Bethel announces Mike McElroy as new head football coach

After seven years as the Royal’s defensive coordinator, Mike McElroy isn’t shying away from the challenge of replacing coaching legend Steve Johnson. “I get excited about being able to build on a foundation that’s solid and so strong,” he says.

By Jason Schoonover ’09, senior web content specialist

January 09, 2024 | 5 p.m.

New Head Football Coach Mike McElroy

As he takes over as Bethel’s head football coach, Mike McElroy isn’t shying away from the pressure and expectations of replacing someone like Steve Johnson. Reflecting on the program’s growth under Johnson, McElroy says it brings a fun pressure. “You’re stepping into a place where there are expectations, and that’s a cool challenge,” McElroy says.

For the first time in 35 years, Bethel University’s football team has a new head coach. After seven years as the Royal’s defensive coordinator, Mike McElroy has been hired to take the helm from Steve Johnson, who built the program into a regional powerhouse over 35 seasons before retiring last year. “What Coach J has done here has been monumental,” McElroy says. “So I get excited about being able to build on a foundation that’s solid and so strong.”

With McElroy’s hiring as Bethel’s 15th head football coach, Director of Athletics Greg Peterson believes he found someone who will grow on the strength of the program, one that’s built on a core of excellence on the field and excellence in Christ. "I'm thrilled that Mike McElroy will be the next head coach of the Bethel football program,” Peterson says. “During the process, Mike set himself apart with his authentic faith and plan for transformation in the lives of the young men in the program, his recruiting plan and evidence of recruiting at a high level, and his experience leading one of the top defenses in the country that has been a catalyst for three straight NCAA playoff experiences, including an Elite Eight in 2022, and Bethel's sixth MIAC championship.”

Meet Mike McElroy

McElroy, who grew up in Lowell, Michigan, brings a coaching resume that spans high school, Division I, Division II, and Division III football. As a player, he was part of longtime coach Jerry Kill’s final recruiting class at DI Southern Illinois Salukis University, where he played strong safety, was a captain for two years, and majored in health and physical education. After a few years coaching high school football, was a graduate assistant under Kill at the University of Minnesota and earned an M.A. in Youth Leadership and Development. After a year as defensive coordinator at DII Concordia-St. Paul, McElroy was hired as Bethel’s defensive coordinator in 2017. Since then, he’s fallen in love with DIII athletics and Bethel.

McElroy also brings a strong track record of coaching success. At the U of M, he worked with the Gophers’ defensive backs and helped the defense rank No. 18 in 2014 and No. 11 in 2015 in pass defense among all FBS programs. During those two years, the Gophers improved from No. 39 to No. 24 in total yards allowed per game and appeared in two bowl games, winning one. At Concordia-St. Paul, the Golden Bears lowered their total yards allowed and total points allowed.

At Bethel, Peterson says McElroy has been a fantastic on-field football coach. “What he has done with our defense is very impressive,” he says. In his seven seasons at Bethel, McElroy has built on Bethel’s tradition of defensive excellence. Peterson calls McElroy’s defense one of the key catalysts for Bethel’s three straight NCAA playoff runs, including an Elite Eight in 2022, and Bethel's sixth MIAC championship. Under McElroy, the Bethel defense has ranked nationally in several statistical categories. In 2023, the Royals ranked second nationally in red zone defense (42.3 percent), fifth in interceptions (21), and seventh in turnovers gained (31)—and the Royals led the MIAC in nine defensive categories.

Mike McElroy

During Mike McElroy’s time as defensive coordinator, Bethel’s defense thrived, and several players received individual awards, including three AFCA All-Americans and one Bobby Bell College Impact Player of the Year winner—Nate Farm in 2022. McElroy recruited and developed seven All-Region honorees and 17 MIAC All-Conference defensive back selections. Two former players also reached the cusp of the NFL, as safety Dawson Brown (Atlanta Falcons) and defensive end Kyle Kilgore (Minnesota Vikings) were both invited to NFL Rookie Minicamps in 2019.

“You’ve got to be you. Don’t try to be me.”

