What price glory, Bobby Wallace asked himself. Late one night in February 1982, only hours after Wallace, then an Auburn assistant coach, had secured an oral commitment from Bo Jackson to come to the Plains, Jackson threatened to renege because the media had gotten wind of his plans, taking the drama out of a press conference he had planned for the next day. "My greatest moment," Wallace said. "And then almost my worst. The up-and-down life of a recruiter. It'll kill you."
Jackson, of course, signed, and Wallace again hit the recruiting trail. Before long, however, he grew weary of the Division I-A road, and when he was offered the coaching job at Division II North Alabama in December 1987, he accepted it. Last Saturday his Lions won the national championship for the second straight year, by defeating Texas A&M-Kingsville (formerly Texas A&I) 16-10. "I honestly believe that I couldn't ask for a better situation than the one I have here," said Wallace two days earlier.
With a team made up mostly of homegrown talent—three quarters of the players come from within 60 miles of the North Alabama campus in Florence—Wallace scarcely has to leave his backyard to recruit. He doesn't even have to leave his backyard to win the NCAA crown. After the Lions appeared in their first Division II championship, in 1985, Florence made a successful bid to host the title game, beginning in '86. It will be there for at least the next two years.
The Lions, who finished 13-1 and have been the top-ranked Division II team since Oct. 4, 1993, intend to be back too. "With the title game held here, we feel an obligation to be in it every year," says linebacker Ronald McKinnon. "I remember how bad it was when I got here."
That would be the fall of 1991, when North Alabama went 3-7. The next spring Wallace rebuilt the Lions around the freshmen he had redshirted the previous fall and the incoming crop of freshmen. Those players, now juniors, have sparked the back-to-back championship seasons.
The elder statesman of that class is linebacker Paul Sanders, 22. Sidelined by a rotator cuff injury he sustained during his freshman season in 1989, Sanders left school and returned home to Parrish, Ala. He went to school part-time at Walker Junior College in nearby Jasper, Ala., while working full-time us an AT&T operator. Then, after being laid off by AT&T in 1992, he decided to return to North Alabama to complete his education. While sitting in the school's student center one afternoon that fall, he happened upon Wallace and, on a whim, asked if he might rejoin the team. Wallace consented.
Last Saturday, Sanders repaid Wallace for his show of faith by making a potential game-saving interception at midfield with 31 seconds left. "That was a nice touch to the season," says McKinnon.
Sanders and the rest of the junior class will be back next fall, which means the Lions could well have another home game next December.