By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
PHILADELPHIA, PA. — Two years ago, I will never forget watching Villanova’s team buses pull into their parking spots at Chattanooga’s Finley Stadium.
The Wildcats had a Tigger-like bounce to their steps as they paraded onto the field for media day. You could sense the joy of their accomplishment and a childlike love of the game that you don’t often see these days in college football.
Players like tackle Ben Ijalana and Matt Szczur may be belong to teams like the Indianapolis Colts in the NFL and the Chicago Cubs of Major League Baseball now, but I guarantee you that Ijalana and Szczur will never forget their championship experience, which concluded with a 23-21 victory over Montana in 2009.
Thursday was media day in Frisco, TX. as two more teams had the opportunity to live out the start of their championship-week dreams.
As fans, players and coaches alike from North Dakota State and Sam Houston State are finding out this week, there is nothing as fun in the Football Championship Subdivision as participating in title week.
After 10 years of covering NCAA Division I Football Championship games — not to be compared to the fraudulent, over-hyped and commercialized farce of the Bowl Championship Series — I still enjoy every moment of the festivities.
You can’t help but be flooded by memories when you experience all of good, old fashioned fun that surrounds the championships.
Those of us who love the special brand of football known as FCS have come to respect the old-time traditions and purity that are still present in cost-containment college football.
It is a contest that still remains — first and foremost — a game and harkens back to the college football we came to love as kids.
No silly, ostentatious crystal trophy or ESPN hyperbole can replace the wonderment and unadulterated excitement that is present when teams from the FCS meet for a championship.
With those sentiments at the heart of things, here are some of my favorite memories of the past 10 years of NCAA Division I Football Championship week.
Montana vs Furman
For my first championship game experience, I packed up my wife and two daughters for a trip to one of our favorite destination cities in the south, Chattanooga.
In those days, we had a GMC Jimmy that we tooled around in. It happened to be painted in a resplendent shade of Paladin purple.
As we drove around downtown Chattanooga that day, we noticed that cars kept honking at us and people on the streets waved as we passed by. It was as if we had friends throughout the city.
Then it struck us. All of these people thought we were Furman fans.
From that day forward, until the transmission died on that SUV several years later, this vehicle was known in our family as the Furmanmobile.
As for the game, it was a real snoozer, even for the died-hard Grizzly fans. Montana led 13-0 before the final play of the game — a play that almost no one in the crowd of 12,698 witnessed.
With Furman fans streaming for the exits of Finley Stadium and Montana’s faithful supporters already jubilant in celebration, Paladin quarterback Billy Napier threw a Hail Mary pass that was hauled in by teammate James Thomas for Furman’s only touchdown.
Because Montana players and fans were already storming the field, Furman didn’t even get to attempt an extra point and the game ended in a 13-6 Grizzly win.
After the post-game press conferences, those of us who returned to the press box to write our stories were shocked when we were joined by Montana coach Joe Glenn.
Glenn stopped at each seat in the press box and personally shook each writer’s hand.
“I want to thank you for taking the time to cover this game,” Glenn said as he spoke to me.
Somehow I can’t imagine Alabama’s Nick Saban, or LSU’s Les Miles doing something like that.
Western Kentucky vs McNeese State
After finding that the Chattanooga Choo-Choo Hotel had screwed up our reservations and taking some time to get settled in our rooms, we found a crowd of young fans surrounding McNeese State’s running back Vick King outside of our room.
King was limping around on a battered knee he had hurt in a semifinal win over Villanova I had witnessed the weekend before in Lake Charles, LA.
But the gracious star took the time to sign every autograph that was requested and answer the question of the day.
Are you going to play tonight,” one young player after another asked King.
“I don’t know yet,” was his answer, but you could see from the disappointment in his eyes and sad expression, he wouldn’t be a factor.
Even a healthy King probably wouldn’t have made a difference for McNeese State that night as WKU crushed the Cowboys, 34-14.
