Division III football: A gentleman's game
|The game has a logo. That's how you know it's a big deal.|
Hampden-Sydney is all-male; so is Wabash, and the teams have never met on the football field before Saturday. They are ranked 21st and 16th in the nation, respectively. Both have made habits of postseason play in recent years.
It’s a game so big that the NCAA president is traveling this weekend to Crawfordsville, Ind., to speak to the players.
Historic performances happen every year in Division III (last season, for example, the single game rushing record was broken – twice). But despite having more than 240 teams scattered around the country, historic matchups are decidedly less common.
Even taking their playoff worthiness out of the equation, even if we factor out their Top 25 rankings, this game – labeled The Gentlemen’s Classic – pits together the only two Division III schools for which the all-male classroom experience has survived into the 21st century.
There are many characteristics of manliness, some of which include combinations of strength, determination, responsibility, respect, dedication and sacrifice. The student-athletes of these schools are that and more.
A Wabash news release last month summed up the philosophical similarities between the schools, which are separated by a little more than 600 miles:
“Both schools are mission driven and develop young men as responsible leaders. Wabash, founded in 1832, ‘educates men to think critically, act responsibly, lead effectively, and live humanely.’ Hampden-Sydney, founded in 1775, ‘forms good men and good citizens in an atmosphere of sound learning.’ ”
The academic status (both are well-placed liberal-arts schools in the U.S. News & World Report’s rankings) and athletic traditions of the institutions complement their shared ideologies. Since Wabash’s first game in 1884, the Little Giants have amassed 642 wins, and each Saturday in the fall, fans pack the stadium while students in red-and-white striped overalls lead cheers along the sidelines. Since 1892, the first year of H-SC football, the Tigers have 531 wins and a blazer and tie are not uncommon for game-day fans.
Each team has been picked in their conference poll to take the conference crown. And they each cap their regular season in ferocious fashion with one of the consensus best rivalries in the nation: Hampden-Sydney against Randolph-Macon and Wabash against DePauw.
Did I mention that both are all-male?
There is little doubt that The Gentleman’s Classic and the rivalry games will make for exciting bookends to these teams’ regular seasons.
Saturday’s matchup has been a couple of years in the making, according to Joe Haklin, Wabash’s director of athletics. In fact, for the better part of a decade, fans on both sides have been talking about the possibility of this game taking place.
When Haklin was hired in the middle of 2011, initial conversations with alumni included some words of congratulations but didn’t stop there.
“They said, ‘You know, maybe we can get Hampden-Sydney on the football schedule,’” Haklin recalled them saying.
As it turns out, football fans have lacrosse partly to thank for Saturday’s game.
While Wabash was making the push to have lacrosse as a varsity sport, Haklin decided to reach out to Richard Epperson, his counterpart at Hampden-Sydney, for advice. The Tigers have had a solid lacrosse program for decades, and Haklin hoped to learn how the sport impacted the culture on an all-male campus.
“We got through that part of it, and it sort of morphed into getting to know each other a little bit,” Haklin said of his relationship with Epperson. “And I mentioned that some of my alumni are thinking that it would be a real good idea for us, two all-male schools that play football, to play each other. A mini Stag Bowl – with one ‘g.’
“He replied, ‘It’s funny you should say that. We think it would be a pretty good idea, too,’” Haklin said Epperson replied.
H-SC coach Marty Favret and Wabash coach Erik Raeburn were on board. So were the college presidents.
The schedules made sense starting in 2014.
“It’s a novelty,” said Favret, H-SC’s coach since 2000. “The schools have never played football against each other, and because the schools are all-male, it’s very unique.”
Neither Favret nor Raeburn is shy about stating just how difficult it will be to earn a win on Saturday. Both coaches fear turning the ball over as players shed their offseason rust. They know it will get physical in the trenches. And each side has some important weapons to draw upon, including All-Americans.
After two dozen practices, players will also be eager to put their talents to the test.
“The players on your team want to go against good competition,” Raeburn said, “They want to be challenged, they want to have a chance to beat somebody who’s really good.”
Hampden-Sydney has a long trip ahead of it, but the team showed in a strong playoff outing at Linfield last year just how well it handles travel. Despite a loss, Sydney erased a lot doubts in that second-round game.
