NOTE: Northwest will celebrate the 20-year reunion this weekend of the 1998 football team that won the first national championship in school history. The 1998 squad became the first NCAA Div. II school to finish a season at 15-0. Northwest defeated Carson-Newman 24-6 in the title game in Florence, Alabama, on Dec. 12, 1998. Members of the 1998 squad will be honored at halftime of Saturday’s Homecoming game.
By Trent Spinner
Media Relations/Communications Student Assistant
Championships are interwoven throughout the elite football programs, but every dynasty is defined by a once-in-a-lifetime establishing team.
Generational teams pave their way in gold in today’s game, for the University of Alabama, it was the 2009 team that guided them to four national championships in the current decade. The 2001 New England Patriots generated the buzz to stack the ring cabinet full. Just like the others, Northwest Missouri State’s football powerhouse name was discovered by one squad, the 1998 national champions.
The Bearcats dominance on the field since 1998 has run parallel with some of the greatest sports program traditions to date. With six Division II national championships, 28 conference titles and 69 consensus All-Americans, Northwest’s accolades continue to create a tradition that recruits flock to.
Traditions did not always exist for the Bearcat football team, as losing seasons were a normality before the arrival of Mel Tjeerdsma.
“Coach Tjeerdsma and his coaching staff put together a program that would be great in all divisions,” 1994-98 center Steve Coppinger said. “He started with the coaching staff and then just started to recruit solid players that were great people as well.”
The 1994 season began as a bust for the program as Tjeerdsma’s first year came to a disappointing total of 0-11, but lucky for the program there was a method behind the madness. Northwest quickly kept improving from 0-11 (1994) to 6-5 (1995) to 11-2 (1996) to 12-1 (1997) before the eventual national championship season arrived.
“My first year we were 0-11 and we recruited one of our best classes,” 1994-2010 coach Mel Tjeerdsma said. “Some of the parents came up to us after and said, ‘I can’t believe my son chose a school that was 0-11,’ but followed that up with ‘but you guys acted like you expected to win’ and that’s what happened.”
Perfection is impossible to achieve, mistakes on the field are unavoidable, but the Bearcat record says otherwise as the 1998 squad finished the season 15-0. The chase for perfection is a rough journey, as it has only been achieved 16 times in the history Division II since 1973, in those 16 it was accomplished by only six total teams, with Northwest leading the pack at five undefeated seasons.
To take on history and be one of the teams that is forever engraved in the books as one of the best of all-time takes talent, mental stability and most of all a big-game backbone.
“So many big games,” 1996-1999 Northwest linebacker Aaron Crowe said as he reminisced. “So many great memories.”
Though the Bearcats used some late-game heroics against bigger name opponents, they showcased their dominance against the lesser skilled teams. During the regular season the Bearcats finished with a 28.1 point differential per game and only played in two games where they did not win by more than 10 points. The playoffs was an identical scenario as the point per game differential decreased to only 18 points per game.
With so many close games far apart, only a couple of games defined the Bearcat season, one of which was against rival Pittsburg State. The game was on the line with about two minutes left to play after the Gorillas tied it up 16-16, but like any other historic team, Northwest knew that big plays come at big times.
“I was getting ready to lead the team to our two-minute drive, lead them to victory and started getting my mind ready,” 1994-1998 quarterback Chris Greisen said. “Next thing you know Charlie (Pugh) takes it for a touchdown, which was awesome.”
The 1998 season, was a chance for the Northwest team to begin their reign and display their will to capture a crown that avoided their grasp for the previous two seasons. In ’96 and ’97 the Bearcats were eliminated by the same team in the quarterfinals, and low and behold Northern Colorado was back in Maryville for a third edition in ’98. The matchup was the same, but the outcome favored a different competitor as the Bearcats made quick work of the Bears, 42-17.
If Northern Colorado was a tough challenge, Texas A&M- Kingsville was a different animal entirely, supplied with talent and experience, they were a tough matchup for any team. For the Bearcats, though the mentality was that this is their year and no one team can possibly stand in the way. Once again Northwest made their presence in the Division II history books known with a 49-34 victory.
“Biggest moment was when we beat Texas A&M-Kingsville at home to send us to the championship game,” Crowe said. “We had gotten over the hump and beat a great team that was just as talented as us if not more talented. Once we got to Alabama we were not going to let it slip through our hands, we were bringing that trophy home.”
The Holy Grail opportunity that Northwest was after finally became a reality, but only one thing stood in their way, Carson-Newman College. There was no possible way the Bearcats were leaving without the trophy in hand, so as the offensive weapons showed out, the defense forced six turnovers in the rainy day matchup to secure the title, 24-6.
“When you win 10 or 11 games people will tell you, you good, but when you look in the mirror there was something more you had to do to take the extra motivation and win the national championship,” 1997-2000 Northwest wide receiver Tony Miles said. “We really embodied Florence or bust, it wasn’t good enough to just get a home playoff game and make it to the semifinals.”
‘Florence or Bust,’ a saying that echoed the walls of the Northwest locker room daily. A saying that defined the goals of a team gunning for Florence, Alabama, home of the Division II title game. With all their will power the Florence portion of the slogan became a reality.
The 1998 national championship team can be defined as a team loaded with firepower on both sides of the ball, as accolades came in bunches for the individuals that became one unit. All-American honors stacked up for the Bearcats as three players were named First Team All-American (DL Aaron Becker, QB Greisen, LB Crowe), two Second-Team All-Americans (OL Coppinger, DB Twan Young) and one Third Team All-American (OL Sherman Wilderness). As well, Greisen was named MIAA Offensive Player of the Year.
“That season we knew we had the talent, leadership, experience, and playmakers that could compete with anyone,” Crowe said. “I would say our confidence and determination was at a whole new level going into that season.
As the record books display the ’98 Bearcats as one of the best teams in Division II, they were not a team at all, but a family.
This was a group of guys that fought and cared for each other till the final whistle blew in the ’98 National Championship game and still that passion exists today.
“As time has passed, we don’t talk as much, because I’m in Green Bay and some of these guys are in Kansas City or Omaha,” Greisen said. “But I can tell you one thing, we may not keep up with each other as much now that time has passed, but I can tell you once we get together it won’t take long to get back to what we had, I’ll tell you that.”