The first time I heard of Mount Union was in December 1993. That year the St. John’s football team set an NCAA record with an average of 61 points per game. The Johnnies won their first 12 games and their lowest point total of the season was 32 in the opening playoff game. In the semifinals they traveled to Ohio, to face some school called Mount Union, a team that would surely be the 13th victim of the season and the only question was how many points the Johnnies would put on the scoreboard. Thirty? Forty-five? Sixty?
The game was actually televised in Minnesota, probably on the old Midwest Sports Channel. Since I wasn’t attending SJU at the time, it was my first time to see this legendary Johnnies offense in action. The winning team did score an absurd number of points — 56. But it was Mount Union winning 56-8 in a game that actually wasn’t that close — it was 43-0 at half and St. John’s didn’t have a first down in the first two quarters. Mount Union’s QB Jim Ballard threw eight touchdowns. A week later Mount Union won its first national title.
This Friday, the Purple Raiders play for their 11th Division III title.
On Saturday, Mount Union rallied from a 14-point deficit and defeated Mary Hardin-Baylor 48-35. The Raiders will face St. Thomas in the Stagg Bowl on Friday night. The Tommies — the hated Tommies — have dominated the MIAC the past three seasons and have rolled through the playoffs. There’s some thought that perhaps Mount Union might take the Tommies lightly and perhaps St. Thomas can pull off the upset.
Maybe the Tommies will win. Johnnies everywhere would weep red tears, terrified by this new world where a new purple power has taken over, but maybe the Tommies can do it. But if they do it will be because they’re simply the better team. It won’t be because Mount Union overlooks them or takes them lightly. Because if the Raiders have proven anything the past two decades, it’s that they don’t overlook anyone and they usually demolish everyone.
D3 football fans know all about Mount Union’s dominance and are familiar with some of the numbers the program’s put up during their unmatched run. But not everyone’s aware of just how ridiculous Mount Union has been since Larry Kehres took over as head coach in 1986.
So to summarize:
Kehres now owns a career record of 331-24-3. And of those 24 defeats, seven came in 1987 and ’88. When I wrote about John Gagliardi’s retirement a few weeks ago, I mentioned that the only coach you could really see breaking Gagliardi’s record of 489 career victories is the 63-year-old Kehres. If he sticks around Alliance it seems certain he’d eventually break it; the only question is if he wants to coach that long.
Since 1990 Mount Union has lost two games in a season once — in 1994. The Raiders have lost one regular season game since 1995. That came in 2005, but the season still ended with a Mount Union title, the same way the season ended in 1996-98, 2000-02, and 2006 and ’08. The Purple Raiders have the two longest winning streaks in college football history, 54 and 55 games, streaks that were separated by just one defeat, meaning the Purple Raiders went 109-1 over that span.
And it’s not just that they win, it’s how they win. The offense for two decades routinely puts up 40, 50, 60 points while the defense throws out five or six shutouts a season. In all the games the Raiders have played since 1990, only once were they held under 10 points.
ST. JOHN’S ALERT!
That game came in the 2003 Stagg Bowl, when the Johnnies defeated Mount Union 24-6. In fact, since 1990 Mount’s been held to 10 points only twice — once last year in the title game against Wisconsin-Whitewater and another time against the Johnnies in 2000. (Statistical oddity: In those 2000 and 2003 Stagg Bowls, the Johnnies each time held the Raiders to 60 fewer points than they scored in the semifinals. Now you understand why the Johnnies’ defensive struggles the past two seasons have been especially bewildering. This was a defense that shut down mighty Mount.)
For years people sick of watching Mount Union win the Stagg Bowl wondered why the school didn’t move up to Division II, ignoring the fact that move would require all the school’s teams to move up a level and not all of the school’s teams dominate like the football team. Can’t beat ’em? Make ’em leave. That’ll show them.
Then, starting in 2005, something remarkable happened: Another school became as dominant as Mount Union. Wisconsin-Whitewater emerged out of the always-tough WIAC as a Mount clone, right down to the same school colors. The two teams faced off in the Stagg Bowl every year from 2005-2011. Mount Union won three of the first four meetings between the teams, but Whitewater won the national title the past three seasons. Instead of having one team that should have been forced to move up a division, now we had two! Or so some probably argued.
Whitewater fell back this year, finishing the season 7-3. They could very well be back next year. But Whitewater’s relative struggles in 2012 simply enhance Mount Union’s two-decade run even more. The Purple Raiders never go back to the pack. They never have a down season. They never struggle after losing a dominant senior class. They never lose two games in a season.
There’s never been anything like them.
People call Mount Union The Machine. There’s no doubting the accuracy of the moniker, as the Purple Raiders win year after year in the same fashion, even as the names change. Each part seems replaceable, one All-American replaced with another, the assembly line churning along. Five Mount Union players have won the Gagliardi Trophy, given to the best player in Division III, and two that didn’t win that award are often seen on your television on Sunday afternoons running into the end zone — Jacksonville wide receiver Cecil Shorts and Washington’s Pierre Garcon. But the Machine nickname might occasionally do a disservice to the program, players and coaches, making their success seem inevitable, as simple as tuning up a car and sending it out on the road.
Think about the pressure a Mount Union player faces, where anything but a national title is considered a failure. Terry Pluto wrote a column about this year’s quarterback, Kevin Burke, and quoted Kehres as saying, “The truth is when you are the quarterback here, you’re not supposed to lose a game. It’s just how it is.”
Not supposed to lose a game. Yet the players live up to those crushing expectations, although I suppose they actually didn’t the past three seasons. While blowouts are the norm for Mount, they have won plenty of close games since the national title run began. The players do respond in the clutch; instead of being frightened by the program’s past and everything that’s come before, they rely on it in tight situations, believing they’ll win because, well, Mount Union always wins.
Now Mount Union is one victory away from an 11th national title. There’s a chance they lose Friday. The Tommies are a great team. Regardless of what happens the Raiders will be back next year. And in five years they’ll be there again. Their consistency is surpassed only by their greatness
I hope they beat the Tommies, although I know that makes me a traitor to the MIAC, the state of Minnesota and Catholics.
In return for that support? Maybe Kehres can retire before he breaks Gagliardi’s record. Maybe the Machine can finally show some mercy.