All their work nearly went for naught. In the second game of the season, against East Texas State, Hutchins broke his collarbone, and Pitt State saw its 56-game regular-season winning streak snapped by a 20-13 defeat. "We underestimated how hard it would be to lose," said Broyles. "A lot of guys took it badly. We had to become counselors instead of coaches."
Adversity helped in the end. In the previous two years, the Gorillas had breezed through the regular season, only to come up short in the playoffs both times. This season they got the disappointment out of the way early. After a 6-6 tie with Missouri-Rolla, Pittsburg State, with freshman Jeff Moreland filling in at quarterback for nine games, won 10 straight, including a 38-28 rematch with East Texas in the quarterfinals of the playoffs. Then in the semis the week before the championship game, the Gorillas knocked off No. 1-ranked Indiana of Pennsylvania 27-20.
Jacksonville State had also tasted playoff frustration. In 1977 and '89, the Gamecocks reached the title game but failed to score in either one. This year Jacksonville got on the board, on a three-yard touchdown run by fullback Terence Bowens in the second quarter, but then Hutchins, West and that simian line went to work. "I've coached for 23 years and never had a team come together this closely," said Broyles after the win. "They took it to the highest level today."
In the locker room, West was asked about that big box of letters waiting for him in Kansas. Would he open them now, with the Hill award and the national championship safe in hand? He smiled but shook his head. "Not yet, not until Monday night," said West. "I've got a chemistry final on Monday afternoon."
One step at a time.