It was in 1973 when the National College Athletic Association (NCAA) restructured the way it classified college level sports. Prior to 1973 there were two levels of college sports, the highest level was called the University Division and the lower level called the College Division. In 1973 the University Division was renamed Division I (D1) and the College Division was split into two different divisions, Division II (D2) and Division III football (D 3 football). I remember it well. I was there for the very beginning. My late father and I drove to Bridgeport, Connecticut on a brisk, fall Saturday morning to see the first ever Division III playoff game between The University of Bridgeport and Juniata College. I was being recruited by Juniata to play football along with Lafayette College and a few other small schools during my senior year. The visiting Indians from Huntingdon, Pennsylvania won the first D 3 football playoff game ever held, 35-14, and went on to play in the first official D 3 championship game called the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl, in honor of the late, great collegiate coach. Juniata did not fare well in the Stagg Bowl as they got whipped by Wittenberg University, 41-0, down in Phenix City, Alabama on national TV. After attending the US Naval Academy for two years, I transferred to Juniata College to major in business and play football in 1976.
The D 3 football championship game continues today as the Stagg Bowl and is played annually in Salem, Virginia. Today, 32 D 3 colleges play in an single elimination format consisting of conference champs and at large bids from all over the country. The D 3 championship, like the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) and Division II championship, is won on the field. The D 3 football finale is played on the third Saturday of every December. My son, Eric, and I attended the title game in 2007 when we saw perennial Stagg Bowl entries Mount Union and Wisconsin Whitewater play for the second year in a row for the D 3 title. The Purple Raiders of Mount Union located in Alliance, Ohio defeated the Warhawks of UW-Whitewater, 35-16, that day for their ninth D 3 football championship, all under HC Larry Kehres. The following season, the Warhawks got revenge winning the title game in Salem over the Purple Raiders. Since that championship game in 2008, the Warhawks won the title five more times defeating the Purple Raiders each time. The Mount Union Purple Raiders have won it three times defeating the Wisconsin-Whitewater Warhawks twice and St. Thomas of Minnesota last season. Larry Kehres’s son, Vince, took over the coaching reigns from his father two seasons ago. UW-Whitewater HC Lance Leipold led the Warhawks to all six titles and now coaches the FBS Buffalo Bulls entering his second season.
The biggest differences between the three divisions is mostly financial. D1 football teams offer the most athletic scholarships to players and enjoy some of the biggest budgets and most elaborate facilities college athletics has to offer. D1 is now divided into the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) comprised of 129 schools vying for rankings, television contracts, and bowl payouts while the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) offers fewer scholarships, doesn’t have the big TV contracts, and determines their national championship in a tournament format entered by 24 teams comprised of conference champs and at-large bids. The championship game is played now in Frisco, Texas before the College Football Championship played for by the final two FBS teams from among the major conferences. Schools that play D 2 football are considered intermediate level and generally offer fewer athletic scholarships than schools in D 1, and their facilities are usually modest in comparison to D 1 schools. D 3 football programs are perhaps the most unique because D 3 football teams offer no athletic scholarships to student athletes. No athletic scholarships for student athletes? It’s an interesting fact, but one that makes you really respect D 3 football players.
