If on some Saturday you decide to make the trek to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, because you want to experience football in its purest, noblest stale, then do yourself a favor after you exit the complex. Instead of jumping back on the interstate, take your first left outside the parking lot and go about 18 miles east to Alliance, Ohio, home of tiny Mount Union College, which is an equally impressive monument to football excellence.
Here, on a quaint campus of redbrick buildings and shaded walkways, the Purple Raiders, the defending Division III national champions, have come as close as anyone to achieving perfection in college football during the 1990s. Six times this decade Mount Union has been to the playoffs, and each time it has either won the title (1993 and '96) or lost to the eventual champion. In the past six years Mount Union has won five consecutive Ohio Athletic Conference titles, produced 30 All-Americas and had a 67-2-1 regular-season record.
During that stretch the Purple Raiders have held opponents to an average of 11.0 points per game while scoring more than 40 points in a game 45 times. "Mount Union makes my knees wobble," says Capital University coach Roger Welsh, whose team has lost nine straight to the Mount. The Purple Raiders have 80 wins since 1990 and a winning percentage of .925 (80-6-1)—both tops in college football. Better than Florida State. Better than Nebraska.
But better still is the way in which Mount Union, a private, liberal arts school founded in 1846 and now associated with the United Methodist Church, has gone about producing these mind-boggling numbers. Because this is Division III, there are no athletic scholarships. Coach Larry Kehres, a former Purple Raiders quarterback and college roommate of Carolina Panthers head coach Dom Capers, has never cut a player during his 11 years in Alliance. To sustain that policy Kehres, who left the first of his two National Coach of the Year trophies sitting in a box unopened for several weeks in 1993—"These giant trophies are so ostentatious, aren't they?" he says—mast run four separate practices each day during the preseason. When he dresses his entire team for home games, upward of 175 players must squeeze onto the Mount Union sideline and as many as four players have to share the same number.
"We are constantly trying to keep things in perspective at this level," says Kehres, who was chosen instead of Ohio State's John Cooper as the 1996 Ohio college coach of the year. "Being on a college football team should be fun. There are benefits of team membership that some people have forgotten, and they go way beyond becoming an All-America or getting your face on TV. I appreciate the notion that we're doing things right here, but it's not something we invented. We share it with all of Division III athletics."
Many things, however, are unique to Mount Union. Old-timers pull up lawn chairs and watch practice during the week. Locals stop players in the grocery store to talk strategy. Postseason autograph sessions can run as long as two hours. At this level, players get excited when their one pair of new cleats arrives.
Before games the team takes a quiet, reflective walk around campus—unless the field needs to be groomed, in which case the players have been known to lend a hand with snow removal. During games, which routinely draw sellout crowds to the school's old 5,800-seat stadium, the president of the college, Harold Kolenbrander, has been known to do push-ups on the sidelines after scores. (This is one sculpted scholar; the Purple Raiders averaged 47.8 points per game in 1996.) Play-by-play is done by Joe Tait, the voice of the Cleveland Cavaliers, who says that none of his pro sports gigs give him "more thrills and sincere enjoyment than broadcasting Mount Union College football games."
On weekdays you'll find last year's Division III player of the year, senior quarterback Bill Borchert, inside a cramped room near the team's lockers, washing uniforms as part of his work-study financial-aid package. Kehres usually assigns stars like Borchert, who threw for 4,035 yards and 55 touchdowns in 1996 despite sitting out the second half of four games, to the laundry detail to help keep the starch out of their egos. Before Borchert, All-America quarterback Jim Ballard also scrubbed grass stains. Ballard led the team to the 1993 national title, perfecting Kehres's short, efficient passing attack, which is a hybrid of the West Coast offense. After graduation Ballard helped the Scottish Claymores to the 1996 World League championship before vying for a spot on the Buffalo Bills' roster this summer.
"I know it's done to keep my head attached to my neck," Borchert says of his laundry duty. "But sometimes, when guys are chucking their smelly uniforms at me, or if I just can't get stuff dried in time for practice and I have to listen to freshmen complaining, I do sit and wonder if someone like [Florida's 1996 Heisman Trophy winner] Danny Wuerffel had to do stuff like this."
Of course not. But a look at Borchert's achievements raises the question, Could Wuerffel do stuff like this"? As a sophomore, Borchert led the nation in passing efficiency and had a .710 completion percentage. Or how about this: In last year's championship game against Rowan College of New Jersey, with the undefeated Purple Raiders trailing 24-21 at the half, Borchert abandoned Mount Union's short attack and tossed second-half bombs of 71, 51, 45 and 36 yards to spark a 56-24 victory. By game's end he had passed for 505 yards and seven touchdowns, both Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl records.