Mount Union quarterback Gary Smeck owns two national championship rings. He has engineered thrilling, come-from-behind touchdown drives. And he can wield a jug of bleach like nobody's business.
Such are the talents required of a top player at this tiny Division III college, where the fans bake pies for the team, the players are serious students and the quarterbacks usually are in charge of the team's laundry. Based in a former steel town in northeast Ohio, the Mount Union Purple Raiders are exactly the kind of wholesome and earnest team you'd expect to find in small-college athletics. It's what they're about to achieve that you'd never anticipate.
If Mount Union can defeat Otterbein College here Saturday, the Purple Raiders will eclipse Oklahoma's NCAA all-division record of 47 consecutive victories set by Bud Wilkinson's Sooner teams from 1953 to '57. For more than three years of Saturdays, the young men of Mount Union always have managed to throw the last-minute touchdown, make the defensive stop on an opponent's fourth and one, block the punt.
"I think it's a little different from Oklahoma because we are a small school, but you have to remember we are playing football because we love to play," center Tom Bauer said. "We're not getting paid for it--we're lucky to get a free pair of socks and a T-shirt. What we get out of it is only what we put into it, so we're putting in a lot."
How much Mount Union's streak really means is up for debate, both on the campus and around the country. Oklahoma set its mark against much tougher competition, but the Sooners' talent level was much higher as well. On the other hand, Mount Union has had to face something Oklahoma never did--Division III's 16-team, single-elimination championship playoffs. To keep its streak alive, Mount Union has had to not only go undefeated during the regular season, but also beat four of the best Division III teams in the country in the postseason.
Since beginning The Streak, as it is called here, the Purple Raiders have won three national championships; they also won the title in 1993. In the '90s, Mount Union is an almost unfathomable 113-6-1, giving the school college football's best winning percentage this decade. Coach Larry Kehres, 49, has won more national titles than Steve Spurrier and Bobby Bowden combined, and his 143-16-3 record as a head coach puts him atop the NCAA all-time winning percentage list, just ahead of Notre Dame's legendary Knute Rockne, whose record was 105-12-5.
Impressive numbers. At least to everyone but Kehres. Asked earlier this week how important The Streak is to his team, Kehres just shrugged, pointing out, "It doesn't mean anything if we don't win our conference," thereby securing another playoff berth.
"I don't think we've ever feared losing because of The Streak, I think we feared losing because it could have hurt our chances in the conference," Kehres said. Asked if his team did anything to celebrate when it set the Division III consecutive-victories record last season, he shrugged again. "At the time I don't think we realized what the Division III winning streak was. I think someone told us after the game."
Kehres's humble attitude and hard work have been key ingredients in Mount Union's success. A former Purple Raider himself--Class of '71--Kehres has been coaching here for 25 years, the past 14 as the head coach. During that time, he has become an expert recruiter and a sharp play-caller, forcing changes in the staid run-first, ask-questions-later Ohio Athletic Conference.
"Larry Kehres has taken a program that was already pretty good and moved it to another level, and he's done it with a passing philosophy," Otterbein Coach Wally Hood said. "We've taken on some of the same things here since. We've had to. We used to always go with the run, but I believe that nowadays Woody Hayes wouldn't win a game here. Three yards and a cloud of dust doesn't work anymore."
It also doesn't hurt that between its varsity and junior varsity, Mount Union's program is about 200 players strong. Because Mount Union's success has allowed Kehres to recruit more, and better players each year, competition within the team is sometimes stronger than anything players face from an opposing team. And since Mount Union has about 2,000 students, the football team comprises about 20 percent of the school's male population, giving it plenty of support on campus and within the administration. The school's president, Harold Kolenbrander, not only is a fund-raising whiz, but also a Purple Raiders supporter--when the team scores, he gets down in the end zone to lead the cheerleaders in a set of traditional push-ups.
That kind of whole-hearted involvement usually only comes at a small, private school, although it also comes with a hefty price tag: tuition of about $18,000 a year. Since Division III schools cannot offer athletic scholarships, many students are on work-study programs, some through the athletic department. That's how Smeck ended up doing the team's laundry, along with wide receiver and roommate Adam Marino. They wash uniforms after practices and games, jobs that Kehres has typically guided his top players into to keep their egos in check.
