Inexperienced and unsure, they move into pre-season training, knowing full well Concordia's 1978 college football season depends on them.
This is the Cobber defense - what's left of it after graduation. Only three regulars return off last year's highly successful 7-2 squad, a team built around defense and All-American tackle Barry Bennett, now with the New Orleans Saints in the National Football League.
Veteran Coach Jim Christopherson knows defense wins Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championships. In his 10 years as Cobber head coach, Christopherson's teams have won three titIes-in 1969, 1970and1974 - and each time had a salty defense.
Offensively, Concordia is in fine shape with 10 starters in camp.
Christopherson's main concern Monday morning as he sent the Cobbers through a spirited practice on Concordia Press Day was the defense. The Forum (Fargo-Moorhead) Aug. 22,1978
The concern he felt on that warm Monday morning in August was forgotten on a cold afternoon in December when Concordia won the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) Division II title by beating Findlay (Ohio) College 7-0. But it was a long road and it had its bad moments along with its good.
Some potential starting players were out before the season began because of previous injuries or because they were undergoing treatment for injuries. And All-American Barry Bennett had graduated.
But the Cobbers opened the season with a 10-0 win over Moorhead State University and followed that with a 55-0 victory over Augsburg. Newspapers were using headlines like "Concordia defense is star of films again" and "Cobbers look solid, rout Augsburg 54-0."
But Christopherson was cautious. "If anyone had told me at the start of the season that our defense would have two shutouts to open the season, I would've told him he was crary," the coach told a reporter after the Augsburg game. "This is the first time in my 10 years as head coach that we've opened with back-to-back shut- outs." But Christopherson was not happy, saying the mere 114 yards given up to Augsburg's offense was too much and expressing concern over next week's opponent, St. Olaf.
It was a game - and a play - to remember. Anyone who was at that first home game of the season remembers it well. Late in the third quarter the Oles had a 13-10 lead, when the now-semifamous defense stopped their drive on the Concordia 20. A St. Olaf freshman came onto the field to hold the ball for a 37-yard field-goal attempt. Instead, the frosh scooped up the ball and took off around the end. He was stopped at the 2-yard line, but St. Olaf punched it over and went on to win 26-17. Christopherson was as optimistic after that loss as he was cautious after the first two wins. 'Our loss to St. Olaf doesn't eliminate us from the MIAC title picture," he told reporters. "We're 1-1 in the conference. The championship will be decided the last two weeks of the season with as many as four or five teams having a shot. No team will go through the conference unbeaten." His prediction came true.
The Cobbers put on quite a show the following week, giving the Parents' Day crowd a 62-7 win over hapless Macalester, that school's 37th consecutive loss and reminiscent of the 95-7 score of the previous year. Because Bethel joined the MIAC this year, the nine-team situation meant each team would have an open weekend. Concordia's followed the Macalester game, but gave time to prepare for the next contest: Hamline at Concordia's homecoming. With early jitters not unexpected in a homecommg game, Concordia took awhile to get started before dumping Hamline 31-13. The following weekend St. Thomas was the Cobbers' victim by a 14-0 score and newspapers began printing headlines about 'Defense puts Cobbers in title race."
But Coach Christopherson was singing his sad song again. Warning that Concordia's 5-1 record was misleading, he said the fast part of the schedule was the toughest. He had a point. The next two opponents, Gustavus Adoiphus and St. John's, were both in contention for the conference title, along with the Cobbers and St. Olaf.
Against Gustavus, the last home game of the season, Concordia showed strategy and performance that told Cobber fans this was not just another team. By now, with several Cobbers dominating conference statistics, other teams began to key on certain players. Senior tailback Bob Beliveau, a powerful ball carrier, seemed to lead most of the Gusties with him, so senior quarterback Mike Lien went to the air and chalked up 141 yards on 6 of 10 passes. And the Cobbers had a 31-7 victory. "I can't believe we beat them 31-7," Christopherson said after that game. "Thatās a good football team. It was a championship game for us. And now we have another at St. John's."
During that week, another headline summed it up: "It's all on the line Saturday for Concordia." The story below did nothing for Concordia fans:
It's all on the line Saturday - the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference football championship and a possible post-season playoff bid.
The participants, as usual, are Concordia and St. John's, the two dominant forces in this league the past 16 years. St. John's has to be given a slight edge...
