Big Day for Some Big D
LONG AFTER the game, players, coaches and fans of the home team lingered on the field at Braly Memorial Stadium in Florence, Ala., like college students and their proud parents on graduation day. Amid the celebration and ceremony that followed North Alabama's 27-7 win over Pittsburg (Kans.) State last Saturday in the NCAA Division II championship game, the expressions of jubilation sometimes took on the tone of a eulogy. "Maybe I should be careful using the term greatest," said North Alabama coach Bobby Wallace, "but this is an unbelievable defensive football team for Division II. I coached some teams in Division I that were pretty good. This one is better than most of the defenses I've ever been around. We'll have a good football team next year, but it won't compare to this one. It'll be a long time before we get to this level again."
If Wallace's remarks sounded a bit somber, perhaps it was because the victory may have heralded the end of an era at North Alabama. Thirteen starters will depart from a team that went 41-1 in winning three straight national titles—a Division II record—and there's no guarantee the 41-year-old Wallace will be back either. He was a successful Division I assistant at five schools, including Auburn, before taking the Lion job in 1987, and he has been mentioned as a candidate for a major-college coaching job.
Wallace's credentials as a defensive guru were further established last Saturday, when the North Alabama defense, known as the Purple Swarm, held the Gorillas' top-ranked ground game (318.8 yards a game) to just 99 yards rushing. "Their four linemen and three linebackers are as good as you're going to find anywhere," Pittsburg State offensive coordinator Tim Beck said two days before the game. Upon spotting a couple of those linemen at a press conference last Thursday, a Pittsburg State booster turned to Beck and said, "I hope that's their basketball team."
But the best player on the Lions' front seven also happened to be the least imposing. At 6 feet, 230 pounds, with a disposition that is invariably referred to by teammates as "sweet," middle linebacker Ronald McKinnon doesn't exactly conjure images of Dick Butkus. Yet in his four-year career McKinnon had 621 tackles, including 14 in last Saturday's game. The previous day, he had been awarded the Harlon Hill Trophy, the Division II equivalent of the Heisman. Not only was McKinnon the first defensive player to win the award, he was the first to finish higher than fifth in the voting.
Braly Stadium wasn't the only place where defense was dominant last Saturday. In the Division III title game, the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl in Salem (Va.) Stadium, Wisconsin-La Crosse limited Rowan College of Glassboro, N.J., to 153 total yards—189 fewer than the Profs' season average—in winning 36-7. The victory gave the Eagles their second championship in four years and was coach Roger Harring's 232nd win, all of them at Wisconsin-La Crosse, which placed him ninth among active NCAA coaches. "The numbers don't lie," said Rowan quarterback Greg Lister, who completed just 7 of 27 passes for 60 yards and was intercepted three times. "They have a very good defense."
The architect of the Eagle defense, as he has been for the past 26 years, was Roland Christensen, a 68-year-old volunteer assistant who, since coming to Wisconsin-La Crosse to teach math in 1960, has never been paid by the school for his work as a football coach. Three years ago he retired from the math department, but his defense hasn't stopped giving lessons on the field.
In three postseason games leading up to the Stagg Bowl, the Eagles held their opponents to fewer than 13 points per game. The Profs looked to be another matter; they came into the title game having averaged 37.3 points in their playoff wins. Since arriving at Rowan in 1993, coach K.C. Keeler has kept track of recruits who chose Division I programs over Rowan, and nine of them wound up transferring to the school in southern New Jersey. This year those players included Lister, who once suited up for Maryland and Pitt; linebacker LeRoi Jones, who began his career at Nebraska; and wide-out Priest Ramsey, who transferred from Perm State.
Kessler is sensitive to accusations that he assembled a team of ringers. "Take LeRoi Jones, he was good friends with Melvin O'Neil, one of my running backs, so we had a connection," says Kessler. "I used to ask Melvin, 'How's LeRoi doing at Nebraska?' He'd say, 'Fine, Coach.' Then a month later I'd say, 'How's LeRoi?' He'd say, 'Great, Coach, he loves it.' Then one day I asked him, 'How's LeRoi,' and Melvin said, 'Not so good, Coach. He's home.' That's how we got LeRoi."
If Rowan had an advantage in talent, Harring believed Wisconsin-La Crosse would overcome it with good execution and chemistry, both of which were in short supply last fall when the Eagles sniped and griped and failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 1990. Locker room surliness split the team down the middle—offense versus defense. "It was like two separate teams," says Wisconsin-La Crosse defensive tackle Michael Ivey. "One side was constantly taking shots at the other."