Kehres said the tradition started in the early '90s with quarterback Jim Ballard, who "needed to do something like that to be reminded how valuable his offensive lineman's pants are."
With Smeck, Kehres might not have needed to be so strict. Despite grabbing the starting job last season as a sophomore, the 6-foot-2 native of Lancaster, Ohio, is aware that while he and his teammates are good, they are not playing in college football's big leagues. In Ohio, football tradition is almost everything--"It's block and tackle here; throwing and catching were added later," Kehres noted--and tradition means the Ohio State Buckeyes.
Smeck grew up about a half-hour from Ohio State's giant stadium in Columbus, and he still calls the Buckeyes his "favorite team." He is realistic about his situation, which includes playing at Mount Union's 5,000-seat field.
"I think in the end I'm getting a lot more enjoyment out of this than if I had gone to Ohio State as a walk-on and not really gotten a chance to play," Smeck said. "But I would still love the chance to go out there, maybe play against Michigan at Ann Arbor and have 100,000 people boo you. That would be a tremendous feeling, to go out there and prove everyone wrong."
Instead, Smeck has had to settle for wowing the crowds of Alliance, a small town that suffered first with the decline of the steel industry and then when a major crane factory closed down. Football has become a unifying force here, with car dealerships putting out signs that say "Good Luck Mount" and fans asking Kehres about certain plays when he goes to the Dairy Mart.
Perhaps even more than the players, the people here have celebrated the victories that have created The Streak and felt sick during the close moments in which it has been threatened. There is still talk of the Stagg Bowl in 1996, when the Purple Raiders trailed Rowan at halftime, but came back and won the Division III championship, 56-24. Last year's first-round playoff game was even closer--Mount Union won, 21-19, when a last-minute field goal attempt by Albion sailed wide right.
In fact, all of last season was a breath-holder, as a team with 12 first-year starters fell behind in six games, but still finished 14-0. This season's games have been more lopsided, although Mount Union almost lost two weeks ago to John Carroll University. The Purple Raiders needed three overtimes to win, 57-51, leading some of the team's captains to worry that The Streak was creating an unhealthy amount of pressure.
"After the Carroll game, the defense had a meeting and I told everyone that we needed to forget about the win streak," linebacker Justin Sloan said. "When we came here as freshmen, it wasn't to get a win streak, it was because we love football. That's still what we should be playing for."
Kehres isn't superstitious, although he did note that the John Carroll game was the first in his career for which he forgot to bring the hat he always wears on the sideline. He doesn't intend to forget it Saturday, although he also may want to bring a bullhorn to make sure he is heard over the extra rush of people--many of them football alumni--who will be in Alliance to watch the Purple Raiders try to set the NCAA record.
Jason Hall, a linebacker who graduated last year, will be one of them. Now a teacher at a local high school, Hall is a part-time assistant coach at Mount Union, allowing him a close-up view as The Streak his teams started has grown toward record proportions.
"It's been exciting and frustrating at times, but now that I'm done playing, I can really sit back and say, 'Man, what a ride,' " Hall said. "A lot of people will say that Oklahoma was Division I and we're Division III, but no matter what division, what sport, winning 48 times in a row--well, I think that's something pretty special."
NCAA FOOTBALL'S LONGEST WINNING STREAKS
Team Streak Years
Oklahoma 47 1953-57
Mount Union 47 1996-99
Washington 39 1908-14
Augustana, Ill. 37 1983-85
Yale 37 1890-93
Yale 37 1887-89
Toledo 35 1969-71
Hillsdale 34 1954-57
Pennsylvania 34 1894-96
Wilkes 32 1965-69
Missouri Valley 31 1946-48
Morgan St. 31 1965-68
Oklahoma 31 1948-50
Pittsburgh 31 1914-18
Pennsylvania 31 1896-98
Bentley 30 1993-95
Texas 30 1968-70
Source: Associated Press