As it has eight of the previous nine years, the Div. III National Championship Game will play host to Mount Union vs. UW-Whitewater.
There’s often very little suspense in the road to the Stagg Bowl. Mount Union is the arguably the single greatest dynasty in all of sports, boasting 11 national championships since 1993 and in 1999, breaking the four-decade-old record for consecutive wins set by the Bud Wilkinson-coached Oklahoma Sooners of the mid-1950s.
Mount Union’s record of 54 straight victories would have stood in college football lore for decades, had the Purple Raiders not broken it over a 55-game stretch between 2000 and 2003.
But Mount Union’s supremacy was challenged in 2005 in the first of what Friday will be nine Stagg Bowl appearances. That season’s matchup marked the arrival of UW-Whitewater on the scene, igniting college football’s answer to Batman vs. Joker; Rock vs. Austin.
As Bill Bender details in his outstanding Sporting News feature on Mount Union vs. UW-Whitewater, figures from both programs are hesitant to apply the “rivalry” label. But Bender astutely draws parallels to past rivalries that built almost exclusively on championship encounters, including the NBA’s Lakers-Celtics feud.
The Lakers-Celtics comparison is intriguing, given the nature of Friday’s Stagg Bowl.
The two NBA rivals dominated the landscape throughout the 1960s and produced plenty of classics. The 1962 and 1969 Finals remain arguably the greatest playoff series in basketball history.
The rivalry stalled somewhat in the 1970s, but returned with avengance in the 1980s. That’s when Larry Bird and Magic picked up the mantle that K.C. Jones and Elgin Baylor; Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain; John Havlicek and Jerry West carried before them.
But players and coaches retire, teams’ dynamic changes and new contenders emerge. It’s the Sports Cycle of Life. To wit, the Lakers and Celtics went two decades from the last Bird vs. Magic meeting (1988) to their next Finals affair.
Now, Div. III football is certainly a different animal than the NBA. Div. III football is worlds apart even from the various sub-sects within Div. I, and both Mount Union and UW-Whitewater have tapped into resources other programs at this level can’t even imagine.
Mount Union has attracted NFL talent, including Cecil Shorts III and Pierre Garcon.
UW-Whitewater’s blueprint for success resembles that of in-state counterpart Wisconsin. The Warhawks share the Badgers’ philosophy of recruiting big, physical players who impose their will on both sides of the ball.
Size-wise, Linfield looks like a normal #d3fb team. UW-Whitewater looks gigantic. They make me feel small and I'm 6-3, 230.
— Keith McMillan (@D3Keith) December 13, 2014
On the sidelines from Mount Union Friday is Vince Kehres, the heir to the D-3 dynasty his father, Larry Kehres, built over three decades.
Vince coached Mount Union to its 17th Stagg Bowl in his first year at the helm, but learned just how hard it is to claim a national championship right out of the gate — even if you’re the head coach of a powerhouse.
Last year, the Purple Raiders were routed 52-14, far-and-away the most lopsided loss the program sustained in any of its Stagg Bowl defeats.
Winning a title in Year 1 may be difficult, but certainly not impossible; UW-Whitewater’s Lance Leipold did it in 2007 when he thwarted Mount Union for the first time, getting over the hurdle predecessor and Warhawks architect
Friday’s contest is Leipold’s last Mount Union vs. UW-Whitewater tilt. Win or lose, he’s bound for Div. I and the Football Bowl Subdivision, taking over at the University of Buffalo.
Leipold’s successor won’t be able to build upon past success the way Leipold did following Bob Rezowitz — not without going on a run of eight championships a la the Boston Celtics from 1959 through 1966.
The more pressing question is whether the next UW-Whitewater coach can sustain what the program’s achieved under Leipold.
In Bender’s SN feature, Kehres says: “[I]t really is hard to get to this point and still be playing. There are a lot of great Division III football teams.”
As easy as it’s been to pencil Mount Union vs. UW-Whitewater in for the Stagg Bowl each year, reaching this point does require each to run the gauntlet of a national tournament.
And this year, UW-Whitewater was taken to the brink twice.
The Warhawks needed a 21-point, fourth-quarter rally to beat previously undefeated Wartburg in the quarterfinals.
Last Saturday against Linfield — one of those Div. III powers pawing at the velvet rope to get into the exclusive club with Mount Union and UWW — the Warhawks once again won in the final frame.
Perhaps these near-misses are simply the unavoidable reality of having to deflect the opponents’ proverbial kitchen sink week-in and week-out. But with Leipold leaving, the gap at the top of Div. III may be closing.
And that’s what makes this year’s annual Mount Union vs. UW-Whitewater tussle especially intriguing. Like the 1969 NBA Finals, this could be the end of the era.
Hopefully, just like the 1969 Finals, tonight’s matchup delivers a classic.