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Don Hansen's Football Gazette Blog of information, comments, notes, and tidebits on Small College Football. NCAA 1-AA & Mid Major, Division II & Mid Major, Division III, NAIA, and NCCAA

Monday, September 24, 2007

RED ZONE for 9/24/07

THE RED ZONE By Craig Burroughs

This season is shaping up to be one of the most interesting and memorable in college football history, what with the remarkable upsets already played and the long list of major powerhouse programs not ranked in today's Top 25, and it has been exceptionally exciting so far in my personal football travels as well. To start it all off with a bang, I stopped at St. Johns University in Collegeville, MN, the morning after this year's first game, North Dakota's rout of Humboldt State in Grand Forks on August 23rd. I had long been curious how college football's all-time wins leader, John Gagliardi, runs his practices without whistles and full-pads-contact, and the Johnnies had a 9:30AM session that day, giving me the perfect opportunity to slake that curiosity. I was amazed to find at least 150 red-clad players on the field when I got there, all taking turns doing play run-throughs in two groups on opposite ends of the field, dressed in shorts, shoulder pads and helmets. Roughly an hour was spent this way before alternate groups started at midfield with 40-second, one time-out end-game drills to see how many times they could score before time ran out. An assistant coach served as referee, calling penalties and keeping track of the clock time with a stopwatch. Tackles were made by tagging the ball carrier or running him out-of-bounds. SJU's offensive teams scored about 75% of the time during this half hour of drills. After practice ended for the morning, I asked Coach Gagliardi if I could take a few pictures of him in his office, and he graciously accommodated. Not only did I get some great photos both of and with this extraordinary coaching legend, we spend more than an hour chatting about football and my extensive travels as his assistants drifted in one by one. He was particularly impressed with my indestructible automobile, a 1992 Oldsmobile station wagon which now has more than 760,000 miles in its rear-view mirror, and he was kind enough to ask me to join him and his staff for lunch at the school cafeteria. One of his assistants, his son Jim, had just purchased a used van with 150,000+ miles on its odometer, and they both wanted to know the secrets behind auto longevity, leaping to the questionable conclusion that I must be some sort of expert because mine had traveled so far. Coach Gagliardi suggested I should write a book on the subject, and I assured him that I would include a car-care chapter in my book-in-progess. He also noticed that I got a spontaneous nose bleed during lunch, a problem I have been tolerating for the past 21 years with little effective treatment. He told me that he had the same condition when he was young, and a doctor recommended a simple solution which he passed on to me and which seems to be working well for me. So I ended up with far more than I had expected when I stopped to watch a St. Johns practice...I got some fantastic pictures, a much better understanding of the SJU dynasty, a terrific lunch, effective medical advice, a handful of new friends, four hours of indelible memories, and a date to come back in the spring to monitor a session of Coach Gagliardi's locally-famous "Theory of Football" class, which is, in reality, a theory of life class. Ironically, two days later as I was heading back toward Collegeville on my way home from a Canadian Juniors game in Winnipeg, the engine in my car finally blew, breaking the crankshaft and stranding me in Rothsay, MN, for a couple of nights before arrangements could be made for its replacement. I drove a rental car from the Fargo airport for a couple of weeks while mine was being rebuilt, putting over 6,000 miles on it in nine States and one Canadian Province in the process. I also bought the rental car company a new airbag at a cost of $1,600, thanks to a gap in the pavement in the middle of a poorly marked construction zone in Indianapolis that caused quite a shock but no physical damage to either me or the car. As a direct result of my automotive adventures, I have been home for exactly one night in the past month, since I had to drive back to Rothsay and Fargo during the two days I might have had at home last week. If I'm lucky, I'll have the luxury of two more nights at home in the next six weeks, as an emergency business trip to Alaska has interjected itself into my football schedule in mid-October. I'm not sure how much more of this excitement I can stand, but I'm hoping that more of it will be on the football field and less of it on the road for the rest of 2007!
