|It used to be new, but now it's expected that Mount Union makes its annual trip to Salem.
By Ryan Tipps
For years, it was common for many of the Kehres family Christmas cards to be stamped with a Salem, VA, postmark. To this day, Mount Union parents do their holiday shopping in the city, fans crowd the restaurants and bars one weekend a year, and locals recognize and root for this long-time purple power.
If Mount Union had a home outside of Alliance, Ohio, it would be in Salem.
“It’s not Christmas if I don’t see purple,” said Dave Robbins, who served as one of the host families during the early years of the Stagg Bowl in Salem. In 1993, Robbins was tasked with showing Larry Kehres around the town, offering advice on places to visit and helping him and his staff get settled.
“To achieve this level of success, not just for five or 10 years, but for 25 years, that’s incredible. You can’t play PlayStation for 25 years and win 93 percent of your games like we have.”
— Jim Ballard, 1993 Gagliardi Trophy winner
A quarter-century after the Purple Raiders, quarterbacked by Gagliardi Trophy winner Jim Ballard, won their first Walnut and Bronze trophy, the team is about to play in Salem for the 20th time.
“To achieve this level of success, not just for five or 10 years, but for 25 years, that’s incredible,” Ballard said. “You can’t play PlayStation for 25 years and win 93 percent of your games like we have.”
Friday’s game, however, will be measured as bittersweet -- it is the last football championship Salem is slated to host. For the next two seasons, the Stagg Bowl is headed to Shenandoah, Texas, before then being hosted in Canton, Ohio. While Salem still serves as Title Town for other Division III sports, it will be relegated to the archives for football. For Mount Union’s players, fans and coaches, a long and respectful relationship will end. Left will be the memories.
Mount’s first visit to Salem was a remarkable one -- ranking right up there with the Blizzard of ’09 and the two wins against St. Thomas, the first marking the elder Larry Kehres’ final game as head coach in 2012 and the second marking son Vince Kehres’ first Stagg Bowl win at the helm in 2015.
Back in 1993, the mountain air howled, dropping the wind chill to close to zero. The roughly 70-degree temperatures just one day prior had vanished. Pre-internet, it was a shift many didn’t expect. Fans and family, including the wife and young child of then-defensive coordinator Don Montgomery, were bundled up and braving the elements to support their team. Logic suggested that it would be one of the few opportunities that they would ever get.
“We worked so hard in the early ‘90s to get there,” Ballard said. “In ’92, we went to the national semifinals, and that was as far as any Mount team had ever gone. And then for us to come back in ’93 and get over the hump and win it, we were like, ‘There’s never going to be another team like us again.”
Much to the surprise of players and fans, 1993 was less a fluke and more the norm. Mark Grossman, who broadcast Mount Union games for years with Ric Brienza, remembers the muddy 1993 semifinal game that catapulted Mount into the Stagg Bowl -- wherever that was.
“I can vividly remember … talking to our buddies as the game ended, saying, ‘I don’t care where the title game is next week, but we’re going!’ Seriously, we had no idea where the Stagg Bowl was being played, but we weren’t going to miss this ‘once in a lifetime’ experience,” Grossman said. “Never in a million years did I expect a 20-plus year marriage with Salem.”
From the start, Salem positioned itself as a first-class setting for this small-school showdown. Those close to Mount Union noted that the meals and other gatherings created an atmosphere befitting a championship setting. The bowl shape of the stadium itself heightened the feel of the game and amplified the effects of the crowd.
“The lunches were great, the speakers were outstanding. We felt completely taken care of,” Ballard said. “Salem had a big-time feel to it.”
Current Mount Union coach Vince Kehres first spent time in Salem as a high schooler, watching his father lead his team to a 34-24 win over Rowan, another team that made multiple visits to Salem. Kehres has had the unique opportunity to enjoy Salem as a fan, a player, an assistant coach and a head coach.
“They do such a great job of making this a first-class experience for all of those involved in it,” he said. “It’s sad to see it come to an end, but we’re really happy we have the opportunity to get down there one more time.”
From the start, residents of the city were welcoming of these college programs -- to this day, Robbins is a good friend of the Kehres family, having gone to Alliance to visit and having welcomed Larry Kehres and his kin into his home. Robbins, who served as a host for visiting teams for nine years, said that by about the third visit in, the elder Kehres knew the lay of the land in Salem pretty well. Although Robbins may not have been needed as a host as much as he was in that first season, he continued to forge close ties to Mount Union and to the Kehres family.
Robbins even talks about the time the elder Kehres let him call a play for Mount -- in practice, of course. He admits he was probably dating himself when he asked the team to run a Statue of Liberty play.
“We’re going to miss having them here,” Robbins said. “They have a great fan base out of Ohio, which adds to the atmosphere in a big way to have all those fans come down.”
This week, Vince Kehres noted that “when I think of Salem, the first thing I think about is people, the relationships that we’ve built with the people who have been affiliated with the game. The people who have served as our host families over the years, they’ve become friends and people we really enjoy seeing.”
Fans love the city and the setting as much as the team does. For them, it’s reminiscent of a family reunion, a way to bring graduates from different generations together for something unifying annually. For the former players, such as Ballard, who have returned to Salem to see their team, it’s particularly poignant for them to talk about those past teams and those past games while on such hallowed championship ground. Salem has helped foster community among the Mount Union faithful.
“It doesn’t matter when you played because there’s such a mutual respect between the Mount Union teams,” said Ballard, who attended the Stagg Bowl several times through the early 2000s.
“When you get to go back to Salem again, not only are you hanging with the guys you traveled with, but you’re getting to see all the guys you haven’t seen since the previous trip to Salem,” said Grossman, who’s missed the trip to Virginia only twice -- once when his daughter got married and once when he was sick.
Getting to Salem is never easy, and that is, perhaps, why it becomes such a unifying experience. There are always hurdles during the season. The ball has to bounce the right way sometimes. Discipline has to be maintained.
“You certainly can’t take it for granted for one minute,” Kehres said, just days before head coaching in his fourth Stagg Bowl game. “Our approach is to grind out good days throughout the year to put us in a position to win a championship in late December.”
That December game will be somewhere warmer next year, and, among casual Division III followers, it won’t be long before Salem will be talked about in a way that Phenix City, Alabama, and Kings Island, Ohio and Bradenton, Florida are. For Mount Union, though, Salem will be held in higher esteem, and it seems unlikely that the city or that the Roanoke Valley will forget about Mount Union any time soon.
“As a city, we’ve been very fortunate to have D-III football all these years,” Robbins said. “It’s been a great relationship, and because of that, I’ve become quite a fan of Mount Union.”