FROSTBURG -- This is where the romance and reality of college football meet in perfect harmony, where the perspective is small, but the aspirations are large.
Far from 100,000-seat stadiums, network television cameras and weekly battles to determine who is No. 1, there are still places like this, where a game is played on a compact, immaculate campus, set on a hillside brightened by the crimson and burnt-orange colors of autumn.
The game ball is delivered in a stagecoach, and townspeople and students fill the bleachers. On the field are students from Baltimore and Millersville and Frederick and Cumberland. They receive no scholarships. They're either too small, too slow or too smart to dream of one day playing professional football. For them, football is to be savored, now.
"I came here to create some memories for myself," senior defensive end Jeff Eanes said.
This fall at Frostburg State University, they are creating memories to last a lifetime. The Bobcats are 6-0, trying to qualify for their first appearance in the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division III playoffs. They have emerged as a small-college power, borrowing the techniques that launched Augustana College of Rock Island, Ill., to four consecutive Division III titles and a 60-game unbeaten streak in the mid-1980s.
Dennis Riccio, the architect of the Augustana defense, is trying to create nothing less than an Eastern football dynasty in his fourth season as head coach at Frostburg.
"Some people will say that the difference in Division III is that the kids play for the love of the sport and all that stuff," Riccio said. "But football is the same at every level. Don't tell me our kids, when they walk off a field after winning a game, that it's not the same as the kids who walk off winners at Illinois or Ohio State. Our effort is no different. The thing is, we keep things in more perspective than a lot of people do."
Riccio said that when he arrived at Frostburg in summer 1987 he had second thoughts about taking the job. He remembered watching his first practice, when 90 players assembled and staggered through drills.
"I thought, 'What the hell am I doing here? " Riccio said. "It was a long season."
He inherited a team that went 3-7 the previous season and took it to a 2-8 finish. The experience was humbling for the coach and the players.
"It was a joke to play football up here," senior split end Norman Summers said. "It was so bad that some of the freshmen I came in with, well, we'd sit on the sidelines and laugh about what was going on. It was so bad that, in a game against Akron, the seniors said, 'You don't want to go in. You'll get hurt.' That's bad."
But Riccio never lost faith in his system. Calm and low-key on the surface, Riccio is described by his players as rock solid and intense. He is a boyish-looking 44-year-old, a former wrestler-football player at Illinois State who coached 10 years of high school football in Illinois.
"When I came here, there were two basic things I thought were essential to having a winning program," he said. "One of them was we needed to be allowed to have as many players in the program as we could recruit. We also needed to play a junior-varsity schedule. With those things in place, we'll never be 4-6 again, and we'll never be a mediocre football team again."
Herb F. Reinhard Jr., the Frostburg president, enthusiastically supports Riccio's plan. Reinhard's resume -- which includes jobs at Florida State, Auburn and Tennessee -- reads like a walk through the football top 25. During his tenure as Slippery Rock's president, the school played a game at Michigan Stadium.
"When I first got here, I heard one teacher say that it makes no difference if we win or lose a game of football," Reinhard said. "But we need to win as an honest, open program. If we strive for excellence in academics, we should strive for excellence in athletics. We ought to strive to win Division III championships every year in every sport.
"The first few years here, I saw the disappointment when the football team lost," Reinhard said. "Now, you see the kids are proud, and the parents are proud. We don't have stars in our eyes of being another Notre Dame. But we can have a winning program."
After improving to 4-6 in 1988, the Bobcats were 9-1 last season, missing a playoff berth because of a 38-21 loss to Ferrum. But the team established itself nationally, and this past summer, more than 140 players assembled for the opening practice.
"You used to hear about how bad we'd get beat. You used to have band members say they wouldn't show up for games," senior defensive lineman Mike Colletta said. "But you don't hear that anymore. When we were 2-8, we never thought it could turn around quickly. We thought there was no way. But there was."
The Bobcats will not overwhelm anyone with their size. Between them, starting cornerbacks Ricky Green and Chandler Ray don't weigh 300 pounds. The defense has only one starter taller than 6 feet. Sophomore quarterback Mike Jones is 5 feet 10, and the wingback, Chip Wright, is 5-4 and weighs 147 pounds.
"We have Division III size, but Division I ability," said junior fullback Rory McTigue, who has rushed for 617 yards and 11 touchdowns. "But the division doesn't matter to the players. Winning matters."
Frostburg's attacking defense has limited its opponents to three touchdowns, and the offense, conservative and ground-oriented, routinely churns out 337 yards rushing a game.
"It's a perfect combination for the elements up here," senior offensive tackle Mark Wells said. "You know you'll get mud and bad weather. We may not have the greatest size, but we have heart."
Already, expectations are rising. A 31-7 victory over St. Francis of Pennsylvania was deemed less than perfect by some fans because of four turnovers. But with the No. 3 ranking in the most recent Division III South poll, all Frostburg probably has to do is win its last four games to reach the final 16 in Division III.
"Every time we win a football game, we look at each other, and we can't believe what a great feeling it is," Summers said. "We just can't believe what happened to this football team."