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I had another wonderful coach-related experience last weekend which took me back to my beginnings as a peripatetic football vagabond in 1990. That was Roland Ortmayer's last of 43 years as head football coach at the University of LaVerne in Southern California, and it was the first of my now 18-season-long quest to capture the essence of North American college football, and the year in which I met him at a Leopards game at California Lutheran. Ort is now 90 and residing with his faithful dog Sport in an assisted-living apartment three blocks from the stadium which fittingly bears his name on the ULV campus. I visit Ort regularly when I'm in California (I have family living 10 miles from LaVerne), and I promised him early this year that I would take him to the opening home game at Ortmayer Stadium this year. That game was last weekend against Whitworth, a team I wanted to see again since I had missed the first quarter of the only game I'd seen the Pirates in against Menlo a couple of years ago. It also gave both Ort and I the chance to see the first game of the Andy Ankeny era at ULV. Ankeny is a former assistant at East Texas Baptist, and he is the first coach at LaVerne since 1947 who was neither Roland Ortmayer nor someone who both played for and coached under Ort. The travel gods conspired to make the day a challenge for me, as my morning flight from Atlanta to Ontario, 15 miles from LaVerne, got away 90 minutes late. Then the rental car I chose had a mechanical "hold" on it when I got to the exit gate, so I had to choose another, which got me to Ort's apartment just 25 minutes before kickoff. Ort's daughter Corlyn and granddaughters Reina and Denise were there to help me with his wheelchair, but complications arose with the chair's leg extensions and we barely got to the field in time to see the kickoff. Despite the logistical frustrations, Ort and his family were able to spend two hours at the game, parked along the sideline near the LaVerne bench, and he was honored at halftime as part of the Community Day ceremonies. Many of his old friends came to visit with him while he was there, including LaVerne's AD, its President, its Public Relations Director and several former players and coaches.
He seemed to enjoy the hot dog and the carne asada taco from Cornie's Corner, the student-run concession stand which was operated for decades by his late wife and which still bears her name. The ballgame itself, which no one at ULV expected to win against the playoff-calibre Pirates, was competitive for the 1st Half, with Whitworth getting only a TD and a safety in the opening period and a lone field goal in the second, while LaVerne gained several first downs and looked good on defense. But the roof caved in after intermission, and Whitworth flew home with a 34-0 win, which Ort did not stay around to see end. Corlyn took him home midway through the 3rd Quarter, but it did my heart a great deal of good to see this extraordinary coach and even more amazing human being sitting on the sideline that he patrolled so faithfully for 43 years. One of my fondest wishes is that Ort be given, while he is still alive and alert, the best honor that could be bestowed upon him, induction into the College Football Hall of Fame. He certainly has enough wins (almost 200), but his philosophy was not the win-at-any-cost regime followed by many of the Hall's inductees, so his winning percentage does not meet the Hall's minimum requirements. There are, however, exceptions that can be made to those prerequisites, and Ort will have all the support anyone could ever have from the legions of players whose lives he influenced for the better during his lifetime of devotion to football at LaVerne. My job here will not be done until Ort has a bust in South Bend!
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I was appalled, as I'm sure you were, to read the reports of the on-field melee that took place last Saturday after the Henderson State at Delta State D-II Gulf Coast Conference game in Cleveland, MS. After a 9-7 DSU win in which two HSU field goal tries from inside the 20 were blocked in the waning minutes of the game, Henderson's coach Scott Maxfield and Delta's Rick Roberts exchanged both heated words and blows instead of the usual handshake. Their behavior incited their teams to engage in a helmet-swinging, pushing and kicking riot which was a major embarassment to both schools and to their conference. Conference Commissioner Nate Salant, with the endorsement of the presidents of both schools, suspended both coaches for their games this week, put both on probation for two years with the threat of serious consequences for any future violations of conference sportsmanship and behavioral standards, and also reprimanded DeltaState for lax security both during and after the game. DSU also was cited for ignoring conference rules restricting the seating of home fans in the visitors' seating area, which had resulted in taunting and harassment of HSU fans during the game. Last year's on-field violence between Miami and Florida International players should have given all football fans and school administrators enough of a warning about lack of player discipline and sportsmanship training, but when something like this happens at the Division II level and is incited by the coaches themselves, it is beyond reprehensible. Maybe Delta State should rethink their team nickname...Statesmen seems more than a little ironic in this case!
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