By Keith McMillan
I wanted to write about how great this Stagg Bowl is going to be. An intriguing matchup, a Virginia team in the game, a sold-out Salem Stadium and a prime-time ESPN2 slot ... what could be better for Division III football?
Actually, I did write about it on Monday. But I never sent the column in. The luster from the matchup of a five-time champ vs. a team whose seniors were 0-10 as freshmen wore off when everyone but the clock operator from Bridgewater's 29-24 victory over Rowan admitted that time should have expired before the Eagles ran their final play.
I tried to think Chuck Moore and Davon Cruz, Chris Kern vs. Marcus Richardson. But this off-the-field fiasco concerning what happened on the field last Saturday has taken the focus from what might happen on the field in Saturday's Stagg Bowl XXIX.
I was in Alliance, Ohio, watching Mount Union beat St. John's. You could imagine our surprise, and confusion after hearing the accounts of what happened during the postgame press conference. I heard Rowan coach K.C. Keeler's comments, and I thought he was being a sore sport.
As a South Jersey native, I have several connections to Rowan and have followed the Profs since before I went to a Division III school myself. I happen to like coach Keeler, and would have enjoyed seeing the Profs in another Stagg Bowl.
But when you lose, you lose, I figured. Why would Keeler set such an example for his kids?
Turns out he was right. When he said he hurt for his players, he meant it. When the videotape, opposing coach, director of officials and just about everyone else indicates that time should have expired on the play prior to the Eagles' game-winner, it's hard not to feel bad for Keeler and the Profs. They deserved to go to the Stagg Bowl.
But Bridgewater's kids deserve to be there too. I'd be willing to bet that Keeler told his players after the game something like 'although we got hosed at the end, that last play didn't lose the game for us.' No football game is won or lost on a single play, though a particular play might be called the game-winner. There were surely many instances when the Profs were gaining just 38 yards and being shut out in the second half where they could have performed better.
The subsequent debate will likely rage on long after the final whistle blows on Saturday's championship.
One e-mail I received likened the finish to the old Colorado-Missouri five-down game, which I believe the Buffs won in the end when officials mistakenly gave them two second downs. (Although, if I remember correctly, Colorado used one of those downs to spike and stop the clock, which I assume they would not have done if the downs were correctly kept).
As for the suggestion that Bridgewater give up its chance to play in the Stagg Bowl and give it to Rowan? Bad idea. Right now it's far too late, but really it's too late by the time the field clears and the buses pull away on Saturday afternoon.
The thought had crossed my mind though. Wouldn't that be the ultimate lesson in sportsmanship? Wouldn't it show everyone that Division III was more about doing the right thing than about winning?
I haven't personally checked, but I'm not even sure it is possible for Bridgewater to give up the opportunity if it wanted to. I'm told the school asked if it should forfeit, and the NCAA said no. Clark told a Virginia newspaper that he wouldn't, because neither he nor a player on his team did anything wrong.
Imagine who he'd be letting down if he did pass up the chance to go to a Stagg Bowl. Let's entertain the notion.
I don't think I could face my kids and take away that opportunity a day or two after the celebration set in. They certainly worked and played hard enough to deserve to be there, and one never knows when they'll be able to make it again. If the tables were turned, would Keeler or any other Division III coach do the same thing for the Eagles?
Technically, one could argue it is the right thing to do, but it wouldn't solve anything. If people are saying Bridgewater doesn't deserve to be there now, imagine what they'll say about Rowan if they managed to make it by forfeit. It would resemble Al Gore winning the presidency after challenging George W. Bush in the Florida courts during last year's election. The importance of the finding the correct result is lost in the subsequent disaster. The NCAA's on-site representative handled this situation swiftly, saying there were no provisions for a protest.
Logistically, changing teams would be a nightmare. Travel arrangements have already been made, and Rowan probably turned in its equipment on Monday. Moreover, the Stagg Bowl sold out on Monday. The decision-makers are working to add more seating or standing-room-only admission.
Any Bridgewater official who made the decision to pass the bowl up would not only be letting his team down, but all of those fans who had purchased tickets and made travel plans. On the flip side, how many from Rowan would go after thinking they lost, then finding out later they didn't?
And lastly, as one former Bridgewater player pointed out, officials make game-changing mistakes often. They're only human. Who knows if they might not have made several such mistakes in this game alone? But only one was so easily visible after the mud had settled.
If the Eagles had somehow turned down the Stagg Bowl, it would have created an even worse situation than it already has.
Some think any publicity is good publicity, but I can't see how this helps Division III football. Will anybody tune in or log on after hearing about this mistake and become a die-hard follower?
No matter how you slice it, it's a shame for the players at both Rowan and Bridgewater. They played a memorable game that may be remembered for what didn't happen rather than what did.
I'd like to forget it and get back to thinking about the merits of Mount Union against Bridgewater. If only I could.