As the Hilltopper fans raced onto the field, their quirky and rotund mascot Big Red helped them lead the attack on the goalposts.
There was another post-game treat awaiting us as WKU’s Jack Harbaugh made his way to the podium for the final time as a head coach. In his arms was one grandchild, as several others tagged along at his side.
When the delighted Harbaugh took his seat, he placed his young granddaughter in his lap and conducted the entire press conference in the presence of his family.
I was reminded of this moment again on Thanksgiving Day in 2011 when Harbaugh’s son John settled down for an interview with the NFL Network after his Baltimore Ravens had beaten his brother Jim and the San Francisco 49ers in the first game ever featuring brothers as head coaches.
Taking a seat next to John Harbaugh was his daughter, echoing what his father had done with his grandchildren all those years before.
Delaware vs Colgate
In this coldest of playoff years, snow seemed to have followed Colgate around everywhere, except in the semifinals when the Raiders traveled to Florida Atlantic to dominate Howard Schnellenberger’s Owls 34-22 and make it to the national championship game.
I had to fight my way through a storm that dumped some 18 inches of snow at my house in the North Carolina mountains just to get to the game.
A light snow was still falling when I reached Finley Stadium, but even that couldn’t help Colgate in a 40-0 loss to one of the best defenses in FCS history, the Shawn Johnson-led Delaware Blue Hens.
One of the biggest questions of the night was why Delaware coach K.C. Keeler wore sunglasses on the sidelines for a night game?
Long after the game, Delaware fans put on one of the biggest parties that Chattanooga had ever seen. I still remember the headache I had from listening to the Blue Hen supporters yelling “Mondo, Mondo” throughout the night in honor of cornerback Mondo Davis.
James Madison vs Montana
This game will forever be remembered for the carnage of the bermuda turf that these two teams left in their wake as JMU hammered out a 31-21 victory over Montana.
Corey Davis and company on the Dukes’ massive offensive line wore down the Grizzly defense and took advantage of the conditions to grind out the win.
Afterwards, a jubilant Duke Dog — the human mascot, not the cute, little bulldog — was tossed in the air repeatedly by the JMU students, who had made their way down Interstates 81 and 40 in droves into town that day.
I’ll never forget standing with Sports Network colleague Matt Dougherty near the edge of the stands, staring down at the battered field, following this contest. Neither of us could believe what we were seeing.
I had been in Chattanooga for the final regular season game played by Tennessee-Chattanooga, a wild 59-56 victory over Appalachian State.
The grass field had some worn places — particularly in the end zones — on the well-used public facility, but the NCAA made a fatal mistake in ordering new turf to be planted at the beginning of November.
With temperatures plummeting over the next few weeks, the bermuda grass — as any gardner should know — went dormant and the new grass never took root.
The NCAA’s Dennis Poppe took a cowardly approach, blaming the local organizing committee for his organization’s poor decision. Poppe said that Chattanooga could lose the game, unless the turf issue was solved.
A few months later when I was back in Chattanooga a few days after state-of-the-art field turf was installed. Grass issues would never again be an issue for Finley Stadium.
Appalachian State vs Northern Iowa
An exuberant crowd witnessed a series of vignettes as Appalachian State captured a tension-packed 21-16 victory over UNI in one of the best championship games I have witnessed.
ASU’s All-American quarterback and resident pied piper Richie Williams had suffered a devastating sprained tendon to his left ankle in the semifinal six days before against Furman and backup Trey Elder had to lead the Mountaineers to a 29-23 victory.
Elder had fired a TD pass to Dexter Jackson a play after the Williams’ injury and then scored the winning touchdown. But Elder struggled to get the Mountaineer offense moving in the first half against the Panthers as Williams watched from the sidelines
UNI turned a trio of ASU turnovers to build a 16-7 lead, but the momentum of the game changed on the final play of the second quarter when Williams — in Willis Reed-type fashion — strapped on his helmet and took the field for a Hail Mary pass.