Thus, the game at St. John's is pivotal to the Johnnies and Cobbers. And St. John's has to be given the nod because of the way it has manhandled the Cobbers the past two years. The Forum Oct. 30,1978
True to form, Christopherson ran counter to the prevailing winds. "St. John's has outscored us 80-0 the fast two times we've met," he said before the St. John's game. "Keep in mind that St. John's has been a magnificent football team the past three years. Our kids are looking for a bit of revenge, but the overriding factor is the importance of this game in the conference and in the (NAIA) poll. And keep in mind we're gaining momentum and coming on strong. I'm basically conservative," he said, "but it's about time I give these kids credit for being a very good football team."
A noisy crowd was in Collegeville, Minn., as the Cobbers did it again, pulling out their fourth shutout, 17-0. And the now-famous defense was superb, allowing St. John's into Cobber territory only twice all day. St. John's passing aftack, leading the league with an average of over 200 yards per game, managed but 56. Their offense, averaging 438 yards per game, could get only 189. A stunned St. John's coach said later he couldn't remember the last time his team had been shut out (it was in 1974).
"Our boys are playing inspired football right now," Christopherson noted as the team prepared for its last regular season game at Bethel in St. Paul. For Cobber fans the result was almost routine: a 31-3 victory, and more.
The "more" included sharing the conference title with St. Olaf, each with 7-1 records, and a likely opportunity for postseason play.
Entry into the heady atmosphere of playoffs was announced the day after the Bethel game by athletic director Dr. Armin Pipho. Concordia would host the firstround game against Northwestern College of Orange City, Iowa, a team ranked third in NAIA Division II in midseason when the Cobbers were 14th.
This was the third time in Christopherson's career at Concordia that he led a team into NAIA Division II playoffs. The 1969 Cobbers beat a team from Hillsdale, Mich., before losing the title game 32-7 to Texas A&I. In 1964 Concordia defeated Linfield College (the same) before tying Sam Houston State 7-7 to share the championship.
With the last home game two weeks earlier, snow had collected on the turf at Jake Christiansen Stadium and temperatures had dropped. The only good to come from the cold weather was that the playing surface froze and did not become a swamp. Snow was cleared from the field and the team prepared in temperature so cold that some practices were held indoors. Although the fans were excited, the coach's comments were not optimistic.
"The NAIA official here for the game told me his office figures Northwestern might be the best team in the playoffs. A sportswriter covering Northwestern called and told me this team is being compared very favorably with Northwestern's national championship team of 1973. This will be the biggest and the best team we've faced this year," he concluded. One newsman called Christopherson "Northwestern's biggest promoter."
At game time Nov.18, the wind chill factor was minus 20 but the Cobber determination factor must have been off the scale. Concordia won, 49-0.
"I guess my credibility might be suffering a liffle bit," Christopherson admitted with a smile to reporters after that game. He concluded that the weather had robbed Northwestern of the opportunity to make big plays, their usual scoring route. Concordia's Beliveau rushed for five touchdowns, an NAIA record. And even the coach had to concede that "Our entire defense did an excellent job containing Northwestern's explosiveness. Our secondary, vastly underrated, shut off a fine passing team . Their accomplishments are outstanding when you consider they are all new personnel back there."
Meanwhile, in other quarterfinal games, Concordia's next opponent was being chosen. Not surprisingly, it was the NAIA's number-one-rated team from Linfield College, McMinnville, Ore.
While a few Cobber fans managed to get to Oregon, most contented themselves with the play-by-play on radio station WDAY, Fargo. It was a thriller all the way. On the first play from scrimmage, the Cobber backfield intercepted a Linfield pass. It was a good omen. The natural turf, muddy from snow and rain earlier in the week, was very slippery and led to a controversial call by the referee. With the game tied at 17 in the last quarter, a Linfield ball carrier slipped and apparently fumbled the ball to Concordia on the Linfield 8-yard line. But the referee overruled the official and Linfield retained possession.
But the Cobbers won this game the way they had played all season: by forcing the other team to make big mistakes and not making any themselves. With about three minutes left and leading 23-17, Linfield was unable to move the ball on the ground and sent in their punter. The snap from center was low and their kicker chose to run toward the sideline rather than aftempt a kickon the slick field against a horde of charging Cobbers. And Concordia had a first down on the Linfield 17. Concordia, perhaps remembering how St. Olaf had done the unexpected to them, did the unexpected to Linfield. A perfectly thrown pass and a good point-after kick gave Concordia a 24-23 win that even impressed Christopherson.
