But for the vocal support of once and future alumni and the vested interest of NFL clubs, which glean one-third of their players from its ranks, small-college football performs in obscurity, largely ignored by network television, Vegas odds-makers and bowl games.
The smalls deserve better. Small may mean fewer (scholarships, gate receipts, platoons) without meaning less (enthusiasm, dedication, excitement). And the smalls also have something their more publicized peers would do well to match—a national championship determined through playoffs, not by the vagaries of a wire-service poll.
This season, along with the playoffs that decide who is No. 1 in NCAA Divisions II and III and in the NAIA, small-college football also offers some additional attention-grabbers.
Butler's 6'7", 225-pound Ed Thompson, for instance, is probably the world's tallest quarterback. Charlie Smoke is a pass receiver who should leave scorch marks on defensive backs covering Troy State (Ala.), a member of the Gulf South Conference, in which Jacksonville State will be represented by an updated version of the Vow Boys. The Gamecocks are dedicating their season to the memory of their late coach, Clarkie Mayfield, a victim of the Southgate (Ky.) supper-club fire last spring.
At Nebraska-Omaha, Danny (Steam Machine) Fulton will improve his Division II pass-reception-yardage record every time he catches the ball. In 1976 Fulton's receiving accounted for 1,581 yards and 16 touchdowns and he hauled in a scoring bomb of at least 40 yards in each of UNO's first eight games. His touchdown total was the highest in all of college football, and Ohio State is not likely to match him when it comes to generating excitement.
As for the best teams, Montana State Coach Sonny Holland says, "We'd like to go on thinking we're No. 1 until someone knocks us off." The Bobcats may hold to that thought all season long. Last year Montana State finished with a 12-1 record, the Big Sky Conference and Division II championships and a 10-game winning streak, each of which contributes to a feeling that the Big Sky crown, if nothing more, will remain in Bozeman.
"I figure if we can make it through in the Big Sky again, we'll be well on our way toward defending our national title," says Holland, "because I think the Big Sky is the toughest Division II league in the country." It also will be the best-roofed once Northern Arizona completes its domed stadium, adding to those already existing at Idaho and Idaho State, thereby affording players fewer occasions to see the thing that gave the conference its name.
Montana State strengths include a solid offensive line built around Tight End Ron McCullough and Guard Lee Washburn, and southpaw Quarterback Paul Dennehy, a junior who personally accounted for 1,373 yards and 21 touchdowns and directed the Bobcats' ball-control offense to an average of 26 points and 287 yards rushing per game. Holland's concerns include defensive depth and the loss of Tailback Tom Kostrba, who left school to play in the Canadian Football League after his sophomore season. Even on top, life in the smalls isn't easy.
Montana State's rivals for national honors include New Hampshire, which the Bobcats edged 17-16 at Bozeman in the first round of the Division II playoffs; North Dakota State, a 10-3 loser to MSU in the semifinals; and the Akron University Zips, who were undone in the title game. Other contenders include Delaware, Northern Michigan and Bethune-Cookman.
New Hampshire has 15 starters back, including Tailback Bill Burnham, who, despite a chronic ankle weakness, has rushed for more than 1,100 yards in each of the last two seasons.
North Dakota State went through its North Central Conference schedule without a loss in 1976, and with 17 starters returning the Bisons are heavily favored to win the Yankee Conference title again.
Akron's Jim Dennison, the 1976 College Division Coach of the Year, says, "We should have a darn good team. We won't be as fast as last year but we could be stronger." The Zips' strength is their defensive unit. Its mainstay is Middle Linebacker Steve Cockerham, a first-team Kodak All-America last season. Offensively, Akron raves about its junior quarterback, while play-by-play announcers fervently wish he would take his act to volleyball. His name is Marty Bezbatchencko.
Delaware went through a rebuilding program last season, and still had an 8-2-1 record, won the Lambert Cup and produced the All-East Rookie of the Year, Quarterback Jeff Komlo.
Northern Michigan, the 1975 Division II champ, could win the title again now that Quarterback Steve Mariucci is sound. Mariucci, who passed for 14 touchdowns and had 2,446 yards of total offense last season, broke his wrist in a game against Delaware, one week before the Wildcats were ousted in the playoff semifinals.
Northern Michigan's first four games will be the key to the season. Opening on the road against North Dakota State, the Wildcats meet Northern Iowa, Western Illinois and Akron before things ease off. "If we can survive," says Coach Gil Krueger, "we can be good." One thing the Wildcats will be is dazzling. Mariucci runs a pro set based on bombs and big plays.
Bethune-Cookman, which gave the NFL Larry Little and Boobie Clark, hopes to improve its 9-2 record en route to a fourth straight conference title. Offensively, the Wildcats' big ambitions will be dependent on tiny Reggie Beverly, a 5'7", 165-pound quarterback whom Coach Andy Hinson lauds for quickness and "a good brain."
Independents will be the best of the small colleges in the West. Nevada, Las Vegas and Nevada, Reno, two teams that do make the parlay cards, will contend for headlines all season long before their "state title" showdown on Nov. 19. For high-rolling offense, however, Portland State will be the team to watch, especially if the Vikings can keep their wide-open "run and shoot" offense going as well as they did last season, which was good enough to lead the nation in total offense and Division II in passing.
With the possible exception of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Texas A&I may be the most predictable team in football—as well as the class of the NAIA. The Javelinas last lost a game in 1973 and are currently working on a 39-game winning streak, the second longest in college football history.
Despite the retirement of Coach Gil Steinke after 23 years, the A&I string should grow as the Kingsville school shoots for a berth in the Apple Bowl at the Seattle Kingdome, where the Javelinas hope to win a fourth straight NAIA championship. Their star is Running Back Larry Collins, who is shooting for his fourth 1,000-yard season, a feat heretofore accomplished only by Tony Dorsett. Another offensive standout is Wide Receiver Glenn Starks, who caught 60 passes for 1,156 yards and 14 touchdowns a year ago. New Coach Fred Jonas has one big problem: finding a quarterback to hand off to Collins and pass to Starks, but his defensive unit, which calls itself "the Border Bandits," has eight starters back.
Threats to the A&I streak will come from such Lone Star Conference rivals as Abilene Christian, East Texas State and Southwest Texas State. In the playoffs, the Javelinas conceivably could have their success ended by Central Arkansas (46 lettermen), Elon or Western State College of Gunnison, Colo. Western State, incidentally, was recently put on NCAA probation, but no one in Gunnison seemed to mind.
"Big deal," said Athletic Director Tracy Borah. "We don't receive any benefits from the NCAA anyway. We've never been invited to a postseason NCAA event and we've never gotten any TV money either."
College football's smallest category includes the team that profits most from homegrown talent. That would be St. John's of Collegeville, Minn., last season's Division III champion and a school recruiting entirely from Minnesota. St. John's had a 10-1-1 record and led the nation in scoring and total offense. Other contenders include Wittenberg, a perennial Division III powerhouse; Hanover; Towson State; and Buena Vista, the juggernaut from Storm Lake, Iowa that got off 114 plays in a game last year.