water Bowl. Linebacker Deric Sieck, the league’s leading tackler, was named NSIC Defensive Player of the Year, the first of five consecutive Warriors to earn the award.
Quarterback Bruce Carpenter was honored with the prestigious NSIC Glen Galligan Award which is awarded to a football player who plays four years of football while contributing to his university on the field and in the classroom.
The 2003 season would prove to be the best in school history up to this point, as the Warriors set a school record with 11 wins and claimed the NSIC title. Sawyer and the Warriors returned to the NCAA Division II Playoffs for the second time in three seasons. The team claimed the first NCAA Postseason victory in school history, beating Emporia State (KS), 10-3. Sieck earned his second consecutive NSIC Defensive Player of the Year award.
Sawyer won the 2004 NSIC Coach of the Year award after the Warriors reached the double digit win plateau again, going 10-2 overall and undefeated in conference play, on their way to the team’s sixth NSIC Championship under Sawyer. The Warriors also qualified for their second consecutive NCAA playoff appearance. Jim Stanek became the third consecutive Warrior to win the NSIC Defensive Player of the Year and Roy Kratt earned conference Newcomer of the Year honors. Receiver Chris Samp led the NSIC in receiving yards per game and touchdowns scored while being named Offensive Player of the Year.
WSU claimed its third consecutive NSIC Championship in 2005, posting an 8-3 overall mark and 6-1 record in league play. John Tackmann claimed NSIC Defensive Player of the Year honors.
The Warriors returned to the NCAA Division II Playoffs in 2006 after finishing the season 9-3 overall and 7-1 in conference action. Tackmann claimed his second consecutive NSIC Defensive Player of the Year award, capping a run of five consecutive Defensive Player of the Year honors given to Warriors. Tackmann also earned the league’s Glen Galligan Award.
Sawyer led the Warriors to their fifth appearance in the NCAA Division II Playoffs in 2007. The team won the NSIC Championship after going undefeated in conference play and going 10-2 overall.
Sawyer became the first coach in program history to win 100 games during the 2007 campaign, beating Northern State 49-20 on October 13.
In 2008 the Warriors extended their home winning streak at Maxwell Field against NSIC opponents to 35 games, a record that began on Sept. 16, 2000 with a 40-3 victory over MSU Moorhead. The winning streak spanned nine complete seasons before being snapped by No. 7 Minnesota State on Sept. 26, 2009.
Winona State posted victories over nationally ranked teams Carson-Newman and Minnesota State in 2009, on its way to a 7-4 record. Running back Rayon Simmons became the seventh player in school history to reach 2,000 yards rushing in his career, reaching the total in his first two seasons with the Warriors.
The 2011 season saw the Warriors upset ninth-ranked St. Cloud State, the third consecutive season WSU has knocked off a top-ten team. Winona State went 7-4 overall on the year with Simmons reaching 1,000 yards rushing for the second consecutive season and Ryan Gerts earning NSIC Defensive Newcomer of the Year.
The Warriors won ten games and advanced to the Mineral Water Bowl in 2012, marking the fifth time a Sawyer-led team has reached double-digit victories. The team played Lindenwood in the Mineral Water Bowl, cruising to a 41-21 victory in its first postseason game since 2007. The Warriors set a NSIC record with 5,182 yards of total offense during league play while also setting a conference mark with 782 yards at Augustana.
Rayon Simmons capped his outstanding career by setting a Winona State record with 1,774 rushing yards to set both a WSU and NSIC single-season record. He also broke the school and conference career rushing marks during the season. Simmons was a first team All-American while also being a finalist for the Harlon Hill Award and earning NSIC’s Offensive Player of the Year honors.
Injuries hurt the Warriors in 2013, but also allowed for a group of talented underclassmen to step up and make their mark. True freshman quarterback Jack Nelson was named the NSIC’s Offensive Newcomer of the Year after starting ten games, throwing for 2,715 yards and 25 touchdowns.
The Warriors suffered through another injury plagued season, but was still highlighted by wide receiver Josh Mikes, earning All-NSIC South First Team honors as well as Don Hansen All-Region honorable mention.
In 2015 the team had the best passing offense in program history throwing for 3,570 yards and 27 touchdowns. The offense finished with just under 5,000 yards of total offense. Ten players earn All-NSIC honors.
Aside from coaching and teaching the game of football, Sawyer preaches to his players the value of community service by giving back and helping those who are less fortunate or experiencing difficult times. Warrior players and coaches make a service trip each summer, and spent a week during May assisting with flood relief in Nashville, Tenn.
Before accepting the head coach position at WSU, Sawyer was an assistant coach for the Warriors from 1987 to 1989 and then again from 1991 to 1994. He helped lead the Warriors to NSIC Championships in 1993 and 1994.
Sawyer played two years of football at Winona State. He was also an All-Conference selection on the baseball field for the Warriors.
He graduated from Winona State University in 1983 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Physical Education and in 1989 with a Master of Science degree in Education with an emphasis in Physical Education.
Sawyer is an associate professor at Winona State University in the Department of Physical Education and Sport Science.
Sawyer has two children, Jessica and Tommy, who was a member of the Winona State football team from 2007-09. Jessica and husband Mike have two sons, Max and Carson. Sawyer and Connie Mettille live in Winona.