Melberger Award drops the ball

By Pat Coleman

Once upon a time there were two major Division III player of the year awards. One, the Gagliardi Trophy, honors the top student-athlete in Division III football. The other, the Melberger Award, was designed to honor the top football player in Division III.

Now there's just one major award.

The Melberger Award, given to the most outstanding player available.

You see, the Downtown Wilkes-Barre Club, which presents the Melberger Award, dropped the ball, big time. While claiming to honor the best player in D-III, it crafted a ballot that omitted the consensus five best players in Division III football, and excluded itself from even being able to consider 50 of the top players in the game.

Dan Pugh. Heck, he's a shoo-in, right? Top scorer and biggest name on the superpower of Division III football, Mount Union? Nope, not on the ballot.

Well, how about Blake Elliott? He's an explosive wide receiver, has 27 touchdowns himself, averaged 175 all-purpose yards per game for St. John's, not exactly a slouch program. Sorry, can't vote for him.

Well, they must have had Steven Wilson on there, right? He had 17 sacks and 39 tackles for loss as a defensive lineman from King's College, which is in Wilkes-Barre, for goodness sakes. Nope. Not this year.

So who won the darn thing? We don't even want to tell you, because we don't want you to think we're ragging on this young man. He's a fine Division III player, don't get me wrong, but he's not going to make our All-American team, let alone be the best Division III player.

See, here's the problem. This is a group that was looking to save money, so instead of doing things the way they had been done, which is to hold the voting and invite the top three vote-getters to an awards banquet after the season is over, they decided to simply invite the winner.

Now of course, they couldn't have a no-show, so the winner had to be able to be in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., to receive the award. Not a big deal, right?

Wrong. The awards ceremony was moved from mid-January, when it's been held since the playoff expansion, to the night before last week's national semifinal playoff games. Didn't it occur to them that there was a possibility the best player in Division III might be on one of the four best teams?

Even if that weren't the case, the Aztec Bowl was the same day as the semifinals, meaning that 42 of the best seniors in the country could not be considered for this formerly prestigious award. After all, you must be present to win, so hold onto those 50-50 raffle tickets, we'll announce the winner at the end of the third quarter.

For full disclosure, I vote on the Gagliardi Award panel. A contributing writer is D3football.com's only representation on the Melberger panel.

Who's left to vote for?

Here's the most outstanding Division III players in the country, according to the Melberger folks.

Adam King, QB, Howard Payne
Craig Swanson, QB, Hobart
Ryan Gocong, RB,
Jake Knott, QB, Wabash
Tony Sutton, RB, Wooster
Joe Reardon, QB, Williams
Luke Hagel, RB, Ripon
Daniel Pincelli, QB, Hartwick
Fredrick Jackson, RB, Coe
Randal Baker, RB, Carthage
Tony Racioppi, QB, Rowan

Darren Venable, CB, Ferrum
Jeff Thomas, DB, Redlands
Nate Boulais, LB, Wabash
Scott Farley, DB, Williams
Thaddeus Rego, DL, UW-La Crosse

(Note: Some voters didn't even see these players. They were in another part of the attached file.)

Here's who should have been on this ballot. Let's keep it simple.

Tom Arth, QB, John Carroll
Blake Elliott, WR, St. John's
Roy Hampton, QB, Trinity (Texas)
Chris Kern, DB, Mount Union
Dan Pugh, RB, Mount Union
David Russell, RB, Linfield
J.D. Sheldon, OL, Augustana
Jerheme Urban, WR, Trinity (Texas)
Steven Wilson, DE, King's

By the time you get to our tenth spot, we agree on Coe's Fred Jackson.

Are you beginning to understand the enormity of this debacle? People take this award seriously, and here it's gone to the guy who's the 51st-best player in the country. Wabash and Williams are fine programs, but it's hard to believe that there can be two nominees from Wabash and Williams and not one from the best Division III football conference in the country, the OAC.

