College Sports

Move over, ’Bama: The most unbeatable team in college football is an hour north of KC

The best Division II college football program in America resides in the heart of cow country, where residents know one another by name, people leave their front doors unlocked overnight and players complain that John Deere tractors are causing traffic jams on Main Street.

On Saturdays in the springtime here, a group of those players will gather at a teammate’s home, disgruntled with the lack of nightclubs in town, and turn a Slip ’N Slide into a front-yard drinking game. When the football coach recruits high school seniors, at some point during the conversation he will say, “If you like malls, we aren’t the place for you.”

Welcome to Maryville, Mo.

Welcome to the self-dubbed “Football Title Town.”

This is the home of Northwest Missouri State, the owner of six NCAA Division II football national championships and four runner-up finishes, all since 1998.

This is the home to the program’s former coach, 71-year-old Mel Tjeerdsma, the architect of one of the greatest turnarounds in college football history. The man whose first season in Maryville finished without a victory. The man whose name is now the most recognizable one in a town that world-famous self-help guru Dale Carnegie once called home.

The man who looks back on it all now and thinks ...

“I wasn’t very smart when I took this job,” Tjeerdsma says. “If I had really come and looked into it and done my homework, I probably never would’ve taken it.”

To preface the following anecdote, it’s important to first note that Northwest Missouri State has won 38 consecutive football games. That’s two victories shy of a Division II all-time record.

So, the story: On a Saturday earlier this month, Northwest rolled to yet another win, a 42-14 blowout against Northeastern State. It was win No. 36 in the streak. After the game in Tahlequah, Okla., as the Bearcats returned to the visitors’ locker room, first-year head coach Rich Wright slammed the door behind him and launched into a tirade.

“I’m ripping my defense’s you-know-what because we gave up a late score,” Wright says. “Good football teams don’t do that. Elite defenses don’t do that.”

Wright becomes more animated as the re-telling of the story progresses, as if he’s growing angry about it all over again. This is the hardest part about coaching a team on a winning streak that dates to 2014, he says. Most coaches will tell you the best lessons come from losses. Players see their mistakes and then work on correcting them.

At Northwest, more than half the players on the roster have never lost a college football game. Not one. So Wright nit-picks at the details. “It’s the details that win championships,” he says.

The Bearcats have statistics posted to their locker room walls reminding them of that motto.

It’s adage from Wright’s predecessors. Northwest won national titles in 1998, 1999 and 2009 under Tjeerdsma (pronounced CHURCH-muh), and then in 2013, 2015 and 2016 under Adam Dorrel, who leveraged his success in Maryville into a Division I FCS job and passed the baton to Wright this season.

Last year’s seniors finished 55-2 over their careers. So they won more national championships (3) than they lost football games (2) in four seasons.

The dominance has survived player turnover. It has weathered coaching turnover. It’s the expectation inside a community that treats Northwest football the same way Kansas City treats Chiefs football.

It shouldn’t be this easy. It can’t be this easy.

“You think of the term that everything is cyclical,” says John Coffey, the radio voice of the Northwest football team since 1985. “Well, it’s been a heck of a cycle.”

But how?

How does it happen here? How can a football team based in Missouri’s 74th-largest city, population 11,000-something, become the best Division II program in the country for a two decades and counting?

The true answer lies somewhere within that 1994 season, because it didn’t start out this way.

It started with a zero.

Forty-five years ago, Northwest Missouri State established an award for the most valuable player of its homecoming game. In 1994, first-year coach Tjeerdsma learned of the honor days before it was to be awarded, then scanned his roster in search of a potential recipient.

He looked at the offensive depth chart. Nothing. He explored the defensive depth chart. Nothing. He checked the special teams.

Alas, a placekicker was the only guy who stood out.

“Let me tell you something, if you saw that tape, you would’ve given it to our kicker, too,” Tjeerdsma says. “There was no else else. Trust me, we looked.”

On a sunny afternoon last week in Maryville, Tjeerdsma, who is now the school’s athletics director, framed the story as rock-bottom for a Division II football program that now typically concludes its season in front of ESPN cameras. The Bearcats would finish 0-11 in 1994.