The pro-ASU crowd of 20,236 erupted into bedlam as the beloved quarterback made his first appearance and, even though his first pass fell harmlessly incomplete, Williams had given the Mountaineers an adrenaline burst they carried through the intermission and into the second half.
Using only tylenol to numb his extreme pain, Williams didn’t do much stat-wise, being almost completely unable to run.
But he led the Mountaineers to one TD drive to cut UNI’s advantage to 16-14 and set the stage for some defensively heroics.
In the fourth quarter, Marquees Murrell stripped Panther quarterback Eric Sanders of the ball as Sanders was setting up in the pocket and Jason Hunter scooped it up and raced 15 yards for the winning score.
Long after everyone else had left the post-game press conference, I found myself alone with Williams, who had begun to take the tape off his tightly-bound left ankle. As he tugged at this barrier, Williams had tears forming in his eyes.
Williams gritted his teeth, grimaced as he pulled off his ankle brace, briefly placing his head on the interview table for several seconds as he verbalized the pain that coursed up his damaged leg.
It was at that moment, I fully understood how remarkable the performance of Williams had been.
Appalachian State vs Massachusetts
The Don Brown-coached UMass Minutemen came into the title game with a reputation for its hard-charging defense and this frequently-blitzing unit wanted to make an early impression on ASU quarterback Armanti Edwards, who was the first passer since Marshall’s Chad Pennington in 1995 to lead his team to a championship contest as a freshman.
Early on, UMass safety James Ihedigbo raced around the corner as Edwards kept the ball on a read option from the Mountaineers’ spread attack and hit the young quarterback so hard that Edwards was twisted into the ground like a corkscrew going into a bottle of Pinot Noir.
With Ihedigbo hovering briefly over the fallen Edwards, this irrepressible athlete bounced back up a moment later with the agility of a jack-in-a-box.
The message was delivered that Edwards would not be intimidated by Ihedigbo, or anyone else.
The Minutemen couldn’t contain running back Kevin Richardson, either. Richardson banged out 179 yards and all four Mountaineer TDs on 30 carries as Appalachian State outlasted UMass, 28-17, to earn back-to-back titles.
Appalachian State vs Delaware
This was a game that featured marquee starting quarterbacks in Appalachian State’s Armanti Edwards and Delaware’s future-first-round-draft-choice Joe Flacco.
But my favorite memory of this game was a play that occurred well after ASU had all but secured its record-setting third-consecutive title with a dominating 49-21 victory.
Late in the fourth quarter, ASU backup Trey Elder — an ultimate team player, who had sacrificed his starting position to allow Edwards to become a starter — ran a read option play to perfection on his first play in the game and scampered 53 yards for a touchdown.
ASU coach Jerry Moore, in his late 60s, sprinted up the sidelines and was one of the first people to reach Elder as the senior QB ran off the field. The coach and player met in a huge embrace that spoke volumes of what Elder meant to his coach and his team.
Worried about control as the overflow, record crowd of 23,010 began to prepare for its championship celebration, security personnel let fans out of the stands and allowed them to hover near the sidelines in the final three-and-half minutes.
Frustrated by a 35-point deficit and the antics of the rowdy crowd, Delaware’s Mark Duncan fired the ball into the crowd after a 75-yard TD return on the ensuing kickoff — where it struck an angry police officer.
The officer chased after Duncan to give him a scalding lecture, with the Blue Hen receiver being lucky to escape a possible arrest.
Flacco hit 23-of-48 passes for 334 yards, but only one touchdown as the Mountaineer defense stuffed the Blue Hens repeatedly in the red zone.
Richmond vs Montana
The most memorable play in this game occurred on Richmond’s first drive of the game when Spider quarterback Eric Ward tossed the ball to fullback John Crone and snuck into the flat.
Crone hit Ward for a 23-yard touchdown pass and Richmond was on its way to a fairly east 24-7 victory.
In the press conference, I caused an emotional moment for first-year coach Mike London when I asked him if he knew he was the first African-American coach to win a national championship since Florida A&M’s Rudy Hubbard had been victorious in the first I-AA title game in 1978.
