The Toast of Greeley

To get a feel for this thing--for the magnitude--imagine that your Denver Broncos were to win consecutive playoff games against Pittsburgh, New England and Kansas City, all of them on the road. Then try to imagine Elway and company facing heavily favored Green Bay in the Super Bowl--on their fourth alien field in as many weeks--and blowing the Packers away by, say, seven touchdowns. Oh, and shutting them out, too. Just for grins.

That's the kind of thing the University of Northern Colorado has done in the last month, en route to winning its second straight NCAA Division II football championship. The Bears demolished New Haven 51-0 Saturday afternoon in Florence, Alabama, to take the title.

The odyssey was incredible. Despite having won the 1996 national championship and its last six regular-season games, eleventh-ranked UNC (9-2) apparently still loomed so small in the eyes of the schedule-makers that it had to win consecutive road playoff games against No. 8 Pittsburg State (24-16 in Pittsburg, Kansas), No. 3 Northwest Missouri State (35-19, Maryville, Missouri) and top-ranked Carson-Newman (30-29, Jefferson City, Tennessee) before facing No. 2 seed New Haven for the trophy. Their fans followed them, in cars old and new, faces painted blue and gold.

The game at Florence? Child's play. UNC simply went out and laid a goose egg on the New Haven Chargers--which had previously been the highest-scoring team in the nation, averaging 43 points per game. In the first quarter New Haven had outscored its previous opponents this season 148-10. Against the Bears, the Chargers got exactly one yard rushing in the first quarter.

So while head coach Joe Glenn and the Bears are adding up their frequent-flyer miles, they might also double-check the spelling of "dynasty." Seventeen starters return to Greeley next fall, and only eight seniors graduate from a roster of 100.

The University of Colorado may have been buffalo burger in '97, and your Broncos have a chance to collapse again in the post-season. But no one can diminish Northern Colorado's accomplishments. Little does it matter that only 3,352 souls witnessed their annihilation of New Haven--in a stadium that holds 13,500.

The last time (hey, the only time) a Division II coach led his club to three consecutive titles was just yesterday. Bobby Wallace and Northern Alabama did it from 1993-95, and Wallace was promptly spirited away by Temple University--no football power, to be sure, but a Division I school nonetheless.

But Joe Glenn says he wants to stay in Greeley--at least for a while. Big-time universities may lay free houses and big cars and prestige aplenty on the table, but this enthusiastic, aw-shucks coach says he has unfinished business at UNC--much like his neighbor, Sonny Lubick, pledged that he had unfinished business over at Colorado State.

"Dynasty?" Glenn ponders. "It's still way too early to say that. We try not to think about it, but it is incredible, what these kids have done."

Until last week, though, hardly anyone beyond the Greeley city limits had noticed.

Division II football--small-school football--has produced NFL stars like Walter Payton, Darrell Green and Brent Jones, but it doesn't exactly command the attention of TV programming directors and newspaper sports editors. When, for example, UNC staged an incredible comeback in its pivotal sixth game at South Dakota via a 200-yard passing day by emerging sophomore quarterback Corte McGuffey and two big touchdown plays by young Dillon Micus--an 89-yard punt return and a 93-yard pass reception--almost no one knew about it. UNC won that game 45-31. They haven't lost since--ten straight victories leading to the title. But they've done it in the dark.

Does Joe Glenn feel overlooked?
"Sure," he answers. "People don't know how good we are. I guess I got a little chip on my shoulder about that. People think this is small-college football. They oughta get in our huddle. Our offensive line is 290 [pounds] across the front, and we've got some great football players. If we were to drop the sport tomorrow, there'd be about a hundred Division I schools in here recruiting--because our guys are a lot better than they get credit for. We could beat a lot of Division I-AA teams."

Saturday's title game against New Haven was broadcast on ESPN, and you can bet the NFL scouts were watching. The league will have to wait another year to gets its hands on UNC defensive end Aaron Smith (6-6, 272 pounds and 22 quarterback sacks this year). But running back Billy Holmes, 212 pounds of unmitigated speed and muscle, likely has the goods to play on Sundays. Example: Against New Haven, previously second in the nation in scoring defense, Holmes ran for a record 195 yards on 30 carries and scored 3 touchdowns.

"Of course, that's not what we're about, the NFL," Glenn adds.
What they are about, the Bears, is a heart-pounding, thrill-seeking brand of football you don't often find in the higher altitudes of the game. On UNC's first series of downs Saturday, senior Dirk Johnson ignored orders, faked a punt and ran for 39 yards, leading to the Bears' first touchdown. It wasn't the first time he'd done it: Against Carson-Newman in the 1996 title game, Johnson twice improvised fake punts and converted them both. By the way, that was Johnson's mother down on the sidelines Saturday afternoon. The lady ringing the cowbell.

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