It's a typical football Saturday at tiny Linfield College in McMinnville, Ore. A crowd of 3,500 packs the covered stands on one side of Maxwell Field. The school band strikes up the fight song, an engineer on a passing locomotive blows his horn and waves, and frat brothers lug in sofas and recliners to form end-zone luxury boxes.
"This is what Linfield football's all about," senior defensive end Ryan Carlson says. "We're not trying to make the NFL. We're here to play the game and get an education."
Oh, yes, and win. On Oct. 17 the Wildcats defeated archrival Willamette 20-19 to clinch their 43rd straight winning season, a record in college football at any level. Linfield, now 6-0 and ranked third in the Division III West region, had shared the previous record of 42 with Harvard (1881-1923) and Notre Dame (1889-1932). Nebraska has the longest current Division I streak, with 36 straight winning seasons. "Those are schools with great football traditions," Linfield coach Jay Locey says. "It's a heck of an honor."
For Linfield, a liberal arts college with 2,200 students located 40 miles south of Portland, winning football is as much a part of life as the rain that falls in the surrounding Willamette Valley. Linfield's streak began in 1956, the year Dwight Eisenhower was reelected, Don Larsen threw his perfect game and sock hops were the rage. Since then the Wildcats have gone 322-80-10, winning three small-college national titles and 25 Northwest Conference championships.
In all those years, Linfield has had only four coaches: Paul Durham, Ad Rutschman, Ed Langsdorf and Locey. The most successful of them was Rutschman, whose teams won 183 games and three NAIA Division II national crowns between 1968 and '91. Rutschman, who also coached the Linfield baseball team from '71 to '83, is the only person to have coached national title squads in baseball and football. Last August he was enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame.
"Ad Rutschman is still the best teacher I've ever been around," says Oregon State coach Mike Riley, who played for Bear Bryant at Alabama before serving as a Linfield assistant from '77 to '82. "He could have coached at any level. But he liked his life at Linfield and believed in what he was doing. He didn't think being at a bigger school with a bigger stadium would make it any more important."
Rutschman, 67, still attends most Linfield games, watching from the coaches' box or standing along the field, where he greets an unending line of well-wishers. The old coach says Linfield's streak would not have been possible without so many dedicated players. "I don't know if we've always had the best athletes," he says. "But we might have had kids with the biggest hearts, the most desire and the most commitment."
When Rutschman retired, he turned over the reins to Langsdorf, who won 32 games in four years, from '92 to '95, before stepping down for personal reasons. Today Langsdorf serves as receivers coach under Locey, who began his Linfield career as Rutschman's defensive coordinator in '83.
No Linfield player has starred in the NFL, but a number of former players have become high school coaches, and Linfield's success is due partly to them. They have helped the Wildcats develop talent pipelines from as far away as Connecticut and Hawaii, and this year's roster lists 16 players from California. "Our former players have been our best recruiters," Linfield athletic director Scott Carnahan says.
About 130 kids try out annually for the team. "We never have to worry about numbers," Locey says. "Kids want to be part of a winning program."