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Original Issue


If on some Saturday you decide to make the trek to the Pro
Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, because you want to
experience football in its purest, noblest state, then do
yourself a favor after you exit the complex. Instead of jumping
back on the interstate, take your first left outside the parking
lot and go about 18 miles east to Alliance, Ohio, home of tiny
Mount Union College, which is an equally impressive monument to
football excellence.

Here, on a quaint campus of redbrick buildings and shaded
walkways, the Purple Raiders, the defending Division III
national champions, have come as close as anyone to achieving
perfection in college football during the 1990s. Six times this
decade Mount Union has been to the playoffs, and each time it
has either won the title (1993 and '96) or lost to the eventual
champion. In the past six years Mount Union has won five
consecutive Ohio Athletic Conference titles, produced 30
All-Americas and had a 67-2-1 regular-season record.

During that stretch the Purple Raiders have held opponents to an
average of 11.0 points per game while scoring more than 40
points in a game 45 times. "Mount Union makes my knees wobble,"
says Capital University coach Roger Welsh, whose team has lost
nine straight to the Mount. The Purple Raiders have 80 wins
since 1990 and a winning percentage of .925 (80-6-1)--both tops
in college football. Better than Florida State. Better than

But better still is the way in which Mount Union, a private,
liberal arts school founded in 1846 and now associated with the
United Methodist Church, has gone about producing these
mind-boggling numbers. Because this is Division III, there are
no athletic scholarships. Coach Larry Kehres, a former Purple
Raiders quarterback and college roommate of Carolina Panthers
head coach Dom Capers, has never cut a player during his 11
years in Alliance. To sustain that policy Kehres, who left the
first of his two National Coach of the Year trophies sitting in
a box unopened for several weeks in 1993--"These giant trophies
are so ostentatious, aren't they?" he says--must run four
separate practices each day during the preseason. When he
dresses his entire team for home games, upward of 175 players
must squeeze onto the Mount Union sideline and as many as four
players have to share the same number.

"We are constantly trying to keep things in perspective at this
level," says Kehres, who was chosen instead of Ohio State's John
Cooper as the 1996 Ohio college coach of the year. "Being on a
college football team should be fun. There are benefits of team
membership that some people have forgotten, and they go way
beyond becoming an All-America or getting your face on TV. I
appreciate the notion that we're doing things right here, but
it's not something we invented. We share it with all of Division
III athletics."

Many things, however, are unique to Mount Union. Old-timers pull
up lawn chairs and watch practice during the week. Locals stop
players in the grocery store to talk strategy. Postseason
autograph sessions can run as long as two hours. At this level,
players get excited when their one pair of new cleats arrives.

Before games the team takes a quiet, reflective walk around
campus--unless the field needs to be groomed, in which case the
players have been known to lend a hand with snow removal. During
games, which routinely draw sellout crowds to the school's old
5,800-seat stadium, the president of the college, Harold
Kolenbrander, has been known to do push-ups on the sidelines
after scores. (This is one sculpted scholar; the Purple Raiders
averaged 47.8 points per game in 1996.) Play-by-play is done by
Joe Tait, the voice of the Cleveland Cavaliers, who says that
none of his pro sports gigs give him "more thrills and sincere
enjoyment than broadcasting Mount Union College football games."

On weekdays you'll find last year's Division III player of the
year, senior quarterback Bill Borchert, inside a cramped room
near the team's lockers, washing uniforms as part of his
work-study financial-aid package. Kehres usually assigns stars
like Borchert, who threw for 4,035 yards and 55 touchdowns in
1996 despite sitting out the second half of four games, to the
laundry detail to help keep the starch out of their egos. Before
Borchert, All-America quarterback Jim Ballard also scrubbed
grass stains. Ballard led the team to the 1993 national title,
perfecting Kehres's short, efficient passing attack, which is a
hybrid of the West Coast offense. After graduation Ballard
helped the Scottish Claymores to the 1996 World League
championship before vying for a spot on the Buffalo Bills'
roster this summer.

"I know it's done to keep my head attached to my neck," Borchert
says of his laundry duty. "But sometimes, when guys are chucking
their smelly uniforms at me, or if I just can't get stuff dried
in time for practice and I have to listen to freshmen
complaining, I do sit and wonder if someone like [Florida's 1996
Heisman Trophy winner] Danny Wuerffel had to do stuff like this."

Of course not. But a look at Borchert's achievements raises the
question, Could Wuerffel do stuff like this? As a sophomore,
Borchert led the nation in passing efficiency and had a .710
completion percentage. Or how about this: In last year's
championship game against Rowan College of New Jersey, with the
undefeated Purple Raiders trailing 24-21 at the half, Borchert
abandoned Mount Union's short attack and tossed second-half
bombs of 71, 51, 45 and 36 yards to spark a 56-24 victory. By
game's end he had passed for 505 yards and seven touchdowns,
both Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl records.

"Do I wake up at night remembering the championship game and
scream?" asks Rowan coach K.C. Keeler. "No. Actually, when I
think of Mount Union, I say to myself, That is the way the game
was meant to be played."

The purity of the Purple Raiders' program is ultimately its
greatest asset. Ohio and western Pennsylvania are hotbeds of
schoolboy blue-chippers, and a lot of talent is left even after
the big schools have picked through it. By tapping into the
area's natural resources and by not cutting anyone, Kehres can
bring his players along slowly and build enough depth to field
several teams. This kind of talent pool also gives the
professorial Kehres, a chronic tinkerer, the freedom to try
players at several positions and tailor his strategy depending
on his team's strengths. Last year's pass-happy squad featured
17 wide receivers and finished fifth in the nation in defense
thanks to a pool of 36 linebackers and 11 defensive ends,
including Kehres's son, Vince. The 1997 team has 42 letter
winners and 14 starters back.

Among them is inside linebacker Jason Hall, a senior from
Columbus and a prime example of Mount Union's methods. Hall had
decided to skip college until Montgomery rang him up on the
phone and started his spiel by saying that the Purple Raiders
were the defending national champions. "I said, 'No you're not,
dude, that's Florida State,'" says Hall. "He said, 'Division
III, son, we're Division III.' I didn't know. I was just a punk,
going nowhere."

Now he's an all-conference linebacker who led the team with 102
tackles last year, and he's on schedule to graduate with a
degree in elementary education. This year he'll continue his
student teaching with blind and disabled kids. "I'll never
forget this place," says Hall. "But I've got to be honest, three
years ago I didn't even know Mount Union existed. Someone had to
tell me it was near the Pro Football Hall of Fame."

If the Purple Raiders keep winning national titles, the Hall of
Fame may be known as that little stop just down the road from
Mount Union.