There's a new powerhouse in college football. Perhaps you've heard of it: a church-affiliated school with a team of well-coached young men who have dominated their conference, won 24 games in a row and earned the right to be called national champions.
No, it's not Brigham Young. It's Division III's Augustana, a Rock Island, Ill. Lutheran school founded by Swedish immigrants 125 years ago. The Vikings beat Central of Iowa 21-12 last Dec. 8 to win their second straight Stagg Bowl for the championship of college football's most populous (198 schools) division. After the game, by way of celebration, Augustana fans hoisted a sign reading 24 STRAIGHT—BRING ON BYU.
Augustana (enrollment 2,200) is the alma mater of Cincinnati Bengal quarterback Ken Anderson and it places 10% of its graduating class in Who's Who Among Students in American Universities and Colleges. "We were able to sell recruits exclusively on our academic record even before we started winning big," says coach Bob Reade.
That didn't happen until recently—1979, in fact—when Reade took over. It was the year Augustana began winning consistently. A baldish man resembling actor Tim Conway, Reade, 53, is given to wearing old cardigan sweaters, baggy, double-knit pants and has an understated manner that belies his record—a nifty 56-8. In action, so to speak, Reade stands on the sidelines, arms crossed, face expressionless; looking at him, a spectator wouldn't guess that he's head coach or that he's winning.
But there's no question who's in control. After graduating from Cornell College of Iowa, Reade became a legend at J.D. Darnall High School in Geneseo, Ill., where he ran up a 17-year, 146-21-4 record. When Augustana asked him to be the school's head coach, he accepted with alacrity. "I liked the idea of going to a small Christian college where I could continue doing what I'd been doing," says Reade, who still lives in Geneseo and commutes the 30 minutes to Rock Island. "That and the tuition waiver for my kids."
As one would expect of a father of his own 11—his children range from 3 to 23—Reade embraces the concept of football as a total team effort. In the 1983 Stagg Bowl he passed up a field goal that undoubtedly would have sent the game into overtime and ordered instead a risky fourth-down pass—and beat Union (N.Y.) 21-17. "I didn't want a freshman field-goal kicker to be the one to make or break our season," he said after the game. "We were going to succeed or fail as a team." He has used as many as 108 players (in other words, the entire team) and 18 ballcarriers in a single game. As a result, Augustana has few players with flashy stats; the team uses no I formation, either literally or figuratively. In Reade's first game at Augustana the punter decided on his own to run and made a first down. Reade stormed out to confront him. "But Coach, I made it," the punter said. No matter. He still got a serious lecture on teamwork. "The key is Bob's ability to make players sacrifice themselves for the good of the team," says defensive coordinator Dennis Riccio. "If you start worrying too much about your own stats, you're not going to play."
Reade's total-team concept is both intelligent planning and good citizenship. "You're always going to lose key people to injuries," he says. "It helps if their replacements are prepared."
Indeed they are. Meticulous in his drills, Reade runs plays at full speed, and often orders his backs to wear no gloves on chilly days so they will be used to playing without them. While another coach might offer a diverse menu of offensive plays, Reade's fare consists primarily of meat-and-potatoes running plays, "the ultimate team concept," he says. The spice in his system is a gutsy tendency to go for it on the fourth down—and make it.
Augustana is a true Illinois team: Fully 102 of the 108 players on the roster come from the state. While assistant coach Tom Schmulbach hunts prospects in the Chicago suburbs where Augustana has always been successful, Reade visits the small Illinois towns where he feels most comfortable. You can see him among a crowd of townspeople, his low voice rumbling along like a thunderhead. He'll be speaking knowledgeably about fertilizer, hardware equipment, a mutual friend—almost anything except football. "Bob doesn't really recruit the kids," says Schmulbach, "he recruits the moms and dads."
But the players Reade attracts become so taken with his system that they recruit for him. That's in part because Reade doesn't talk much football with them, either. "We treat football as a lab class," says Reade. "We try to keep the players fresh by not making football their total picture." At Augustana, there are no evening meetings, Sunday meetings, summer training regimens or long practices. Motivation, by and large, is left up to the individual. Nor are there many overnight road trips to other schools in the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin; the athletes leave by bus in the morning, play the game and eat their brown-bag meals on the way back. "The kids like it that way," says Reade. "They're back by 8 p.m. to party."
The Vikings have been partying for some time. They have won 40 straight regular-season games. Their last loss was in the 1982 Stagg Bowl, when West Georgia beat them 14-0 and moved up to Division II.
These days Reade has only one major concern. "I'm afraid," says he, "that the winning streak will become more important than the program." Other coaches are concerned that Augustana will become bigger than Division III.
Though he is not always big, a typical Augustana player is smart and speedy. Reade's thinking: Quick guys can make lightning changes of direction and adapt to new positions; besides, you can coach anything but speed, so you might as well have it. Augustana's eclectic 1985 team, one that returns 14 starters, looks like another sure winner. "We're confident," says Reade. "We've proved we're champions on Saturday afternoons, not in a single bowl or poll."