What price glory, Bobby Wallace asked himself. Late one night in February 1982, only hours after Wallace, then an Auburn assistant coach, had secured an oral commitment from Bo Jackson to come to the Plains, Jackson threatened to renege because the media had gotten wind of his plans, taking the drama out of a press conference he had planned for the next day. "My greatest moment," Wallace said. "And then almost my worst. The up-and-down life of a recruiter. It'll kill you."
Jackson, of course, signed, and Wallace again hit the recruiting trail. Before long, however, he grew weary of the Division I-A road, and when he was offered the coaching job at Division II North Alabama in December 1987, he accepted it. Last Saturday his Lions won the national championship for the second straight year, by defeating Texas A&M-Kingsville (formerly Texas A&I) 16-10. "I honestly believe that I couldn't ask for a better situation than the one I have here," said Wallace two days earlier.
With a team made up mostly of homegrown talent—three quarters of the players come from within 60 miles of the North Alabama campus in Florence—Wallace scarcely has to leave his backyard to recruit. He doesn't even have to leave his backyard to win the NCAA crown. After the Lions appeared in their first Division II championship, in 1985, Florence made a successful bid to host the title game, beginning in '86. It will be there for at least the next two years.
The Lions, who finished 13-1 and have been the top-ranked Division II team since Oct. 4, 1993, intend to be back too. "With the title game held here, we feel an obligation to be in it every year," says linebacker Ronald McKinnon. "I remember how bad it was when I got here."
That would be the fall of 1991, when North Alabama went 3-7. The next spring Wallace rebuilt the Lions around the freshmen he had redshirted the previous fall and the incoming crop of freshmen. Those players, now juniors, have sparked the back-to-back championship seasons.
The elder statesman of that class is linebacker Paul Sanders, 22. Sidelined by a rotator cuff injury he sustained during his freshman season in 1989, Sanders left school and returned home to Parrish, Ala. He went to school part-time at Walker Junior College in nearby Jasper, Ala., while working full-time us an AT&T operator. Then, after being laid off by AT&T in 1992, he decided to return to North Alabama to complete his education. While sitting in the school's student center one afternoon that fall, he happened upon Wallace and, on a whim, asked if he might rejoin the team. Wallace consented.
Last Saturday, Sanders repaid Wallace for his show of faith by making a potential game-saving interception at midfield with 31 seconds left. "That was a nice touch to the season," says McKinnon.
Sanders and the rest of the junior class will be back next fall, which means the Lions could well have another home game next December.
By late in the first quarter of last Saturday's Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl in Salem, Va., senior tailback Jeff Robinson of Albion College had become so angered by bad-mouthing from the Washington and Jefferson defense that all he wanted was the ball and a little daylight. He had forgotten the hamstring injury that had hampered him in the earlier rounds of the Division III playoffs, and he wasn't bothered by the steady rain that made the footing treacherous. "They were calling me names and all that stuff," said Robinson later. "That kind of got me pumped up."
So with 35 seconds remaining in the quarter and Albion trailing 7-0, Robinson took the ball on an off-tackle slant and veered outside. "All I saw was green." he said. "It was time to go." And go he did, turning on his sprinter's burners—he runs the dashes for the Albion track team—for a 70-yard touchdown run.
The Presidents (what else are you going to call a team from Washington and Jefferson?) never found an answer to the speed of Robinson, who wound up with 166 yards on the ground and three touchdowns, or to the swarming Albion defense led by outside linebacker Jim Davis, who was in on 12 tackles. At the end the Britons had a 38-15 victory, a 13-0 record and their first NCAA title in any team sport.
"I think most of the people we played underestimated our team," said Pete Schmidt, Albion's coach and athletic director. "Maybe we kind of snuck up on some people."
How can a team that is 46-4-2 in the 1990s sneak up on anybody? Indeed, the element of surprise is not what makes the Brits successful. It's Schmidt's ability to recruit in the school's home state, Michigan. All 115 Albion players are from Michigan—players who were too small or too slow or too something else for the big schools.
Take Robinson. While growing up in Mount Clemens, he wanted to play football, but his mother. Theodora Webb, who works in the collection department of a bank, wouldn't let him because she thought the sport was too violent. She finally relented before his junior year in high school. Although Robinson began to show promise as a senior, he wasn't besieged by recruiters. He picked Albion over Division I Central Michigan because of Albion's academic reputation and because, he said, "I wasn't sure I could play college football."
Now that uncertainty seems laughable. Robinson broke Albion's career records for rushing yardage, touchdowns and points. He has been so good on the field that even his mom has changed her mind about football. "She's bloodthirsty now," says Robinson with a laugh.
After Saturday's game, Robinson found his mother and blew her a kiss. And, despite the taunting, he made a point of shaking hands with the Washington and Jefferson players. "It's just something I do," Robinson said, "but I have no respect for them."
As Robinson told it, the taunting began after his first carry, a two-yard gain up the middle. As he was getting up, he heard a President defender, who was white, say, "You didn't get much on that, nigger." At first Robinson was shocked, because "we don't play that kind of football." But then, as the taunts continued—always from the same player—he said his emotions changed. "I kind of got pumped," he said. "The adrenaline was flowing."
"He came back to the huddle with this smile on his face," said teammate Todd Morris, who is white, "but you could tell he really took it hard. I told him, 'Take it personal. Let's knock 'em down for that.' I was upset too. He's as much my brother as any white guy on the team."
Washington and Jefferson coach John Luckhardt was stunned by the accusations. "It came out of the blue," he said of the taunting reports. "I'm not doubting Jeff's veracity, but I find it hard to believe our kids would've done that. We've got a couple who yap a little more than I like, but we're not trash talkers."
Luckhardt said he planned to investigate the allegations, and that his first call would be to Robinson for more information on who the player might have been. "Quite frankly, we wouldn't tolerate it," he said, adding that he hoped it was simply a misunderstanding. "Maybe something was said that someone construed as racial. But I'm going to look into it, and if it's confirmed, somebody's going to catch hell."
When Robinson's mother said she was afraid that he would get hurt playing football, she was thinking about his body, not his feelings. But at Albion her son has learned how to deal with whatever comes his way. "Right now," he said as he met with the press with a smile on his face, "I'm the happiest guy in the world."
—WILLIAM F. REED
North Alabama and Marcus Hunter (56) successfully defended their turf and their NCAA Division II title.
[See caption above.]
Rashaan Salaam won't say if he'll return to Colorado for his senior year, but if he does, he won't take the Heisman Trophy, which he won last week, back to Boulder. He's giving it to his mom instead.