NCAA Division III football is, competitively, a top-heavy institution, and at that top there is plenty of purple.
Four programs – Mount Union, Wisconsin-Whitewater, Mary Hardin-Baylor and Linfield – have won 17 of the past 18 national championships. Add in St. Thomas, which has reached two title games in that stretch, and there is a royal flush of championship-caliber teams that all, coincidentally, wear purple jerseys.
But there’s one notable, cardinal-donning outlier: Saint John’s, the team Whitworth faces in the second round of the playoffs on Saturday in Collegeville, Minnesota.
The Johnnies are responsible for the lone interruption in that 18-year streak, in 2003.
“Playing Saint John’s, what an incredible opportunity,” Whitworth coach Rod Sandberg said. “One of the best programs in Division III history, just a rich tradition. We’re excited to go and experience that and play against the best.”
It’s a tradition that reminds the Pirates of what they would like to become: a perennial power from the Northwest, and an annual participant in the playoffs.
Saint John’s, 11-0 this season and coming off a playoff-record, 78-point opening-round victory against Martin Luther last Saturday, is accustomed to winning, if not always by such a margin. It has won the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference 33 times, including nine of the past 18 years.
It has 21 seasons of 10 or more victories (Whitworth has two), and four national championships: two as an NAIA school in 1963 and 1965; and two more since 1973, when Division III was formed, in 1976 and 2003.
The Johnnies’ 25 playoff appearances and 37 playoff victories are the third-most all-time in Division III, and their long-time coach John Gagliardi – who died Oct. 7 – is the winningest coach in college football history with 489 victories.
Sandberg hasn’t tried to hide any of that from his players. He wrote many of those accolades on the board in the team’s locker room.
“You know what? That’s awesome. None of that matters this Saturday,” Sandberg said he told the Pirates. “The team that wins this Saturday is the team that plays the best.”
For its part, Whitworth is coming off a dominant first-round victory, 48-6 over Claremont-Mudd-Scripps, and is yet to lose (10-0). The matchup Saturday is the only one of the eight playoff games that features two unbeaten teams.
Like the great “Purple Powers,” as they are often referred to, Saint John’s has a few traits common among the entrenched D-III champions. They have longevity at coaching, for one. Gary Fasching, head coach since the 2012 season when Gagliardi retired, was a Johnnies’ assistant for 16 years and a 1981 Saint John’s graduate.
The Johnnies led the nation in average attendance this year (6,092 per game) for the 16th time in 17 seasons. That’s about five times what Whitworth had at the Pine Bowl last week (1,172).
“If you look at those programs, number one is continuity,” Sandberg said. “How many years has a Kehres walked the sideline of Mount Union? Mike Swider has walked at Wheaton for 30 years, Bethel, Saint John’s. The tradition of carryover of coaches is huge to build something that lasting. … And obviously no matter where you are at any level, it’s recruiting.”
Saint John’s benefits from players who started at Division I or II programs but transferred down classifications. Quarterback Jackson Erdmann secured preferred walk-on status at Penn State but after a year left for Saint John’s.
This season, Erdmann has thrown 40 touchdowns and has the second-best efficiency rating (201.2) in D-III.
Junior Chris Harris, who leads Saint John’s with four interceptions, spent a year each at Chadron State (D-II) and Montana State (FCS). And so on, with a handful of other drop-downs who now play significant roles for Saint John’s.
Sandberg said he doesn’t have a particular program he models the Pirates after, but he sees plenty of opportunity for Whitworth to grow its own reputation nationally.
“Every program’s gotta be themselves,” he said. “Whitworth’s a unique school in a unique geographical place. We want to play off of our strengths and where we are. There’s a lot to offer. Incredible school, the uniqueness of the Pacific Northwest, so you want to play off of that.”
And while the Pirates can’t match the Johnnies’ history, they have plenty of their own accolades this season: the Northwest Conference’s co-defensive player of the year (Chad Wilburg) and seven first-team players, including senior offensive tackle Tyler Adamson.
“There’s nothing we haven’t seen before,” Adamson said of Saint John’s. “We’re one of the most dominant offensive lines in the nation. … We have the potential to go all the way. We just have to play to our potential.”
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