All in all, it was a pretty good football weekend. ‘It’ would be the Stagg Bowl, the Division III championship held last Saturday in Salem . With time on its hands until we head for Atlanta in a couple of weeks, the Clubhouse Tailgate decided that this was indeed football and we would give it a shot. D-III football did not disappoint.
Unlike many previous Stagg bowls that were played in Artic conditions, Mother Nature had heard we were coming and provided a glorious weekend. The drive up 220 Friday afternoon had been spent cruising with the car window down and my left elbow extended, a motoring attitude not often assumed in the middle of December.
Saturday was just as pleasant, a sunny day that was remarkably balmy. It was a perfect day for tailgating, so we did. We were joined by a few thousand of what became friends. It might have been D-III, but we quickly discovered that fans of game participants Mount Union and Wisconsin-Whitewater could tailgate with the best of them. My opinion was reinforced that no matter the school, or NCAA classification, fans are fans. Those that actually go to the game are of a very high quality. Just as thousands of Hokies, they were out supporting their team, an action I admire greatly.
Fans of both the Warhawks and Purple Raiders seemed to find agreeable the guys at the silver Airstream who were offering them both adult and softer beverages and the opportunity to partake of the dead animals that kept coming off the grill. They fit right in.
Conversations with a few of the Whitewater fans informed me that many had traveled by bus from Wisconsin , a 17-hour ride that deposited them in the parking lot three hours before kickoff. An hour after the game ended, they were to again board for the 17-hour ride home. They certainly demonstrated Nordic toughness in enduring such conditions. A round-trip bus journey between Danville and Syracuse in 1988 had left me vowing never to do that again and I haven’t. These fans were obviously made of sterner stuff.
The Whitewater fans were from Wisconsin , a geographical condition that seemed to make most of them also fans of both the school in the Wisconsin university system that plays in a higher division and the local professional team. While talking football with them, I heard more than once a dissatisfaction with BCS rules that allow only two teams from a conference to participate and the opinion that it was past time for Bret Favre to retire.
It was also surprising to observe a great many Hokies, dressed in gang colors, tailgating in the parking lot and inside Salem Stadium watching the game. There were a bunch of us. It was, after all, football. Play a college game in the neighborhood and Tech fans will show up. There was not a corresponding number of Hoos around, but it was a CHAMPIONSHIP game, not something with which they have great familiarity.
After a terrific tailgate afternoon, we made our way into Salem Stadium for the game. Inside, I was pleasantly surprised. Tickets had been purchased through Salem and the luck of the ticket draw found us sitting on the Whitewater side and me beside a U- Dub- Dub student.
He was stripped for rooting action, shirtless with judicious amounts of purple paint applied. He was also completely sober and unfailingly punctuated his comments to me with “Yes sir” and “No sir.” I don’t often observe this kind of sobriety or politeness among Tech students. Even after I decided that he was a bit uncomfortable letting loose beside a middle-aged guy wearing a maroon sweatshirt emblazoned with ‘Virginia Tech’ and moved a few seats away, I noticed that his cheering contained not the first utterance of profanity. These Whitewater kids were there merely to provide support for their team in a very positive manner. Imagine that.
He perked up quite a bit when, before leaving his pleasant and respectful company, I informed him that the volume of cheering really needed to pick up. While I have attended games in Wallace Wade, Kenan and the Smithsonian, I am generally used to a more raucous stadium environment than was on display. After I left, he did his best.
I then sat behind two Whitewater fans of my own approximate generation. I perhaps did not endear myself to them. Since we were seated on the Whitewater side of the field, it seemed logical to assume a Warhawks rooting interest. It became obvious by halftime that, like the Marquis of Salisbury, we had put our money on the wrong horse.
While the quality of play was not nearly at the level I usually observe during the season, neither did the coaching appear to be. There looked to be good reasons all were in D-III. The Whitewater coach quite surprised me when, after a solid running game had beget a drive that had carried them to mid-field, he totally abandoned it in favor of long passes that carried them no further.
I am used to observing the Frank Beamer philosophy of ‘Run until they stop you.’ After the first incompletion, I opined aloud ‘that was a stupid call,’ remarks which were heard by one of the Whitewater fans, who hastened to inform me that his coach did indeed know what he was doing. After the third incompletion demonstrated why Frank has adopted the philosophy of ‘Run until they stop you,’ Mount Union blocked the ensuing punt and returned it for the touchdown that effectively put the game away. At least one coach on the field paid more than passing interest to Beamerball.
Another faux paux was made when I noticed that a certain Whitewater offensive lineman was having a terrible day. As the Warhaks’ situation deteriorated to the point that the successful running game had to be abandoned totally, it was hard not to perceive that this poor kid on the o-line was getting beat play after play and giving up sack after sack. Before expressing it aloud, I really should have noticed that the guy in front of me was wearing the same number jersey as the hapless Whitewater lineman. It was his father, who did not seem to appreciate my candor.
He didn’t get it when I pondered, at the rate this kid was giving up sacks, why he had not been recruited by algroh. Dad left at the end of the Third Quarter, indicating that he would certainly have been right at home in Hooville.
Of course, Mount Union won. That had much to do with them being the better team, which is why they almost always win the Stagg Bowl. They have a dynasty at their level of which same-state Ohio State can only dream.
As stated above, the quality of play in this game was nowhere near that of Division I-A, or the Bowl Division, as it is now known via NCAA edict. Talent limitations are why these guys are playing on the D-III level. These were guys whose seniors were thinking not in terms of their draft standing or which agent they would soon employ, but about interviewing for real-world jobs. They were playing the game not for the carrot of NFL riches, but strictly because they enjoyed it. Since D-III is non-scholarship, they were also paying their own way for the right to play the game they loved.
Nevertheless, they competed just as hard on the field as will the Buckeyes or Gators. Their intensity level did not suffer a whit because they were D-III. Neither Ohio State nor Florida players will likely display more emotion nor joy at winning as did the Purple Raiders. I also doubt that the losing team will join the winning one on the field for the trophy presentations at the BCS Championship game, as did the Warhawks following their tough loss.
These were players playing their hearts out strictly for the love of the game for coaches that make considerably less than what Frank Beamer knocks down, doing it in front of approving and considerate fans. The Whitewater fans at the end of the game giving a standing ovation in appreciation of their heroes’ effort and great season [13-1 ain’t too bad] is not something I see too often. Perhaps there are some things about D-III football that can be taught those of us who hang around the game’s so-called ‘highest level.’
It was a very enjoyable football experience ‘slumming’ at the D-III Stagg Bowl. No, it wasn’t Tech football, or Lane Stadium or the Georgia Dome. It was, however, a lot of fun. So much, in fact, that immediately after the game the Clubhouse Tailgate decreed a man-law that it will become a permanent addition to the football and tailgate calendar. The Stagg Bowl hasn’t seen the last of us.