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Out of earshot of Dick Vitale, off the radar of the $11.95-a-month recruiting websites and beyond the range of the hypemongers at College GameDay, the small schools of NCAA Divisions II and III inhabit a parallel athletic universe. To the average fan college sports invariably mean Division I-A, with its huge brand-name universities that serve as farm clubs for the pros and its student-athletes who focus almost exclusively on the far side of the hyphen. Small-school sports are a completely different animal, and not just because the mascots are banana slugs or gorillas. In D-II and D-III the athletes often pay their own way and play for little more than love of the game--a quaint concept in an era in which March Madness TV rights run into the billions of dollars. � Small-school athletes are often dismissed as short, slow, untalented kids toiling in front of empty bleachers. But the NCAA's nether regions have produced numerous players who have had monster pro careers, including gridiron stars Walter Payton ( Jackson State), John Stallworth ( Alabama A&M) and Larry Allen (Sonoma State), and roundball heroes Earl Monroe ( Winston-Salem), Terry Porter (Wisconsin- Stevens Point) and Ben Wallace (Virginia Union). But such success stories are almost incidental to small-school sports, which are not an audition for the mythical next level so much as a celebration of the simple opportunity to compete.
There are remarkable athletes among the 212,561 kids, spread across 701 universities, who competed in D-II and D-III during the 2004-05 school year. Division I comprises 326 schools, though only 119 field football teams at the I-A level, which dominates the airwaves on Saturdays. During the last school year those 119 universities spent an estimated $4 billion on athletics, a significant chunk of which went to pay for head coaches, whose salaries routinely run into seven figures. At small schools, on the other hand, many coaches have second careers to help pay the bills.
The stories of these athletes and coaches say much about small-school sports, but away from the bright lights of Division I there is so little glory to go around that the team is ultimately all that matters. Nowhere is this truer than in a sleepy patch of the heartland where the traditions of Division II football bind together not only the players but also the community around them.
Pittsburg, Kansas, is a company town. It was a thriving coal center at the dawn of the 20th century, but now its largest employer is the local university, and on Saturdays in the fall Pittsburg State throws a heckuva company picnic. In a town of barely 19,000 people, the Gorillas' home football games regularly attract 8,000 or more fans, many of them showing up hours ahead of kickoff for a tailgating extravaganza that includes live bands and organized activities for kids. What of the 11,000 or so Pittsburg residents who don't go to the stadium on game day? "They listen to us on the radio," says Andy Majors, Pitt State's senior quarterback.
Pittsburg's love affair with its football team goes back half a century. The Gorillas won national championships in the NAIA--a lesser athletic association of some 280 U.S. and Canadian universities--in 1957 and '61 under legendary coach Carnie Smith, and over the last 20 years no other program at any level of college football has enjoyed more success. Pitt State alumnus Dennis Franchione, now the coach at Texas A&M, ran the Gorillas from 1985 to '89 and went 53-6, twice being named national coach of the year. In 1990, a year after the Gorillas moved up from the NAIA to the NCAA's Division II, another Pitt State grad, Chuck Broyles, took over the program. In 16 seasons Broyles has gone 162-33-2 (a winning percentage of .832), taking the D-II national championship in '91 and reaching the title game three other times. This fall Pitt State became the first Division II team to reach 600 victories. Last Saturday the Gorillas finished the regular season with a crushing 83-21 loss to Central Missouri State in Warrensburg, Mo., lowering their 2005 record to 8-3 but still reaching the playoffs for the 14th time under Broyles.
"God couldn't have designed a more perfect place than Pittsburg for Division II football," says Broyles. "A good wage here is $10 an hour. It's a simple life, a good home for the common man, and these people are just ate up with the Gorillas."
That pride of place was evident during Pitt State's homecoming weekend, in early October. On Friday morning Gorillas past and present converged at a greasy spoon on Broadway, the town's main artery. At Bob's Grill the walls are covered with Pitt State memorabilia, and a thick slice of nostalgia is served with every meal. Bleary-eyed undergrads stumbled in looking for a cure for their hangovers--the previous night's Yell Like Hell pep rally had filled half the football stadium despite frigid weather--and old-timers were bellied up to the counter, flirting with the waitress and flashing their championship rings.
On Friday night a gathering of former cheerleaders attracted a crowd of 100 for cocktails and dinner in a ballroom on campus. The air was heavy with perfume, and all the women wore Gorillas red and yellow. The peppiest person in the room was Jack Overman, 87, a "yell leader" in '36. Ruminating on the importance of the team, Overman said, "Of course, you have God and your family, but Gorilla football is right up there. It keeps me going. I look around at all these pretty cheerleaders, and it makes me feel young again."
The next morning Overman was one of the hundreds who turned out for a parade that ran down Broadway. The homecoming court rode in classic mid-century convertibles, and the king was none other than the apple-cheeked Majors. The star quarterback as homecoming king? "It's like a movie," said Majors. That would be American Graffiti, not American Pie.
Despite the grief his teammates gave him, Majors was honored to be in the parade. By the time he arrived at the stadium--around 10 a.m. for a 2 p.m. start--the pregame parties were raging. Students had gathered on one side of the parking lot, where beer was flowing and music was blaring from the cabs of various pickups. The other side of the lot was more sedate, crowded as it was with corporate tents and clusters of alumni. Nearby was GorillaFest, a tidy picnic area run by the university, where boys flicked Nerf footballs to their glowing dads, and ponytailed pixies in tiny Gorillas cheerleading outfits stood perfectly still while their faces were painted red and yellow.