"I guess I'm still in a fog," he said after the game. "So much happened so fast near the end. It was just unbelievable." He later admitted, "I really don't enjoy games like these. I guess I'd rather be a fan when you have this sort of contest."
Suddenly Cobbers were digging out maps trying to find Findlay, Ohio, home of our championship game opponent, Findlay College. People were signing up for a chartered bus that would make the 900-mile rrip, advertised as "This Is One of Those Once-in-a-Lifetime Opportunities You Hear About." While the football team practiced in the snow and cold, fans bought new bafteries for their radios.
The game was tough on the nerves. The Cobbers got to the Findlay 23, then they got to our 11, but at the end of the third quarter it was still a scoreless tie, and fans booed when an NAIA official announced that there would be no overtime if it ended in a tie.
But late in the third quarter the Cobbers began on their own 20 and moved relentlessly. Passing and running, the yardage was disappearing behind the Concordia team. The crowning move was a 3-yard plunge up the middle and Kurt Christensen's 40th consecutive kick that put Concordia on top 7-0. But there were more than 11 minutes on the clock, and the Findlay fans wanted to see the scoring machine they had watched during. the season. They began to. Covering 71 yards in 18 plays, Findlay put most of the field, and the clock, behind them. Two penalties put them on the Cobber 5-yard line with a first down and less than two minutes left. They fumbled but recovered it for a loss of 2 yards, then overthrew a receiver in the end zone. A successful pass moved them to the 3-yard line and they called their most effective play, a wide sweep. Determined Cobbers stacked it up at the 1-yard line and took possession with about 45 seconds left. It was all over.
Both teams left the field with 11-1 records, the Cobbers with their ninth win in a row. A Forum writer called it "vintage Concordia" and said, "Concordia's balanced no-name defense had a new hero this week."
Coach Christopherson was ecstatic. "That was a tremendous goal-line stand. Isn't it unbelievable that the whole game, the whole season, the championship . . . It all came down to one play. It was a real team effort." It was his first outright win of an NAIA crown.
Tributes came pouring into the college. One of the most interesting had nothing to do with the championship game. An official in the Pac Ten Conference and umpire of the Linfield game, wrote this letter to Christopherson:
Just a short note expressing the positive impression your young men left on me and the people of Oregon.
I visited some with #42, #46 and #72 and was impressed by the poise and discipline shown by your team. At no time during the entire emotional game was there a "cheap shot" taken by either team either physical or verbal.
Although the game ended 24-23, it was truly a game with all winners - Concordia, Linfield, and football in general.
Thanks for the experience and best wishes in the final. Bob Wellnitz
Concordia's young men received several honors for their performances throughout the year. Among those cited were:
- Bob Beliveau, senior running back from Alexandria, Minn., named AllConference, All-District 13 NAIA, AllAmerican first team NAIA;
- Kurt Christensen, senior kicker from Appleton, Wis., All-Conference and AllDistrict 13 NAIA;
- Allen Holm, senior offensive tackle from Tulare, S.D., All-Conference, AllDistrict 13 NAIA, All-American first team NAIA;
- David KIug, junior defensive end from Litchfield, Minn., All-Conference and All-District 13 first team NAIA; and
- Paul Weida, junior offensive guard from Litchfield, Minn., All-Conference and All-District 13 NAIA.
The letters 'NAIA" were not unfamiliar to Christopherson during the football season - he was serving as president of the NAIA Football Coaches' Association and now moves to the group's board of directors.
In a letter to Christopherson, an NAIA official recalled the banquet after Concordia's 1969 championship game.
On the occasion of the 1969 Champion Bowl banquet following the championship game that year in Kingsville, Texas, I clearly remember your remarks, which were directed to the great Texas A&I team:
"The men of Concordia congratulate the men of Texas A&I on becoming the national champions. You are a great football team and deserve the honor and praise that is bestowed upon champions. Because you are great, and because so many of your players will return for the 1970 season, the question now is: Will you repeat? I extend the challenge to Texas A&I to repeat as champions in 1970." (Texas A&I did repeat in 1970.)
The challenge for Concordia College in 1979 is to repeat.
Charles M. Morris, NAIA Assistant Executive Director