McElroy’s predecessor is a key reason he came to Bethel. McElroy first connected with Johnson during his time at the U of M and the two bonded almost immediately. After witnessing Johnson’s authenticity and the way that fueled a program built on a mix of football, faith, toughness, and personal growth, he knew he wanted to be a part of it. “The unique mix of authentic faith and authentic foundation in Jesus mixed with really good football was attractive to me,” McElroy says. “I’d never seen it done before, had never seen it done at a high level before.” 

To McElroy and Peterson, that will continue to be the bedrock of Bethel football. “It’s centered on Jesus and that’s the foundation—and we’re really not going to stray from that at all,” Peterson says. But with any transition, there will be changes. When Johnson called to congratulate McElroy early this week, he told McElroy he was proud of him, and offered a bit of advice. “He said, ‘You’ve got to be you. Don’t try to be me,’” McElroy says.

Mike McElroy

Mike McElroy met former Bethel Head Football Coach Steve Johnson while working as a graduate assistant at the University of Minnesota. The two connected almost instantly, and McElroy knew he wanted to be a part of Bethel’s program. “This place for me was this perfect mix of football and faith and toughness and all of these cool things that blend together and are really unique to any level of football,” he says.

McElroy has already displayed strong leadership and the ability to get the most out of his players. At a DIII program like Bethel, it’s important for players to continually get better.  And Peterson is impressed by how McElroy has embraced the challenge of developing players throughout their Bethel careers. “He takes that to all areas of their life—their spiritual development, their leadership development, academics—all those things,” Peterson says. While McElroy is thoughtful, soft-spoken, and low-key when you encounter him in Bethel’s halls, Peterson sees him flip a switch when he’s on the field. “Once he gets in front of a defense or out on the field, he turns it up a notch in a cool way,” says Peterson, who also values how he clearly communicates expectations to his players and then holds them accountable.

Reflecting on his Bethel career so far, McElroy recalls big wins and accomplishments, but he’s most proud of the moments that happen off the field with players and their personal growth. Under Johnson, Bethel football built a reputation for empowering players to grow as men. To McElroy, that makes Bethel football special. He loves seeing players come in, develop, and leave ready to make significant impacts in their communities. And that’s not going to change. “The call is to still be really good—that’s the hope every year,” McElroy says. “But it’s the other stuff that I want to encourage guys that what this place has been built on is going to remain solid.”

Mike McElroy

Director of Athletics Greg Peterson describes Mike McElroy as a lifelong learner who seeks out knowledge and shares it with his players. “He deeply cares about the young men that he coaches and the life transformation that they’re going to have,” Peterson says. McElroy is an avid reader of leadership and development books, and he helped the football team compile a library of books on life, leadership, discipleship, modern masculinity, and more that are shared with his players. “It’s trying to encourage guys to learn and to read and to continue to seek knowledge and seek wisdom,” McElroy says.

Expectations remain high entering a season of transition

As he starts his tenure as head coach, McElroy wants to make sure the coaching staff and players know that the team’s high expectations remain. “That ain’t changing,” he says. “The goals and aspirations that we had last fall are going to be very similar.” But he understands it will be a transition. He wants to care for the coaches and players early in his tenure so the team is ready to talk to recruits and move toward the 2024 season. “We’ve got to care for those guys really well, care for the staff really well, make sure they’re aligned and ready to go,” he says.

McElroy is in a season of transition at home too. Along with sons Asa, 6, and Ira, 3, McElroy and his wife, Austyn, will welcome a third son by early February. The McElroys live in St. Paul and attend Trinity City Church, where McElroy is an elder. When he’s not at Bethel—or wrangling his young kids—McElroy enjoys working on home renovation projects and being outside, especially in the woods or in the Boundary Waters.

With a young family, McElroy deeply appreciates the balance of life, faith, and football that athletes—and coaches—experience at Bethel. He says that’s unique to a place like Bethel. “You’re getting sharpened every day by people who care deeply about you, how you’re doing, and they challenge you to grow in faith and in your sport,” says McElroy, who adds he gets to then bring that home to his family. At Bethel, he loves being a part of a culture where coaches and players want to be good for one another, the department, and Bethel. “I know the magnitude of this place, and I think the uniqueness of it too is exciting and humbling all at the same time,” McElroy says.

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