Dynasty of disappointment?
|Coach K.C. Keeler's season ended with a loss
in Salem five times in the '90s.
Photo by Pat Coleman, D3football.com
By Keith McMillan
SALEM, Va. – Consistent and disappointing might be the two best adjectives to sum up an incredible decade for the team formerly known as Glassboro State.
With a 24-17 overtime win against Mount Union on Dec. 11, the Rowan Profs accomplished what few teams in Division III history had by earning a fifth trip to the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl. With a 42-13 loss to Pacific Lutheran one week later, the Profs accomplished what no team has: a fifth Stagg Bowl loss.
Just a few touchdowns from earning the "team of the decade" distinction; instead Rowan is scarred by a "Buffalo Bills of Division III" moniker.
Like the Bills, it has become easy to associate the Profs with losing the big game. But, for a second, stop and recognize what they've accomplished.
The Profs have become a model of consistency throughout the 1990s. Along with their rivals from Alliance, Ohio, they've become the standard by which Division III football is judged.
Consider that the Profs have made the playoffs in all but two seasons in the 1990s (1990 and 1994). When they've been, they've won, capturing the East Region championship a mind-boggling seven times. That's consistency.
But the consistency that makes the Profs a tremendous football team bred disappointment in the wake of Saturday's loss. It's difficult to reach the game's apex five times, only to fall from grace on each occasion. So disappointing, that despite numerous accomplishments, it was tough for head coach K.C. Keeler to say after the game that the entire 1999 season was not a disappointment.
"Yes and no," Keeler said Saturday in the tone of a man taking full responsibility for his team's shortcomings. "We're smart enough to recognize the great accomplishments, a trip to the Stagg Bowl, East Region championship, Lambert Cup, ECAC team of the year, beating Mount Union at their place. All are great accomplishments for a great team, but you know, obviously, we're kind of funny. We put it right out there. We want to be national champions. If you don't do that, then obviously there's going to be some disappointment."
In their five trips to Salem, the Profs have been consistently disappointed. No matter how well their season went or how impressive their runs through the playoffs have been, the Profs have been consistently outplayed in the final game by so-called teams on a mission.
Their closest contest was the first one, a 34-24 loss to the Purple Raiders. The other final scores have not been pretty: 36-7 against UW-La Crosse in 1995, 56-24 against Mount Union in 1996 and 44-24 against the Purple Raiders in 1997.
Saturday was more of the same. The Profs, who had rushed for 462 yards against perennial playoff team Buffalo State in October, totaled minus-63 on the ground against Pacific Lutheran. The Profs defense that dominated all season, causing as many as eight turnovers in a playoff game, was unable to force a single turnover against the Lutes and was shredded for 42 points.
Final scores in Stagg Bowls have not indicated their competitiveness. They led Mount Union 24-21 at the half in 1996 and 24-16 late in the third period in 1998. Rowan and PLU traded touchdowns early on Saturday before the Lutes ran off 28 unanswered points.
Similarly, the Rowan program is not defined simply by what they've done in Stagg Bowls. But entering Saturday's season finale, Keeler and his troops knew the pressure that expectations placed squarely upon their shoulders.
"Yeah, I think I recognized that," said Keeler. "I think we were really loose this week, looser than we've ever been before. I told the kids I'm not going to say a word about the national championship until the national championship game is over. I told them that Saturday (after beating Mt. Union). I told them I'm not going to talk championship game anymore. I said if we're prepared properly, we're excited to play, just go out and play the game. Don't worry about that it's for the national championship. Just go out and play."
In the wake of Saturday's disaster, Keeler had little explanation.
"I thought we were loose. A couple (of) plays can change your whole she-bang, and boy the fumble early, and them getting another seven (by) making a couple of plays ... that really put us in a hole."
In the span of a few good plays on PLU's part, did the Profs go from team to remember to team to forget?
"We did not go from a great team and great coaches and beating Mount Union to a bad team today," said Keeler postgame. "You have to give credit to what Pacific Lutheran did today."
But the loss still stung.
"I don't know if there's a whole lot of good we can take from this," Keeler added. "Usually there's always something. But, a couple guys I grabbed on the sideline during the end of this thing and I said, "you know, no one in this world is hurting more than me, but it's how you handle your adversities … And I think possibly some of the young guys learned a little bit about that from how I was handling it. The whole thing is I have to be the rock, I have to be the guy, the go-to guy in situations like this."
Keeler said one of the guys he grabbed was true freshman quarterback Mike Warker.
"I grabbed him and said, 'Hey Michael, who in this world is hurting more than me? Nobody. But all I can do is keep on coaching and all you can do is keep on playing.' And so I think some of the young guys learned about trying to take some of those adversities head on."
Keeler and his players also recognize that there is victory in the journey itself, and that there are no guarantees that they'll be back.
"I have been on the field here three times, and all the losses hurt," said all-American linebacker John Gavlick. "But I refuse to hang my head. I have had a great time at Rowan."
"It would have been nice to win one," said running back Justin Wright later.
Keeler, who returns several talented underclassmen, knows it is not a given that the Profs will get back to Division III's title game.
"What we've done is amazing, five times in the 1990s. You can't take it for granted, you really can't. Especially with the senior class graduating, it's going to be a long road to get back."
Keeler also acknowledged that losing this time may have been the most difficult.
"It's tough in that way, because in many ways this was our best shot with this great group of seniors," he noted Saturday evening. "And now where do you go from here? But you know, unless I decide to change jobs, what I do for a living, then we'll just find a way get back here and do this."