All right, football fans, let's knock off the chatter about Ohio State and Notre Dame—yeah, and about Texas—and let's wander out into small-college territory, to places like Wittenberg and Westminster, to North Dakota State and Texas A&I and Tampa. If you have never been there to see that game played, you have tasted the frosting but neglected the cake. And don't let all that small talk fool you. Nobody ever said a diamond wasn't worth looking at unless it weighed 10 karats. There are splendid little gems around that have never had the exposure of television.
You've heard of Jim Plunkett, Archie Manning, Rex Kern? Go down to Abilene, Texas sometime and catch Jim Lindsey, the nation's alltime total-offense leader. Not small college, not big college—all college. Plunkett may be offense champion of the bigs, but Lindsey is a God-fearing riverboat gambler, and you don't find that kind everywhere. That is, he is a reverent man in a reverent school—Abilene Christian—but he tends to forget the Sermon on the Mount when he goes into battle. Like Saturday night, as he passed for three touchdowns against the percentage players of Arkansas State, the AP's very top small school, No. 1 in the NCAA College Division.
Well, forget the polls and rankings for a moment. First come on into a small school and wander around a bit, sniff the air, linger with the people.
Texas A&I is an uncut beauty found far south of Abilene. It is in Kingsville, near the Gulf Coast, and on its flat campus there is a working oil well. The town counts 31,000 citizens, plus almost as many palm, mesquite, banana and orange trees. This jewel of a school has been a maxi-power in the mini NAIA since winning its first national championship in 1959. It has won so many games since then (94) that Coach Gil Steinke is starting to worry that his Javelinas are becoming something of a bore.
"You're never really happy when you win all the time," says Steinke. "You appreciate it more when it's something different. You get a bit more picky-ish about how you win."
Steinke watched glumly as his defending NAIA champions opened with a sluggish 23-0 victory over Trinity. Unimpressed, Dennis B. Ford, dean of the School of Business Administration, leveled on some players in one of his classes. "What's wrong with you guys," he said, "you looked sloppy. If you keep playing like that you won't win it all again this season." One player was Karl Douglas, who passed for 305 yards and three touchdowns in last year's 32-7 victory over Concordia in the NAIA championship game. Douglas had to struggle to keep from leveling back.
With Douglas sidelined temporarily with an injured finger, Texas A&I beat Stephen F. Austin 14-13, and then things, with the help of a little glue and a rubber band, began to perk up. Douglas' problem was that he couldn't straighten the last joint of his index finger, which meant he couldn't take a snap from center. Steinke solved that by gluing a rubber band to the fingernail and then stretching the band back over the wrist. After that the Javelinas beat East Texas State 43-28—they were trailing 21-0 when Douglas finally got into the game—and then Sul Ross State 27-0. Came last Saturday and a 38-21 loss to Angelo State and Steinke didn't have to worry any longer about the team pumping, pumping victories. "Like I always said," mused Co-Captain Jim Brown, "the Lone Star Conference is plenty tough. We don't play no mullets."
There is a formula for winning in small-college football, and Steinke follows it faithfully. For one thing you recruit from the smaller, less-successful high schools. "You go to a school that won the state championship and, shoot, there'll be 10 million scouts running around and only two or three players good enough for college," says Steinke. Instead, Steinke spends his time searching for the one good athlete on a team with an 0-10 or 1-9 record.
And, as many small-college coaches have discovered, it doesn't take that many good athletes to be outstanding. Success follows the coach who finds enough top athletes to play quarterback, wide receiver and defensive back and enough average players to fill in the gaps.
"And you have to be lucky," said Steinke. "You get the right bounce and that's it. I always wait for it."