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When Pell took over in 1969, Jacksonville was fourth in a four-team league. "The first thing I did was look up the band director and ask for his support," says Pell, who favors the total performance approach to winning. That first team was 3-6, the second 10-0, and as for this year Pell says, "My ambition is not to beat Alabama, but to have the best small-college team in America." Rest easy, Alabama.
It is simpler to measure the consumption of beer during a postgame bacchanalia at Chub's Pub in Fargo, N. Dak. than to count the various streaks, skeins, runs and strings associated with the local college football team. The consecutive successes of North Dakota State now include 36 regular-season games without a loss, 33 at home, 24 in the conference, seven North Central Intercollegiate championships, six berths in the Top Ten and four bowl appearances. Coach Ron Erhardt's five-year record is 46-3-1 and he has won two national titles.
The top-poppers at Chub's Pub barely care that half of the 1970 team that finished 9-0-1 is gone. Erhardt replaced 10 offensive starters last year and still went unbeaten at a time when he could have been coaching Wisconsin of the Big Ten.
Erhardt is a consummate winner who has been associated with nine unbeaten teams in 14 years of coaching. This staggering success is due in part to a pragmatic approach that allows him to adjust and make do, plus a hunch player's knack for correctly anticipating the opposition. As one former player puts it, "Sometimes it appears he's coaching the other team."
North Dakota State's prospects are buoyed by the return of Quarterback Mike Bentson, a home-town boy who set the school total offense record last season with 1,728 yards—1,248 passing and 480 rushing. Wayne Stevenson rejoins him at fullback and top receiver Pete Lana will again line up wide. Sophomore Bruce Reimer replaces leading ground gainer Dennis Preposki but Guard Lyle Anderson returns to lead the blocking charge in those relentless Veer option sweeps.
Defensive losses include the entire line-backing unit and the right side of the four-man front. The defensive secondary, with three of four players returning, appears set. But even if it wasn't, it probably wouldn't matter a bit.
Somewhere under that cloud of El Producto smoke, hidden behind dark glasses and with a natty derby balanced atop his head, is burly, flamboyant John Merritt, coach of Tennessee State. The Tigers won their third mythical black championship last year under Merritt, who came to Nashville in 1963. State's record was 11-0 and the strengths of that team return, Quarterback Joe (Jefferson Street) Gilliam and a pair of imposing offensive and defensive lines. "They won't face any tougher opposition this season than they faced out there today," said Merritt at the close of spring practice.
The worth of that line talent is reflected in Larry Woods, a second-string tackle behind returnee Ed Jones. Woods was a fourth-round draft choice of the Detroit Lions. "We either don't know our talent or we have lots of depth," says Merritt slyly.