Tears swelled in the upbeat, personable coach’s eyes and he got chocked up for a few seconds before he was able to answer the question.
Obviously swelling with pride, this one-time police detective said: “I’m excited this is Richmond’s first national championship.”
Eating dinner in the early Saturday morning hours after the game at a 24-hour dinner up the street from Finley Stadium, my assistant John Hooper and I met a young Montana coed who had traveled by car all the way from Missoula for the title game.
The attractive young lady caught our eyes with a T-shirt that bears the slogan “Marc Mariani, will you marry me?”
We found out that she had never met the brilliant Grizzly receiver and returnman, who was a couple of years away from an All-Pro career with the Tennessee Titans.
Chivalry lived as we walked her from the restaurant, back to her hotel.
Villanova vs Montana
Of all of the media days I’ve covered before championship games, this one was almost more fun than a very competitive game that was filled with good plays.
And my favorite press conference moment was talking to big Ben Ijalana, the massive left tackle for the Villanova Wildcats. Ijalana displayed a laugh as big as his 6-4, 317-pound frame.
Looking over at veteran Villanova coach Andy Talley, who is as small as Ijalana is big, the gregarious offensive lineman said: “We want to get the old man the ring he has never gotten.”
With that, Ijalana let out a deep, lung-rattling laugh.
I also shared a special moment with Villanova quarterback Chris Whitney, who grew up a few blocks down the street from my home in the Philadelphia suburbs. We both lost our fathers to cancer as teens and talked about how we wished that our fathers could still be around to share such special moments with.
After spotting Montana an early 14-3 lead, this game became the Matt Szczur show.
Szczur earns playoff MVP honors with 270 all-purpose yards and a pair of touchdowns as Villanova takes charge in the second half and holds on for a 23-21 victory.
As he was leaving the press conference after the game, I made a special effort to catch Montana coach Bobby Hauck and had a brief conversation before he departed. Within days, Hauck was named the new coach at UNLV.
Eastern Washington vs Delaware
The one special thing about the game moving to Texas was that I got to be chauffeured around Frisco by my oldest brother, Jesse — a one-time high school lineman and semi-pro coach and player.
At Eastern Washington’s last practice, we spent a couple of hours with Eagle All-American running back Taiwan Jones, who was sidelined from the title game with a fractured bone in his foot.
Jones became comfortable enough with us to pull out his cell phone at one point and show us a picture of the X-ray of his broken foot, suffered in the quarterfinals against North Dakota State.
Watching Delaware’s practice, I was surprised to see an old friend. Rob Best, who served as offensive coordinator at Appalachian State for Jerry Moore for many years before moving to Buffalo to be Jim Hofher’s OC.
Best had gone back to coaching high school football nearby to Frisco and came to watch his old friend, Hofher.
The game the next evening is a weird one, with Delaware dominating on the way to a 19-0 lead in the third period.
But if there ever was a team of destiny, it was Eastern Washington. The Eagles came charging back behind the passing of Bo Levi Mitchell and the receiving of Brandon Kaufman and Nicholas Edwards.
And for the second week in a row, a blown officiating call put EWU into position to win.
On fourth and one from the Blue Hen 23, Mario Brown was clearly stopped a half-yard short of the first down.
But the Southern Conference officials miss-spotted the ball and award EWU a controversial first down.
The next play was whistled dead for an official’s review and the spot was corrected, but by this time, the chain gang had moved the chains and taken the clip off the measuring device, making it impossible to mark the chains in the correct place for another measurement.
Those mistakes gave the Eagles the first down again and Mitchell hit Kaufman in the back of the end zone for the go-ahead score from 11 yards out to propel Eastern Washington to a 20-19 victory.
North Dakota State vs Sam Houston
The stories we will have after Saturday’s game are still to be written, but if the past 10 years are any indication, you can expect some very new, intriguing chapters this Saturday.