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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.

Otherwise, UNC's offense (overseen by former CU, CSU and NFL offensive coordinator Kay Dalton) is a hell-bent mixture of flea-flickers and triple options, pro-set rushing and flashy passing. For instance, with less than two minutes remaining in the first half against stunned New Haven, McGuffey hit Micus (the M & M Connection reborn!) for 36 yards, and Holmes ran it into the end zone on an option pitch. That made it 27-0. With seven seconds left in the half, UNC faked a field goal, of all things, threw for a touchdown, then tacked on a two-point conversion. 35-zip. For all practical purposes, end of ballgame.

Just for fun, the UNC defense had eight sacks, three interceptions and two fumble recoveries against a team Sports Illustrated picked to win this championship with ease.

"I'll steal a phrase from [ex-Michigan State coach] Duffy Dougherty," Joe Glenn said a couple of days before the game. "This is not a matter of life and death--it's more important than that."

Except that Glenn is chuckling when he says it. More often than not, you also find him grinning on the sidelines, joking and jiving with his players instead of standing there paralyzed by the 2,000-yard stare you find on the faces of most football coaches. For him, the game's still a pleasure. Life and death? Nah. More like fun and games.

"Having been there last year, we know how much fun the title game is," he said. "It's a great reward for the kids for having had another great season. There are parades and police escorts, banquets and barbecues, a tour of the Alabama Hall of Fame. It's a wonderful experience. And, yes, it's about as 'big-time' as you can get--you can't be treated any better than this."

Can it get any better than this? Well, maybe. A third straight national title next year is certainly not out of the realm for UNC. The undergraduate gypsies from Greeley will once more gas up, jump in their cars and follow their football heroes town to town, state to scattered state--9 hours of driving, 22 hours of driving, who cares?--on the road to glory.

And Joe Glenn will love it--right up until the moment some big-time football factory finally snatches him away. As he said at halftime Saturday: "Give us the dice. We got the Midas Touch right now."

And the look of a dynasty.

Go ahead, Broncos. Put your card on the table. Your wild card. Let's see what you've got left.

Your defensive weaknesses were exposed in Kansas City (bye-bye, 13-0 lead), your butterfingers showed up in Pittsburgh (see ya, 21-7), and your star running back was disabled in San Francisco (adios, 10-Zip). Now those Super Bowl dreams look like a five-car pileup.

Suddenly this is yesterday. Not the good old days, but yesterday. With Terrell Davis dinged up, the fortunes of the Denver Broncos once again ride with overburdened John Elway--and with a receiving corps that thinks the ball is made of ice. Rod Smith dropped three more passes Monday night (he and his mates dropped eleven against the Steelers), and a team that appeared to have everything going for it in mid-season will be lucky to squeak by in their only home playoff game--probably against their tormentors from last year, the Jacksonville Jaguars.

The odds against the Broncos' winning two more playoff games on the road and returning to the Super Bowl are astronomical. Not impossible, just astronomical.

Meanwhile, there's the matter of dispatching the hapless San Diego Chargers Sunday at Mile High Stadium. If they lose that one, the Broncos will have blown the biggest lead of all and let self-respect slip through their fingers. Think it will be an easy win? I don't.

It's likely the club will have a card to play in the post-season. The wild card. Better play it to the hilt. And whatever you do, don't drop the damn thing!

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