Meet the Slide Rulers

The School of Mines football team is kicking butt this year.

For as long as anyone in Golden can remember, there have been some surefire ways of knowing you are at a Colorado School of Mines football game. One: You pay six bucks and sit almost by yourself at 5,000-seat Brooks Field. Two: There are mules grazing in the corral beyond the west end zone. Three: On third and long, two students behind you have a heated discussion about phase equilibria and fluid inclusion data as they apply to molybdenum ore deposition. Four: At halftime, the score is a lopsided 45-0, with no hope of closing the gap.

All of that was still true this past Saturday afternoon. Except that now the Mines Orediggers were winning their game against Adams State 45-zip at the half. Junior wide receiver Brian Sump had run the opening kickoff back 94 yards for a touchdown, delighting a crowd of 2,500. Next, the Adams State quarterback fumbled an exchange from center, setting up another quick Mines score. Ninety-six seconds into the first quarter, the 'Diggers were leading 14-0. They never looked back en route to a 52-14 blowout and their sixth win of the season against three losses.

How unusual is it that Mines players regularly find themselves trotting off the sun-splashed gridiron at the foot of Lookout Mountain with smiles on their faces, waving their black-and-silver helmets aloft? Or that the fans find themselves applauding? Up in the bleachers, Daniel Adams, a senior electrical-engineering major, explained what football Saturdays used to be like at Mines. "Well, our mascot is a jackass," he said, "and the main attraction was our band."

For the record, the Mines marching band is famous as far away as, say, Arvada and Lakewood. For quirkiness. On Saturday morning they led a twelve-minute Homecoming parade in downtown Golden, then scooted through an alley to the rear so they could also march last in the parade. At halftime they wandered onto the field wearing blue jeans, wildly assorted plaid shirts and hard hats, managing spirited, if vaguely discordant, renditions of "What I Like About You" and "Wild Wild West" before dissolving back into the bleachers. Senior Craig Myers, from tiny Haxton, Colorado, remarked: "I used to come to these games because I had to. I was in the band."

Well, that tune has changed. Football may still not be as important to Mines students as acing Mathematical Modeling of Groundwater Systems or Introduction to Polymer Science, but the Miners are no longer trying to dig themselves out of deep holes. Their last winning season was 1991, and over the next nine years, they won just 22 games while losing 67 -- some of them by scores that would baffle a calculus professor. In 2001 they've beaten South Dakota Tech 52-7, Panhandle State 47-0, Fort Lewis 65-30 and Fort Hays State 53-45 (in overtime). Little matter that Chadron State whomped the Orediggers 58-28 or that their unfortunate visit to Mesa State ended in a 66-20 drubbing. There are touchdowns aplenty in Golden these days, and for the most part, it's been arm-weary Mines quarterback Nate Jackson and his speedy corps of wide receivers who have been putting boxcar numbers on the scoreboard against opponents in NCAA Division II's Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference.

Said student Daniel Adams, "It's cool. We're enjoying it. We'll probably make the playoffs."

"Wait a minute," said his friend Craig Myers. "There are playoffs?"

At an engineering school whose 2,400 undergrads sport SAT scores in the high 1200s, who must absorb such academic exotica as Advanced Gravity and Magnetic Methods and Borehole Geophysics II, and whose starting salaries after graduation average $48,000 a year, football has rarely been a priority. CSM is a temple of higher learning where no one's surprised at the steady flow of mail addressed to Professor So-and-So at the Colorado School of Minds.

But football? Oh, way back in 1890, the Orediggers gave the University of Colorado -- yes, that University of Colorado -- the worst beating in its history, 103-0. And in 1939 the 'Diggers went undefeated, 8-0. Athletic director Marv Kay's father was a lineman on that team. But the days of grid glory have been few and far between, thanks in large part to daunting academics. Sophomore Laura Mauro, a geological-engineering major from Pueblo, says that whenever she's not "working, eating or sleeping, I'm studying. Seven to midnight on weekdays and at least twelve to eighteen hours on weekends." She's never been to a Mines game. No time for it.

Think there are basket-weaving majors on the football team? Nope. Sociology? Not on your life. Wide receivers Brian Sump and Dayven Johnston are studying civil and mining engineering, respectively. Senior fullback Forrest Buckner, late of Boulder's Fairvew High School, is a double major in civil and mechanical engineering. His grade-point average last year? A perfect 4.0. Indeed, in the depths of CSM's recent football traumas, the former president of the school, Theodore Bickert, announced: "We may not be winning, but everybody out there knows thermodynamics."

This year, everybody out there also knows the physics of kicking butt. The Einstein behind the turnaround is head coach Bob Stitt, who previously worked as the offensive coordinator at a reasonably brainy Eastern school called Harvard. In 2000, his first season at Mines, the hard-nosed Stitt installed a high-powered passing attack and, just as important, a no-excuses attitude about winning games. "He established discipline and everything we were missing before," quarterback Jackson says. "It's nice to be part of a football program again. Now we just have to hold up our end of the bargain so the new buzz around campus continues."

Says Stitt: "These kids are here to get a great education, and they certainly don't have time to get into trouble. They're taking calculus, physics and chemistry, and those are just the basic classes. The thing we're trying to instill here is that football is also important. These kids haven't been told that before. Losing isn't okay, no matter what you're studying. If you tell them it's okay to lose, you're telling them it will be okay to be a bad husband, father or employee. So now we don't allow mediocrity."

To be fair, previous coaching regimes at Mines were spread pretty thin. Athletic director Kay, who coached the 'Diggers himself from 1969 through 1995, recalls the days when Mines math profs also coached tennis, and football coaches doubled as basketball assistants. In his day, Kay was not just head coach, but assistant athletic director and business manager for athletics. Last year, Stitt became the school's first full-time football coach -- and he got to sign up three assistants. This year the upgrades began to bear fruit. Not without some trauma, though: When Stitt came in, nearly 25 players quit Mines football; they've been replaced by new recruits who, the coach says, "understand where we are going."

Those recruits, he says, come from the same high-caliber prep pool that furnishes athletes to the service academies and the Ivy League. "One difference," Stitt says. "It may be harder to get into the Ivy League schools; it's harder to stay in school here."

Freshman linebacker Daniel Leger quickly discovered that. "You really have to use your time wisely," he says. "I'm taking chemistry, calculus, EPICS (a design projects course) and earth environmental systems, and I'm not the smartest guy here. I get by on working hard, not brains." In other words, he cracks the books five to six hours a day. Does student intelligence transfer to the playing field? "I think so," he says. "Our players don't just do their jobs. They also grasp the theories and the basis of the game."

In the sunny cyclotron that was Brooks Field, theory and practice collided perfectly Saturday afternoon as Mines blew away the Adams State Grizzlies and began looking forward to their last two contests of the regular season, both of them at home (this Saturday, vs. Western State; November 10, vs. Western New Mexico). The halftime show featured a Homecoming float decorated with an arcane mathematical equation (English translation: "A miner is smarter than the average bear"), a pretty blond Homecoming queen who majors in electrical engineering, and, because all work divided by no play still equals drudgery, a "couch potato raffle" after which the winners got to watch the second half from an overstuffed sectional while eating pizza. Later, they might even drop by the Ace Hi bar downtown for a cold Coors. Out on the field, every player knew thermodynamics. And up in the stands, every fan could, for once, feel the warmth that comes with winning.

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