Sport Imitates Life

September 10, 2009 12:49 PM

Pittsburg State vs. Northwest Missouri State: The Fall Classic of Division II Football


As is the case with Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, football has always been – and will always be – a big part of life in Pittsburg, Kansas. Unlike its more metropolitan namesake, Pittsburg, Kansas, has no ‘H’ at the end, and this town of just under 20,000 is located northwest of Joplin, Missouri, across the state line in southeast Kansas.

Pittsburg sits off the northwest corner of the Ozark Plateau, and the area is heavily wooded – even swampy in some parts – with another organic feature similar to western Pennsylvania: coal mines. These mines once dense and rich throughout southeast Kansas offered employment for European immigrants coming to America around the turn of the 20th century, and many Italians, Austrians and other Balkan refugees found their piece of the American dream in the middle of the Midwest. They poured into southeast Kansas (commonly known as SEK) from Ellis Island by the hundreds leading up to World War I, giving Pittsburg its strong ethnic identity and a heritage that still lingers today.

These immigrants embraced the new American game of football in Pittsburg, Kansas, just as they did in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and the distinct European last names still fill the area’s high school football rosters today. They play football in Pittsburg and they play it well. Pittsburg High School has won four football state championships in class 5A, while Colgan – the town’s catholic high school once known as St. Mary’s – has won seven state titles in class 2A while setting a state record with 66 consecutive victories from 2001 to 2004.

Frontenac – a suburb of sorts that is to Pittsburg what Fort Worth is to Dallas or St. Paul is to Minneapolis – has won two state championships in class 3A, and when football is this good and this important to a town and its culture, inevitably so too are the football rivalries. Colgan and Frontenac have become the archest of rivals through the generations, and the two schools genuinely have little use for one another on or off the field. The Dragons of Pittsburg High have had longstanding regular-season rivalries with Columbus, Fort Scott, Coffeyville and Missouri powerhouse Webb City through the years, and Pittsburg has revolving postseason rivalries with other prominent 5A programs around the state.

Football is much more than fun and games in Pittsburg. I know because I was born there. I’m the grandson of Italian immigrants, and some of the first things I learned about life I learned at a football game. My father and brother both played for great Pittsburg High teams, and the procession of touchdowns and extra-points taught me all the multiples of seven long before I ever turned seven.

This is life on fall Friday nights in small Kansas towns. The lights go up when the sun goes down. It’s the marching bands, the stands full of fans and the teenage kids who give it everything they can. Little boys in Pittsburg dream of being the next big thing, the next gridiron star at whichever high school their family pledges its allegiance to. Babies are bundled up in layers long before kickoff and long before they’re old enough to understand why. Little girls in Pittsburg wear the same cheerleading outfits the older girls wear, complete with face-paint, pom-poms and ribbons through their hair.

Homecoming parades funnel through downtown . Friday afternoon caravans follow the team buses to a big game out of town. Lettermen wear their letterjackets when it’s 60 degrees, while businesses bid good luck with their neon marquees. Cousins and brothers play side-by-side on crisp, Autumn nights. Sons and nephews follow their fathers and uncles into the record books. Grandparents watch the generations fill up the trophy cases and add to the annals.

With three high schools, Pittsburg residents are sometimes divided by the calamity and clash of Friday night football, but they have always worn – and will always wear – the same colors on Saturday afternoon. Pittsburg State University is a football powerhouse that has stood the test of time as one of the Midwest’s greatest small-college programs. The Gorillas won NAIA national championships in 1957 and 1961 under head coach Carnie Smith (the man for whom their stadium is named today), and an NCAA Division II title in 1991 under Chuck Broyles (the man by whom their team is still coached today). Broyles took over for Dennis Francione in 1989, and while Francione went on to higher-profile gigs at TCU, Alabama and Texas A&M, Broyles has guided Pitt State to 15 playoff berths and three other national championship games (1992, 1996, 2004) since winning it all in ‘91.

What does that mean to a town like Pittsburg? Brandenburg Field at Carnie Smith Stadium was remodeled in 2001 to seat over 8,300 Gorilla fans, which is more than 40 percent of the town’s total population. To match that ratio, Soldier Field in Chicago would have to seat about four million fans for Bears games every Sunday.

Brandenburg Field has been known over the years as ‘The Jungle’, and more recently ‘The Pitt’, and while the Gorilla mystique is self-evident in the program’s accomplishments through the years, much of the program’s regular-season success has ended in postseason disappointment. Pitt State won a college football-record 56 consecutive regular season games between 1985 and 1991, but the Gorillas didn’t even make the national championship game during that run until they won the title in 1991. PSU had a chance to repeat the following year before losing a championship game rematch to Jacksonville State (17-13), and the Gorillas are 0-2 in national title bouts since, having lost to North Alabama in 1995 and Valdosta State in 2004.

The Valdosta loss in ’04 still stings Pittsburg State and its fans. At 195-41-2, Broyles has the highest winning percentage of any active Division II coach (.826), and he has won or shared nine conference titles and three national coach of the year awards in two decades on the job. The Gorillas have had more “down years” in the last decade than they’re used to, but each time the townsfolk grumble about the SEK native losing his touch (Broyles was born in nearby Mulberry), he comes up with another legendary team like the 2004 squad.