“Whenever you play a team from a different state and a different conference, there’s that kind of question mark as to how you match up,” Favret said.
A game like The Gentlemen’s Classic doesn’t come cheap for the visiting team -- travel is in the tens of thousands of dollars -- so Wabash is making the most of it with several events on campus to welcome the Tigers. NCAA President Mark Emmert will address both teams on campus Friday afternoon, and he will participate in the coin flip at midfield on game day. There will be an open tailgate on Saturday where Sydney and Wabash fans can connect.
Haklin repeatedly referred to this game as one of shared brotherhood between the schools, intended to be free of animosity or antagonism.
“They can go to the other side of the field and enjoy the game,” he said, “but we’re going to try to be really gracious hosts both before and after the game.”
He said he envisions that the two institutions can continue to learn from each other. While football probably won’t go beyond two years, he said he hopes that the connection will.
“We’d like to bill as more than a football game; it’s a celebration of the two schools who have years of educating young men and sending them out into the world to do great things, be great leaders in all the communities that they eventually end up in,” Haklin said.
Years of planning and procedures have made this weekend’s game a reality. The funny thing, perhaps, is that after all this time, lacrosse still isn’t a varsity sport at Wabash -- at least not until next season.
Football’s spirit doesn’t just survive – it thrives
I love college football.
I love my family, faith and freedom even more, but football is pretty high on the list. The game wields an awesome power to energize and unite people. Players bond over the shared heroics and shared heartbreak. The walls that separate living units and academic departments figuratively crumble on game day. Multiple generations of alumni find common ground catapulting their voices across the stadium: “Let’s go, team!”
Even many years removed from my collegiate athletic career as a distance runner, it’s preposterous to believe I could ever divorce myself from the excitement of Saturdays in Division III. After eight years of covering small-college football for D3football.com, I probably don’t remember many players’ names from year to year, but I do remember the impact that the victories had on me, as well as the losses and playoff runs and those games played just because the people on the field loved football, too.
There is no shortage of emotion throughout the fall. I’ve been cheering on both sides of last-second victories and losses – remembering a game-winning touchdown pass or a long field goal sailing through the uprights. And I’ve often been a neutral observer, not vested in the outcome but rather in the atmosphere, the setting and the thrill of the action.
I can’t expect to carry with me the nearly two decades’ worth of institutional knowledge that longtime Around the Nation columnist and former D-III defensive back Keith McMillan brought to your screens each week. However, I can promise that I will bring the same passion that he did.
Many programs (my alma mater included) are boisterous in support of their football programs. There is pride on the field and in the stands. Rivalry weeks can agitate campuses around the nation. And the playoffs are a perennial prize.
Not every one of the 244 schools in Division III has the same goals or same expectations for its football program, but all are united in drive and purpose. Students, parents and fans rally behind each team – and hopefully respect those on the other sidelines, too.
There are lessons that emerge from every facet of the game, and they are profound when competitors hold on to hope that they can win. It’s what drives the day and makes the memories lasting.
Celebrate that experience.
Reaching out to me
Yes, I am a Wabash grad, but it’s only coincidence that my first Around the Nation column centered on the Little Giants. I suspect that if Keith were still the columnist, he would have started the season in similar fashion.
Anyone who has read my past Around the Mid-Atlantic columns, Stagg Bowl stories or my Triple Take blurbs will know that I make a sincere effort to be fair and to spread the wealth among teams big and small. So don’t hesitate to reach out to me with column suggestions. I enjoy hearing both about great performances and about players whose lives were changed because of something that happened off the field.
My contact information and more about me is on my D3football.com bio.
And, of course, you can follow and contact me on Twitter: @NewsTipps.
(If you tweet anything about Division III football, don’t forget to use the hashtag #d3fb.)
There will be a handful of opportunities each week for me to showcase what’s going on in Division III. On:
- Sundays, look for my reaction and recap of Saturday’s games in Snap Judgments;
- by Thursdays, see my centerpiece feature story of the week;
- Fridays, read our Triple Take prediction column, where Pat, Keith and I give you some things to look out for in the following day’s games, including the top matchups and upset possibilities.
Between all that will be D3football.com’s regional columns, the ATN podcast, and the team of the week, among other things.
I hope you are looking forward to the season ahead as much as I am!