Sharpening Klawz

The UNC Bears tangle with tougher grid foes.

Next time you're in the market for a pair of guinea pigs, a Ford pickup or a bag of jalapeño peppers, tune in to radio station KFKA in Greeley for Saturday morning's Swap Shop show. You might even wind up buying something on a whim -- like the black faux-fur jacket an eager seller says she has worn exactly once. "How much do you want for it this week?" Swap Shop's genial host inquired last Saturday. "Thirty-five," she answered. "Okay," the host said. "Down to thirty-five. Let's see. If I remember correctly, your phone number isŠ"

In the pecking order of Greeley's charms, tucking into a big porterhouse at the Stampede Steak Ranch outranks sniffing the feedlot perfume that envelops downtown. But until recently, a crown jewel of Greeley pride was the local college football team. The University of Northen Colorado Bears have been .500 or better in sixteen of the last seventeen seasons, and they won back-to-back national championships at the NCAA Division II level in 1996 and 1997. That was under coach Joe Glenn, now the head man at the University of Wyoming. Going into Saturday's sun-splashed game against visiting Idaho State, the Bears had run up a daunting home-field record -- 51 wins and five losses -- in the ten years since they moved into 8,500-seat Nottingham Field on the pretty UNC campus. Football teams from South Dakota State or Augustana or Morningside always knew they were in for a brutal fight when they visited Greeley. Play UNC at Nottingham, you get mauled by Bears.

On Saturday, though, the near-impossible happened. UNC, which had been blown away 38-0 at Maine the week before, lost at home for the first time in three years. While 4,080 fans and the furry team mascot, Klawz, looked on in disbelief, the Bears went down to Idaho State, 49-42 -- in double overtime. On the last play of the game, Bears wide receiver Jamar Farbes caught a pass from quarterback Tony Christensen at the ISU seven-yard line and was sprinting toward the touchdown that would have forced a third overtime when a defender popped him at the two. The ball squirted loose. End of game. Four hours and six minutes. End of record sixteen-game home winning streak. Time to call Swap Shop for a set of crying towels.

Tony Christensen has to keep pitching to Vincent 
Jackson for UNC to survive.
Tony Christensen has to keep pitching to Vincent Jackson for UNC to survive.

It won't get any easier. This Saturday the Bears travel to Missoula to face the University of Montana, a 2-1 team smarting from a shocking upset loss to Sam Houston State. That dropped the Grizzlies from the number-one ranking in Division I-AA to number seven, and they're sure to be in a foul mood on home turf. Their quarterback? None other than Craig Ochs, the former University of Colorado star who transferred to Montana last year.

"No one said this would be easy," UNC's fifth-year head coach, Kay Dalton, declared after Saturday's heartbreaker against Idaho State. "This" is the Bears' ambitious five-year transition from the Division II ranks up into Division I-AA, where the players are bigger, stronger and faster, the scholarships more plentiful. It will take three more seasons for the Bears to become full-fledged in I-AA, but you wouldn't know it from their 2004 schedule. Before leaving Greeley this summer for Northern Arizona University, former UNC athletic director Jim Fallis had booked what many say is the toughest slate of games for any I-AA team in the country -- featuring Montana, the aforementioned Sam Houston and Division I Florida Atlantic, which will visit Greeley October 16. "Probably not the best homecoming opponent," one UNC spokesman laments. The last time the Bears faced a Division I school was in 1986, when Colorado State beat them 46-14.

Division I-AA will be hurdle enough. In 2003, UNC played six I-AA opponents on the road but five Division II foes at home, which contributed to that Nottingham winning streak. This year, every Bears foe is I-AA -- except for that even rougher, David-and-Goliath match-up with Florida Atlantic. For a while, anyway, the football glory days may be over in Greeley. After twenty years on the UNC campus, the Broncos have moved their oft-maligned summer training camp to Dove Valley, and the Bears are suddenly in very tough.

UNC's new athletic director, Jay Hinrichs, says there is no set timetable for funding the full complement of 63 football scholarships UNC may now offer under I-AA guidelines. For now, the program is still playing with 41 scholarships -- the Division II limit -- and less talent than its opponents. Dalton is a wizard who's been coaching football for almost half a century -- including assistantships at CU and CSU and with four NFL teams, including the Broncos, where he fine-tuned the 1980s receiving corps known as the Three Amigos. So he knows what he's talking about when he talks about competition. "I think our ex-athletic director jumped in too fast," Dalton says. "A team two years into [transition] should be about fifty-fifty in terms of top D-II and D-IAA opponents, but all the teams we play this year are I-AA, all but two of them are fully funded, and they've been I-AA teams for many, many years. All we can do is coach the heck out of our kids and play our best. I've tried to explain to them the university's great tradition."

That is not lost on the Bears' current offensive star, senior wide receiver Vincent Jackson. "The tough schedule is exciting for us," Jackson said amid the deflation of Saturday's loss. "It's a stepping stone for the future of football [here]. But we hadn't lost at home since my freshman year, and it's tough. The seniors certainly don't want to go out like that." Jackson, a 6'6", 238-pounder with NFL-quality speed and sure hands, scored an amazing 21 touchdowns in 2003 and is getting a long look from pro scouts. But he got off to an abysmal start this season -- he made just four catches for 23 yards as the Bears failed to score a touchdown in their first two games -- and he's hoping that Saturday's scoring breakout (42 points in a loss) signals better things ahead. He may be playing on Sunday afternoons next year, "if I'm lucky. But we have to get through this year first."

While the football program moves up to I-AA, fifteen other UNC sports are now aimed at the top Division I level, and that will take money -- lots of it. Athletic director Hinrichs has been on the job less than a month (he came from an assistant coach's post at Kansas), so he's not fully versed yet in UNC fundraising. But he calls the university "the most positive, supportive place I've been in my entire career," and he's optimistic that the Division I moves will eventually "put one more feather in the cap of a very good university." Centennial author James Michener is no longer with us, but there are 60,000 other UNC alumni living in Colorado, and university fundraisers hope to tap into their goodwill -- and their bank accounts.

For now, Bears football retains its appealing, small-time charm. At Saturday's game, the UNC marching band -- which wears navy-blue cowboy hats fringed in white feathers that suggest the aftermath of a massive cotton-candy fight -- was selling CDs at $10 each in the hopes of financing a trip to this week's game in Missoula. Last summer, players worked $7-an-hour shifts at a local department store and personally passed the hat among boosters to pay for new uniforms. The team mascot still awards a pizza to the craziest fan in the gold-and-blue-clad student section. And when a home game ends, girlfriends, fellow students and family members stroll out of the stands to mingle with the Bears right there on Nottingham Field. The whole thing gives off a sweetness you can't find in South Bend or Boulder. It makes you wonder if any Bears jerseys are available on Swap Shop.

As for the difficulties his 1-2 team is bound to face in its remaining eight games, Dalton is philosophical, as befits a 72-year-old ex-football player who used to coach the Montreal Alouettes at twenty below zero and who walks around these days with two artificial hips and a synthetic left knee. "I can't let it drive me crazy," he says. "I've been around the business for almost fifty years, and I knew this would be difficult. I'll just try to do my best to be of service with my experience and understanding.Š This is the last stop on the road for me, and I still love to work with these kids."

In the coming weeks, they may find themselves growing up in a hurry.

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