The ‘04 Gorillas set several conference and national records for points per game, margin of victory, total offense, etc., and they led Valdosta State 14-0 in the first quarter of the national title bout before a fateful first-half interception. Valdosta State picked off a pass near midfield early in the second quarter and returned it inside the Pitt State 10-yard line, and the Gorillas lost not only the momentum but their starting tailback on the play.

Valdosta scored a two plays later and eventually went on to spoil Pittsburg’s perfect season with a 36-31 upset, and many say the program hasn’t been the same since.

Such is life in places like Pittsburg, Kansas. The coal mines have all dried up and the town’s population has more than halved after peaking at better than 40,000 during the Great Depression, but the The Pitt is still the capital of southeast Kansas. It’s twice as big as the next biggest SEK towns, and just as that modern cultural importance comes from Pittsburg’s history and thriving university (7,000 enrollment), that thriving university owes much of its importance to the football program and its championship history.

The town of Pittsburg has undoubtedly seen its golden age come and go, but Pitt State football has been an everlasting force. After dominating the Central States Conference at the NAIA level, PSU climbed to NCAA Division II in 1989 and joined the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletic conference (MIAA), where the Gorillas wore the league crown in four of their first six seasons. The Apes were indeed the king of the jungle, but they would not go unopposed for long.


Northwest Missouri State wasn’t exactly a football school when Mel Tjeerdsma (pronounced CHURCH-ma) became the head coach in 1994. The Bearcat football program had a middle school-quality stadium in Maryville, Missouri, (population 11,000) and exactly two playoff appearances in roughly ninety years of play (they lost in the first round both times).
Tjeerdsma, however, had been a winner at every stop of his coaching career on every level of football. He won the 1972 Iowa state championship as the head coach of Sioux Center High School, and the 1983 NAIA national title as the offensive coordinator at Iowa’s Northwestern College. It then took him just 10 years to become Austin College’s (TX) all-time winningest coach before he returned north to assume the reigns at Northwest Missouri State.

The Bearcats went 0-11 in his first season (’94), but they’ve lost just 30 games in the decade and a half since. The rivalry with Pittsburg State began escalating after the 1996 season. Northwest climbed to No. 2 in the polls – its highest national ranking ever – late in the ’96 season, but defending national runner-up Gorillas came to Maryville ranked seventh in the country and embarrassed the Bearcats 40-0 on an unseasonably rainy Saturday afternoon.

It seemed at that point Northwest still had a psychological barrier to break against the Pitt State, but they broke it in a big way the following season by taking a No. 5 ranking into Pittsburg and clipping the second-ranked Apes 15-14. It’s been on ever since. After reaching the quarterfinals in the ‘97 playoffs, the Bearcats beat Pitt State again in the 1998 regular season before going on to capture the school’s first national championship in any sport with a 24-6 rout of Carson Newman.

Northwest beat Pittsburg again in the 1999 regular season and eventually defended the Division II throne with an unforgettable 58-52, quadruple overtime triumph over Carson Newman in a title game rematch. It was the longest NCAA football championship ever played at any level.

Tjeerdsma and the Bearcats returned to the national championship game in 2005, but they’ve suddenly become the Buffalo Bills of Division II football, losing each of the last four national title bouts in gut-wrenching fashion:

2005: Lost to Grand Valley State 21-17 after the Lakers scored with 4:35 left and stopped Northwest at the 4-yard line as time expired.

2006: Lost again to Grand Valley state 17-14 as the Lakers scored early in the fourth quarter to secure their fourth national title in five years.

2007: The Bearcats finally beat Grand Valley 34-16 in the national semifinals before falling to Valdosta State 25-20 in the championship game. Northwest rallied from an early 14-3 debt only to surrender the game-winning touchdown in the final minute of regulation.

2008: Minnesota Duluth scored in the final minutes and then held off Northwest in the closing seconds for a 21-14 win.

Losing four straight championship games stretches and strains the Bearcat psyche much worse than Pittsburg’s 2004 loss to Valdosta scars the Gorillas, but it’s also a good problem to have. It means Northwest Missouri State keeps coming back for more. It means they’re an undeniable force on the national level. The Bearcats have made the playoffs in 11 of the last 13 seasons, and their 26 playoff victories during that stretch have made their coach the winningest postseason coach in NCAA Division II history. Tjeerdsma is 218-79-4 overall and 158-41 at Northwest Missouri State, ranking him fifth among active coaches in wins and second in win percentage. He is a nine-time MIAA coach of the year, and seven of the 12 MIAA teams to finish a conference season undefeated were coached by Tjeerdsma. His program might be in a championship-game funk right now, but as long as Tjeerdsma stays at Northwest, the Bearcats are here to stay.

Pittsburg State has long been here to stay, and the two teams have won or shared 17 of the 20 MIAA conference titles since the Gorillas joined the league. PSU and Northwest are still the only two MIAA football teams to win – or even play for – the Division II national championship. Pitt State leads the all-time series 21-20, but Northwest has won five straight and 12 of the last 15.


