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Jim Fall: Division II fooball championship gets Missouri riled up

Jim Fall

Here we are again: The town’s going crazy; consumed by a single focus. The campus is giddy, too; and not because of Finals Week.

It’s the second weekend of December and time for the annual pilgrimage to Florence, Ala., to support our beloved Bearcats as they contend for yet another NCAA Division II Football national championship.

’Back to ’Bama VI!

They’ve been there before, and — as even the most superficial review of the talent spread through this year’s roster would indicate — will almost undoubtedly be going again.

But if you stop for just a minute to contemplate what yet another trip South entails, the magnitude of the accomplishment begins to soak in to even those who are totally disinterested football fans. It becomes a sense of accomplishment, a mark of distinction, a point of pride — the clichés could go on and on — not only for the Bearcat football team coached by Mel Tjeerdsma and his staff, but for Northwest Missouri State University, for the Maryville community, for all of Northwest Missouri (and that even includes those folks down the road at that school in St. Jo).

Dr. Dean Hubbard, who served as Northwest’s president for 25 years, made a big deal out of the Culture of Quality, and rightfully so. It was applied to every aspect of the university’s programming. Academics, innovations, finances, expansions — and yes, athletics — were all a part of the grand scheme to ensure that our university was at the top in every category used to judge an institution of higher learning.

I am a sports nut, a football fan of the highest order, and I have always been seriously interested in the sport as it is presented locally, wherever that might be. I was a Castle Heights Tiger even before I was a Missouri Tiger. And then as my chosen profession directed, I followed, and wrote extensively about the Carbondale Community High Terriers, the West Memphis Blue Devils, the Albany Warriors, the El Dorado Wildcats, and finally, the Maryville Spoofhounds. The Capitol High Bruins came later, and I didn’t have the opportunity to write about them, or the Helena High Bengals, but I was a fan all the same.

My first college allegiances were to the Ole Miss Rebels, where my dad went to college, and the Arkansas Razorbacks, because everybody in Arkansas was a Razorback fan. But in 1955 I changed to being a Missouri Tiger, tried and true through the years since — even with a son who was a Memphis Tiger, one daughter who is a TCU Horned Frog, and heaven help me, another who is a ku jayhawk. I also keep serious track of the Carroll College Saints and the Montana Grizzlies. The Saints compiled an amazing run of four straight NAIA football titles from 2002 to 2005, and then came back for an encore in 2007 and finished second in 2008. (They lost Saturday to Lindenwood in the semis.) The Griz won FCS (Division 1-AA) titles in 1995 and 2001 and were runners-up last season. (They play Appalachian State in the semis Saturday after thumping Steven F. Austin 51-zip Saturday.)

The Bearcats, however, hold a special place in my football heart, I guess as much because I was so close to the program in 1994 when AD Jim Redd brought a guy with a really funny name up from Texas to try to turn some unfortunate fortunes around. I’ll never forget the Bearcats going 0-11 that first season (I thought opposing defenses would kill QB Greg Teale, and I’m pretty sure he did too); nor will I ever forget making the trip from Helena to Florence to see that first national championship victory in 1998. Those were probably the most miserable weather/game conditions I had ever sat through, at least until two years ago when we took out Grand Valley in the semis here at Bearcat Stadium.

A return trip in 1999 produced a history-making quadruple overtime victory for a second consecutive title and the ’Back to ’Bama legend, with its “Sweet Home Alabama” theme song, was born.

For one reason or another, I have not been able to attend any of the past four title games (a point I remind Mel about every so often — two trips, two titles; four absences, nada), and I’m sorry to say I’ll have to watch on TV again this year.

But I just have “that feeling” this time around. We get Grand Valley State again, but now we know we can handle them, just like Abilene Christian and Pitt State and UNO, and everyone else. It remains to be seen whether Michiganders can contend with the firepower these Bearcats unleash, on both sides of the football.

Whatever the outcome, the Cats will make another mark in the D-II books as a result of representing themselves, their university, Maryville, the MIAA, Missouri as a whole, in the finest way possible. Count on that.

Give ’em hell, Bearcats!

Jim Fall is a columnist and former publisher of the Maryville Daily Forum in Maryville, Mo.