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Like life, the Division III college football playoffs aren't fair

Head Coach Kirk Talley, Vice President of Student Life and Athletics Matt Hill
Courtesy of University of Northwestern
University of Northwestern St. Paul Head Football Coach Kirk Talley and Vice President of Student Life and Athletics Matt Hill.

It’s a big week at the University of Northwestern St. Paul, a small Christian liberal arts school playing its first NCAA Division III football playoff game on Saturday. The Eagles won the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference, a league considered a notch below the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, where traditional area powers St. John’s, St. Thomas and Bethel reside.

Close to 250 colleges nationwide field football teams in Division III, almost as many as Division 1-A and 1-AA combined, according to NCAA.org. Division III bans athletic scholarships, making its participants true student-athletes pursuing excellence in all areas, starting with academics.

That’s the theory, anyway. Yet within Division III, colleges with less than 1,000 undergraduates compete on supposed equal footing with those with 15,000 or more. It’s a tough gig. And emphasis on athletics varies widely. That latter is most apparent in the first week of the NCAA playoffs, where ridiculously one-sided games abide.

Last season 12 of the 16 first-round victors won by at least three touchdowns. One game ended 49-0, two others 48-0, another 55-6, still another 51-7. Duluth’s St. Scholastica, winner of five consecutive U.M.A.C. titles before giving way to Northwestern this season, lost five times in the first round, and none were close – 48-2 to St. Thomas, 55-10 to Wisconsin-Oshkosh, 70-13 to Bethel, 35-7 to St. John’s, and 48-0 to Wisconsin-Oshkosh again.

Northwestern (9-1) drew powerhouse St. Thomas (10-0) in the first round on Saturday, and no one is pretending this will be competitive either. The Tommies rank No. 3 nationally, reached the NCAA championship game two of the last four seasons, dress more than 100 players at home, and manhandled St. Olaf 73-7 to close the regular season. 

Only a football problem? 

Eight years ago the NCAA studied whether to split up Division III for all sports, not just football. Member presidents and athletic directors voted overwhelmingly to leave it alone. Dr. Matt Hill, Northwestern’s vice president for student life and athletics, took part in those discussions and sees little reason to renew them.

“The biggest issue was, how do you break that up?” said Hill, a Northwestern alumnus in his 18th year heading Eagles athletics. “Do you do it by endowment? By enrollment? You can’t really do it by competitive advantage, because that ebbs and flows. You can have a school of 500 that wins a national championship, and a school of 13,000 that struggles. The administrators and presidents felt there wasn’t a clear-cut path to go that route, and it got voted down.”

Plus, outside of football, it’s not much of a problem. Last week, Northwestern’s volleyball team stunned defending national champion Cal Lutheran to win an NCAA Regional on campus and qualify for its first Elite Eight. In 2015 the men's basketball team eliminated St. Thomas in the first round of the NCAA tournament. And two months ago, in men's soccer, the Eagles took the eventual MIAC champion Tommies to double overtime before losing, 3-2. (In size, Northwestern counts about 1,700 undergraduates to 6,200 for St. Thomas, according to each university's web site.)

And Hill raised another significant point. In football, five or six premier programs dominate and wreck it for everybody else. Mount Union or Wisconsin-Whitewater has won every NCAA Division III championship since 2005. Only one other team – St. Thomas, in 2012 and ’15 — reached the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl championship game in that time. Some combination of those three, Mary Hardin-Baylor of Texas, Linfield (Ore.) and Wesley (Delaware) routinely fill the national semifinal berths. And it’s easy to see why.

Mary Hardin-Baylor plays in a $20 million stadium seating more than 7,600 designed by Populous, the same firm that drew up Target Field and TCF Bank Stadium. Its 26 x 40-foot video scoreboard was the largest in Division III until St. Thomas bought a slightly bigger one. Alumni donations funded construction, with former Houston Astros owner Drayton McLane and his wife Elizabeth writing the biggest check.

Perkins Stadium in Whitewater, Wis. seats 13,500, tops in Division III. Mount Union’s stadium is older and smaller but has undergone multiple renovations, and an expanded athletics and wellness complex opened in 2009. St. Thomas benefits from the $52 million Anderson Athletic and Recreation Complex built in 2010. It should be noted most Division III facilities serve all students and alumni, not just intercollegiate athletes.

All that helps attract and develop bigger, stronger athletes. The other schools play catch-up. In the last ten years almost every MIAC school has upgraded its facilities or undertaken fund raising to do so. That’s why the MIAC is one of the strongest D-III football conferences in the country, usually landing one of the seven at-large bids in the 32-team NCAA playoff field. The U.M.A.C. never does. And with St. John’s and St. Thomas planning to play at Target Field next season, the have-mores move even farther ahead.

St. Thomas Coach Glenn Caruso
University of St. Thomas/Mark Brown
Coach Glenn Caruso’s arrival at St. Thomas in 2008 revitalized an underperforming program.

“I know our league has made a big commitment to the student-athlete experience,” said Gustavus Coach Peter Haugen. “You see that in facilities and the quality of the experience.” Gustavus, which won its last MIAC title in 1987, renovated Hollingsworth Field in 2007 but has yet to break through the Johnnies/Tommies/Bethel/Concordia dominance at the top of the conference. 

Closing the gap

Northwestern Coach Kirk Talley likes to schedule MIAC teams for non-conference games to toughen up his squad. St. John’s routed the Eagles 52-7 in 2012, but Northwestern fared better lately against more level competition, beating St. Olaf in 2014 and Augsburg this season.

“There’s no doubt there is a gap,” Talley said. “I think we’re slowly closing that gap. But those schools have had football for a long time. 

“Since I’ve been here (this is Talley’s 16th season), we’ve beaten every MIAC school except for St. Thomas and St. John’s. We haven’t played Bethel or Concordia, but we’ve beaten everyone else. That’s kind of where we’re at.” 

Coach Glenn Caruso’s arrival at St. Thomas in 2008 revitalized an underperforming program. Under Caruso, the Tommies are known for trotting out an offensive line with near Division I size. St. Thomas lists 16 linemen on its roster 275 pounds or heavier; Northwestern has five. The physicality separates Northwestern and St. Scholastica from those at the top of the MIAC. 

Northwestern modernized its facilities in 2014. The $11.2 million complex features a lighted football/soccer stadium with modest locker rooms and training facilities, new baseball and softball fields, and new tennis courts. All the fields have artificial turf. Hill said donations brought in about $8.3 million, with the rest coming from athletes’ tuition. The university added men’s and women’s lacrosse while expanding rosters in other sports, making up the shortfall in two years. “If you had seen where we were…we kicked the cows off the field, then we striped it and played football on it,” Hill said. “I mean, it was an outdated field.”

The Eagles may well lose big Saturday at St. Thomas, but at least they’re not fearful. Last Sunday, the school organized a watch party for the Division III selection show. When Northwestern learned its opponent, Talley said everyone cheered. “They’re excited,” he said. “Might as well play the best and learn.”

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