Pittsburg State and Northwest Missouri each began a series of much-needed renovations to their football stadiums in 2001, and in 2002, Bearcat Stadium remained under renovation and was unable to host the fifth-ranked Bearcats’ Oct. 17 battle with No. 11 Pitt State. Legend has it school officials from both sides got together with then Kansas City Chiefs general manager Karl Peterson and agreed to give up one home game apiece to play the 2002 and 2003 regular season games in Arrowhead Stadium. It was little more than an experimental compromise at the time, but when 26,695 fans turned out for the ’02 match-up (the largest crowd ever at an MIAA sporting event), Arrowhead became the rivalry’s new home.

Most of the lower bowl on Chiefs’ 78,000-seat stadium was filled as Northwest handled Pitt State 29-7, and the spectacle was renamed the Fall Classic by the following season (the first game had been dubbed “The Clash of Champions”). Northwest ran its win streak over the Gorillas to seven with a 20-19 win in 2003, which remains the only meeting between the two where both schools were unranked. Pitt State regained the initiative in 2004 when the two teams met in Arrowhead for the regular season finale ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the nation. The top-ranked Gorillas scored late in the fourth quarter to take a 21-17 decision and the MIAA title. Two weeks later, they met in Pittsburg for a rematch in the national quarterfinals, and Pitt State won 50-36 … only to lose to Valdosta State two weeks after that in the national championship game.

Pittsburg beat Northwest in another barnburner during the 2005 regular season, but this time the Bearcats got their revenge in the quarterfinals, and they haven’t lost to the Gorillas since.

2002 #5 Northwest 29, #11 Pitt 7 26,695
2003 Northwest 20, Pitt 19 20,324
2004 #1 Pitt 21, #2 Northwest 17 25,542
Playoffs: #1 Pitt 50, #4 Northwest 36
2005 #14 Pitt 56, #16 Northwest 35 21,044
Playoffs: #21 Northwest 21, #23 Pitt 10
2006 #2 Northwest 41, #8 Pitt 14 22,561
2007 #9 Northwest 37, #16 Pitt 34, OT 19,103
2008 #7 Northwest, #6 Pitt 10 21,316
Playoffs: #3 Northwest 38, #10 Pitt 35

Not only have the Kansas City Chiefs and both universities profited from the games played in Arrowhead, but the already-prosperous football programs now have yet another card to play in terms of recruiting and media exposure. The Fall Classic is a one-of-a-kind experience for players, coaches and fans at the Division II level, and perhaps the only real drawback is the fiscal loss of one home game every other year for local businesses in Pittsburg and Maryville.

The drive to Arrowhead is less than two hours for each school, and as good as these two programs have been at home over the years, it makes either perfect sense or absolutely no sense for them to meet on a neutral field where both fan bases can have their cake and eat it too. Pittsburg State has won 118 of its last 126 home games, and Northwest Missouri State has been responsible for three of those eight home losses. After the Gorillas nearly doubled the capacity of their football stadium in 2001, a record 11,862 fans overfilled “The Pitt” on Oct. 13 to watch Northwest beat the Gorillas 35-31.

Meanwhile back in Maryville, where Bearcat Stadium didn’t even have lights or a visitors’ grandstand until earlier this decade, Tjeerdsma’s teams have won 32 straight home games and 28 straight conference games overall. Northwest’s homefield – which is the longest continually running home site in Division II – now holds 6,500 (more than half the town’s population!), and the second biggest crowd in school history (9,250) gathered on Sept. 16, 2000, to watch the Bearcats beat Pittsburg 35-28.


The Bearcats started the 2009 season ranked second in the nation, but a filthy first half cost them dearly in a 19-14 season-opening loss at No. 5 Abilene Christian. Northwest also lost its 2008 season opener to Abilene Christian before taking revenge in the playoffs, and the 2009 Bearcats recovered in time last week to open conference play with a 49-14 rout of Southwest Baptist. Northwest is ranked seventh in this week’s poll, but they now find themselves a slight underdog heading into the eighth annual Fall Classic.

Pittsburg State was ranked seventh in the preseason poll, but the Gorillas are a heavy 2-0 after bombing both No. 16 Central Oklahoma (42-13) and No. 7 Chadron State (41-13) at home to start the season. The Apes are ranked fourth in the country, and needless to say, they’re due against Northwest Missouri State. Saturday’s 5 p.m. kickoff will be the ninth meeting in this rivalry with both teams ranked in the top 10, and it will be the first time since the game moved to Arrowhead that the MIAA giants have crossed paths before October.

25,000+ are expected Saturday in KC, and the line between the two sides will be unmistakable, as well it should be with two warring factions. Even their school colors clash, with Pittsburg State’s red & yellow on one side of the stadium and Northwest Missouri State’s green & white standing in stark contrast across the way.

With this autumn war having clearly outgrown each team’s hometown, the two armies now meet again on a Kansas City battlefield to continue one of the best rivalries in small-college sports. Check back Sunday to see how Fall Classic VIII plays out.

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