The Johns Hopkins football team made school history by reaching the NCAA Division III tournament semifinals for the first time. Their reward? The unenviable task of knocking off No. 1 and 13-time national champion Mount Union on Saturday at 12 p.m. at Mount Union Stadium in Alliance, Ohio.
But if the Blue Jays (12-1) are worried, they’re not showing it.
“In my opinion, they’re one of the best NCAA teams out there,” senior running back Stuart Walters said. “They’re legendary like Alabama. So to be able to compete with them, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. If we want to be the best, we have to beat the best. I wouldn’t want it any other way. I was praying for this, and everybody else wanted this.”
In the past 25 years, wishing for the Purple Raiders has usually been folly. Their 13 NCAA crowns and 20 Stagg Bowl appearances are both Division III records, they have captured 29 Ohio Athletic Conference titles, and they have gone undefeated in 12 of their 13 national championship seasons.
“They’re the kings of Division III, there’s no question about that,” said ESPN college football analyst and former Buffalo Bills linebacker Ray Bentley, who was part of the network’s crew that broadcasted Mount Union’s 12-0 shutout of Mary Hardin-Baylor in the 2017 title game. “It’s almost gotten to mythical proportions, but as it continues to grow, it’s really an amazing thing. Sometimes you’ll see dynasties, and they’ve got to fail eventually. This one just keeps rolling.”
Expectations are so high for Mount Union, which has won 28 consecutive games and is 13-0 this season, that coach Vince Kehres acknowledged that any result that falls short of the crown is disappointing.
“It just is what it is,” he said. “There’s no sense in trying to maneuver around it. We own that, and we’re going to try to measure up with that.”
The Purple Raiders first qualified for the NCAA Division III playoffs in 1985, but failed to get out of the second round three times until 1992, when that squad advanced to the semifinals. As heartbreaking as a 29-24 loss to eventual champion Wisconsin-La Crosse was, it set the tone for the program, according to Kehres, whose father Larry was the school’s second head coach until he gave the reins to his son after the 2012 season.
“They believed that they could win the national championship, and then in 1993, they won their first national championship, and from there, it’s been the expectation of every Mount Union team to not only win the Ohio Athletic Conference championship and make the Division III playoffs, but also win the national championship,” Kehres said. “The precedent had been set.”
Kehres and all five of his full-time assistant coaches are former Purple Raiders players, and all but one of their coaching interns is a graduate, too. Kehres said that continuity has helped the staff identify and pursue the characteristics they seek in potential recruits.
One of those recruits was senior linebacker Danny Robinson, who lived only 20 minutes away in nearby Massillon, Ohio. But what struck him was a culture in which the players, not the coaches, policed themselves and administered discipline.
Robinson, a semifinalist for the Gagliardi Trophy awarded to the top all-around player in Division III, said players who are guilty of on-field infractions, such as committing a person foul, or off-field offenses, such as skipping classes, might have to run sprints after practice or push a weighted sled in the weight room.
“Coming out of high school, it was usually the coaches who did that — disciplining and holding players accountable,” Robinson said. “But when I stepped onto campus, it was different. The players are the ones who hold you accountable, and it was just a completely different culture from the one in high school. It was a big wake-up call because in high school, you can kind of get away with things, but here, every player is going to hold each other accountable and make sure that you’re doing the right thing, that you’re where you need to be, that you’re doing what you need to do.”
After losing to Mary Hardin-Baylor in the 2016 semifinals — marking the program’s first absence from the Stagg Bowl since 2004 — Mount Union earned a measure of revenge by shutting out the Crusaders in the 2017 title game under Kehres’ motto “Good to Great.” This season, the slogan was tweaked to “Great to Elite: The Campaign Continues” by Kehres in an ode to a video game one of his children received for Christmas.
“It’s harder to stay good than get good, I will tell you that,” said Kehres, whose team is seeking to be the school’s first repeat champion since the 2005-06 squads won back-to-back crowns. “It’s certainly a challenge and you have to constantly be evaluating what you’re doing and make subtle changes to the process to continue to be as successful as we’ve been. But that’s our goal. That’s what we want to continue to do.”
For more than two decades, the Purple Raiders have carried a large target, but Robinson said that pales in comparison to matching the standard by previous teams.
“Being at Mount Union is a pressure test, and that’s bigger than anything,” he said. “We know we’re going to get teams’ best shots, and we know we’re the team to beat in the nation. So we can’t really take anything lightly. We can’t get complacent or scale down at all.”
Bentley, the ESPN analyst, said that drive makes the Purple Raiders heavy favorites to add a 14th championship to their trophy case.
“I think at this time of year, anybody who plays Mount Union is going to be a considerable underdog,” he said. “Take nothing away from Johns Hopkins. That’s a really strong program, too, but you’ve got to consider Mount Union the favorite.”
The Purple (Raiders) Standard
Since 1993, the Mount Union football program has won 13 NCAA Division III championships and played in seven more title games. Here is how the Purple Raiders have fared at the Stagg Bowl.
Year; Opponent; Result
1993; Rowan; Won, 34-24
1996; Rowan; Won, 56-24
1997; Lycoming; Won, 61-12
1998; Rowan; Won, 44-24
2000; Saint John’s (Minn.); Won, 10-7
2001; Bridgewater; Won, 30-27
2002; Trinity; Won, 48-7
2003; Saint John’s (Minn.); Lost, 24-6
2005; Wisconsin-Whitewater; Won, 35-28
2006; Wisconsin-Whitewater; Won, 35-16
2007; Wisconsin-Whitewater; Lost, 31-21
2008; Wisconsin-Whitewater; Won, 31-26
2009; Wisconsin-Whitewater; Lost, 38-28
2010; Wisconsin-Whitewater; Lost, 31-21
2011; Wisconsin-Whitewater; Lost, 13-10