It’s easy to understand why someone would want to take on the responsibility and hard work of being a student athlete when the student athlete is receiving a college education in exchange for their athleticism, but D 3 football players play out of a true love and passion for football. When I transferred to D 3 Juniata College from the US Naval Academy (where I did make what’s now known as the Sprint Football team, not the varsity Navy football team, where players had to weigh in at 158 lbs. to play, I hovered at 165 and never made weight), I had to sit out a year of ineligibility because of the transfer rules they had back then which were, thankfully and eventually, changed. Too late for me though. However, to get back into football playing condition, I practiced with the team while ineligible during pre-season double sessions before the first game and played on the scout team offense every week as one of the primary RBs for our opponents each week. I got to work as a spotter in the press box for home games. I worked out in the weight room on my own program during the offseason (everybody did back then) and went out to play club lacrosse to get in shape for football and do some real “hitting” in the spring. I was elected captain of the team though I’d never played lacrosse before (though my high school in New Jersey was one of about a dozen who played it back then). In our first game against Allegheny College’s club, I hyperextended my knee over my own defense stick which tore my ACL and meniscus, but I hobbled around on my busted leg denying how serious the injury was to get it back in “shape” for summer break, and then I reinjured what was evidently worse than I thought playing pick-up basketball at home. I got operated on, was in a cast for six weeks, went through re-hab on my own, worked it out, went to double sessions again in the summer before it gave out on me, worked out more, went out for track to get in shape throwing the javelin next spring, but in the end it never worked back out. I was sorry I could not get back to playing what I always wanted to do in college – play football – because I loved it. No scholarship. No glory. I wanted to play football badly when I got to Juniata College and knew I could. I just ran into some tough obstacles and didn’t get to where I wanted to be.
Even if a school wanted to provide financial assistance to student athletes at the D 3 football level, the NCAA strictly forbids it. The only exception to this rule is for the two service academies that are members of Division III college athletics, the Merchant Marine and Coast Guard, because all students at these two institutions receive a completely free college education regardless of whether or not they’re varsity athletes. As a matter of fact, I loved having the opportunity of seeing these two schools play one another along the Thames River in New London, Connecticut in 1997. My kids were young, we stayed at my sister’s in Rhode Island, and we saw the two D 3 football rivals with good records play for the Secretary (of Transportation) Cup. Coast Guard won 34-16 in what I can describe as a mini Army-Navy game. The USCGA Bears went on to play in the D 3 playoff to compete for the national championship, but they came up short. One of these years, I’ll go back to see the Coast Guard – Merchant Marine rivalry played again! It’s a great setting with a great small school atmosphere.
Over the last 30 years, I made the effort to see every FBS football team play in person at least once. For the most part, the journey is a finished success, however when a new school is added to the D 1 level, I go see another team I need to see in order to truthfully say, “I’ve seen ’em all”. Simply put attending D 1 football games is a passion. In fact, I even wrote a book about it: “Tales from the Tailgate: From the Fan Who’s Seen ’em All”. Understand though how much of a college football fan I really am. Some have called me the “ultimate” college football fan – granted, a few people have called me crazy (actually my wife is supportive believe it or not) – but many have referred to me as the ultimate fan. However, I don’t consider myself that. I consider myself to be a truly passionate college football fan as are many others. I’m significantly different though in that unlike most, I don’t focus on just one team like many others do including my good buddy, Tom Ables out at San Diego State, who’s seen all but two Aztec games, home and away, in person since 1946! I separate myself by being able to say, “I’ve seen ’em all” when it comes to having seen every FBS school play at least once. There aren’t too many other fans that can say that. However, I’ve seen a lot more than just the FBS teams when it comes to seeing college games over the years played by FCS, D 2, and D 3 football teams as well. If seeing every D1 team play in person has been a passion, then following Division III football is one of my favorite hobbies. Following the teams of the FCS and D 2 are close behind.
Overall, to me it’s about the game of college football itself. How it’s played, the spirit involved, the rivalries, the energy surrounding the games, the will to win, the traditions, game history, and the shaping of young lives in whatever fields they follow throughout the course of their lives. Make no mistake, just because players compete at the Division III football level, it doesn’t mean that they have any less passion for the game, or any less of a desire to win, than any players at the D1 level. I’ve seen a lot of college football over the last three plus decades, and I can tell you that the players and the fans of D 3 football are just as serious about their football as any D1 player or fan.
Learn more about my adventures through college football, and about my book, “Tales from the Tailgate”, at CollegeFootballFan.com. Click here to order. Also, come back to this site to read about some games among teams you rarely hear about – like FDU-Florham and Montclair State, SUNY Maritime and Kings Point (the aforementioned U.S. Merchant Marine Academy), and Kean vs. Rowan. These are all D 3 football programs that we’ll see compete this year just as hard as the big schools do with less size, speed and talent, but with just as much heart if not more.