You could have filled an All-Star team with the players not on the ballot. In fact, the Aztec Bowl people did.
Justin Knapp
Steven Wilson
Scott Biglin

"Unfortunately if there were some student-athletes that were ineligible for that we are sorry," according to Mary Kay Warner, the assistant vice president of sales and marketing for Diversified Information Technologies, who handled the administration of the award for the first time in 2002. "Hopefully we will be able to work out the administration that makes as many people happy as possible."

This choices were so bad and the process so disorganized that some people on the extensive voter list didn't bother to vote.

"I don't know how they dealt with supplying the nominees' stats to the media in previous years, but the e-mail I received last week had incomplete stats," said Joe Petrucci of the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader. "Several of the quarterbacks didn't have their interception numbers and it didn't have their rushing totals. None of the running backs nominated had receiving totals. And the defensive stats were entirely incomplete. I just didn't feel comfortable making a judgment on guys that I was pretty much unaware of in the first place."

WDPN's Jeff Shreve, who broadcasts Mount Union games on the radio, also declined to vote. "Initially I thought that there was some mistake, because there were only about 15 names on the list and in years past there have been 70 or 80. There have usually been a lot of quality guys.

"I was disappointed to find out there was nobody from the OAC, nobody from the CCIW. The only two players I recognized were the two from Wabash because (Mount Union) had just played them. It didn't seem like a comprehensive list."

What's this award about?

There's always been a distinct difference between the Melberger Award and the Gagliardi Trophy that has made both relevant and worthwhile in Division III. Gagliardi honors the student-athlete of Division III, for athletic prowess, academics and community service. Melberger honors the best player simply based on his performance on the field.

Well, not anymore, apparently. "Scholar-athlete has always been part of the award," said Warner.

When I suggested that this was not the case, and pointed to the Melberger's own press releases from this year and years previous which state "the Melberger Award, presented by the Downtown Wilkes-Barre Touchdown Club to the outstanding Division III football player of the year," she emphasized that academics were part of the award, "to my knowledge."

"Outstanding Division III Player of the Year" is also inscribed on the award's nameplate.

If that is the direction the Melberger wishes to go, this makes things worse. Now we have two very similar awards, one of which managed to get the best players in Division III on the ballot. The other has become a lesser award, according to the SIDs who choose which awards to use their limited time and financial resources to promote their players for.

One time only? Or last time ever?

This might just be a one-year issue. But it might be too late. Melberger put on a good show in the past, but didn't publicize itself as well as Gagliardi. And now it's got an award winner who was recently named an underwhelming third-team all-region.

"That was another big reason why I didn't feel comfortable voting, because of the fact that the best players were not nominated for the award," said Petrucci. "For an award in Wilkes-Barre to have one of the best defensive players in our own backyard, and him not to be a nominee had a lot to do with me not voting."

"We lost Mr. Melberger as our biggest sponsor," said Marvin Antinnes, president of the Downtown Wilkes-Barre Touchdown Club, "so we were not going to (present an award) at all. This was the best of both worlds at this time. I hope this is maybe a one-year deal."

"We will be meeting during the first quarter of 2003 to develop a program and a process that is fair to all," said Warner. "We're trying to provide a streamlined administrative process, because this gets costly, and we want the funds to go for scholarships, and not into the administration."

Unfortunately, the administration is important, when you're talking about giving out a respected national award. Or at least a formerly respected national award. Says Petrucci: "It's sad to say, but it's definitely a second-tier award now."

Maybe they should have followed the Gagliardi Trophy's lead and tried a little harder to hold the award presentation in Salem.

Nah, too many good Division III football players there.

Dec. 14: All times Eastern
at Mary Hardin-Baylor 24, Mount Union 16
@ Woodforest Bank Stadium; Shenandoah, Texas
Recap Photos Box Score
Dec. 14: All times Eastern
at Mary Hardin-Baylor 24, Mount Union 16
@ Woodforest Bank Stadium; Shenandoah, Texas
Recap Photos Box Score