The rebuild started there — with one of the worst teams in all of Division II football. Northwest played only two games within two touchdowns of the lead in 1994. As the season progressed, a number of players quit the team. Some didn’t even notify the coaching staff. They just stopped showing up.

“I remember guys going out and getting drunk the night before games every week,” says Chris Greisen, a freshman backup on that team. “I asked one of the guys what he was thinking getting drunk with a morning kickoff the next day. You know what he told me? He told me they played better hungover.”

There were academic issues, attitude problems and a simple a lack of caring. They expected to lose every week. And they did.

The starting quarterback on that team, hometown product Greg Teale, took such a beating that Northwest started rotating its signal-callers.

“We basically split it up every week — one of us was out with an injury because of what he went through the last game,” Teale says.

Fewer than 24 hours after the end of the season, a three-month campaign in which Tjeerdsma wondered why he had accepted the job, he kicked a handful of players off the team. Some were the best athletes on campus.

“If we’re going to lose, we’re going to lose with the right guys at least,” he said.

It started there.

The losing streak toppled in the third week of the 1995 season, after 17 straight losses, the final 13 of which appear on Tjeerdsma’s resume. The players jumped in a nearby pond, in their full uniforms, to celebrate the occasion.

It was a beginning. Not the end.

The Bearcats finished 6-5 in 1995. They won 11 games in 1996, including the school’s first-ever playoff victory. They won 12 more in 1997.

Northwest captured its first national title in 1998. The majority of that team’s seniors had redshirted on the winless team four years earlier. Greisen was the starting quarterback in 1998, and he later embarked on an NFL career.

Tjeerdsma turned this newfound success into a recruiting chip with players. “Come join a winning program,” he’d tell them. At the same time, he was never shy about what small-town Maryville didn’t offer. And he used that as a recruiting chip with parents. “Your son won’t have much of a choice but to study. There’s not much else to do here.”

All the while, the Bearcats just kept winning. Tjeerdsma won 183 games and three national titles in 17 years before he decided to retire from coaching in 2010 — a choice he still regrets seven years later.

But the Bearcats didn’t miss a beat. Three more titles followed under Dorrel. And Wright, who started as a graduate assistant in 1995, now leads the No. 1-ranked team in the nation.

“When you win like that, it can’t just be coaching or players — it has to be a culture that’s rooted in there,” Teale says. “I can tell you (that) Bearcat football is a culture.”

When Teale was growing up in Maryville, the Bearcats were popular. So, too, were the Spoofhounds, the local high school team that’s won four titles of its own. But outside Maryville, few knew or cared about either.

In 2017, Coffey’s voice is broadcast across a half-dozen affiliates, as well as an Internet stream. Earlier this season, he received an email from a listener in Germany. The Northwest basketball team has even gotten into the act, winning the Division II NCAA Tournament this spring.

“These guys can’t go to a movie or the grocery store without someone knowing who they are,” Wright says. “They’re the big fish.”

Winning has a way of breeding attractors. And for the better part of two decades, that’s basically all Northwest has done. For 38 straight games, it’s literally all it’s done.

Northwest could tie the 40-game Division II record on Nov. 4, its senior day against Fort Hays State. It could break the record in its regular season finale at Missouri Western State a week later.

If you’re looking for a secret sauce to all of this, you won’t find one. Rivals have tried. Five people who have been around the program for 20-plus years will give you five different answers as to how Northwest has been able to sustain its success.

And for a program that has made consistency look so darn easy, none of them are particularly satisfying.

Coffey, who has been around town for 40 years, believes it started when the university began to put more money into its program, a move that coincided with Tjeerdsma’s hiring. Tjeerdsma pinpoints a staple at Northwest — prioritizing the recruitment of high school kids rather than junior-college transfers. Wright looks at the coaching camaraderie — the lack of egos in the room. Senior Ben Spaeth says it’s the family atmosphere within the team, a product of spending every day together in a small town.

Maybe it’s all of the above. Maybe there’s even more to it.

“I know when you see the kind of success we’ve had, you’d like to be able to point to just one thing and say, “This is why they win,’” Wright says. “It’s not that easy.”