By Jordan Freemyer (BA-11)
I was 7 when the 1995 Northern Colorado football team ended its season with a 36-17 loss at Pittsburg State in the Division II Playoffs. It meant the end of the careers of two of my favorite players: running back Gaynor Blackmon and defensive back Tim Bowie.
Little did I know what 1996 would have in store.
The season started with a pair of big wins over in-state foes. First was a 43-0 home victory against Western State and then a 59-14 triumph followed in Grand Junction over Mesa State. Blackmon's replacement, Billy Holmes, ran for a total of 264 yards in those games and was great to watch.
The Bears followed with a dominant defensive performance in their North Central Conference opener against No. 5 North Dakota, allowing the Fighting Sioux just 157 yards of total offense in a 21-6 win. It was the team's eighth consecutive win at Nottingham Field.
Northern Colorado's first loss came against an undefeated South Dakota squad, 27-24, in overtime at the DakotaDome, but the Bears bounced back with back-to-back wins at Nottingham Field against Mankato State and North Dakota State, thanks in large part to the steady hand of senior quarterback Tom Beck, who threw three touchdown passes and ran for another score against the Bison.
"He ran the show; everybody listened to him; he was always talking in the huddle; just a great leader," said Keith Grable, Northern Colorado's current wide receivers coach who was a freshman for the Bears in 1996.
Two losses followed, though, in consecutive road games at Nebraska-Omaha and St. Cloud State and
Northern Colorado found itself in peril of missing the playoffs.
Sitting at 5-3, the Bears faced No. 11 South Dakota State at Nottingham Field in a game that would make or break their 1996 season. If they could get past the Jackrabbits, NCC bottom-feeders Morningside and Augustana awaited in their final two regular-season games.
It was senior cornerback Tony Roberson who came up big for the Bears against SDSU, blocking a punt and intercepting a pass on the Jackrabbits' first two possessions, which set up touchdown runs from Holmes and fullback Mark Chicarelli, giving the Bears an early 14-0 lead. Holmes and Chicarelli combined for 175 yards rushing on the day, while the UNC defense held SDSU to 32 yards on the ground and sacked the Jackrabbits' quarterbacks six times en route to a 21-6 win.
That's one thing I remember about the 1996 team—even as an 8-year-old—the number of different players who popped up throughout the season and made big contributions. Sure, the team had its stars (Holmes, Beck, Aaron Smith), but it was the unheralded guys like Roberson and Chicarelli that made Northern Colorado so fun to watch that season.
After the big win against SDSU, the Bears then cruised past Morningside and Augustana, thanks to a pair of 200-yard rushing days from Holmes, and grabbed the No. 4 seed in the Midwest Region of the NCAA Division II Playoffs, earning themselves a rematch with the Pittsburg State squad that had eliminated them a year earlier.
The Pitt State Gorillas played at Brandenburg Field, which was better known as The Jungle, and had a lethal Veer option attack that averaged 36.5 points per game under head coach Chuck Broyles.
Beating the Gorillas would not be easy, and after Beck's only interception of the playoffs was returned for a touchdown just three minutes into the game, giving Pitt State a 14-7 lead after the first quarter, I'm sure I wasn't the only Bears fan with a feeling of "Here we go again …"
But, the motto of the season for the Bears was "believe," coined on the sidelines during a game by defensive back Jesse Tann.
"If we didn't believe like we did, we shouldn't have won," Grable said.
In fact, it was Grable who got the Bears back even when he hauled in a 25-yard touchdown pass from Beck late in the second quarter, sending the game into halftime tied at 14.
After a scoreless third quarter, the teams traded touchdowns in the fourth, and the game was tied at 21 when the Bears took over at the Pitt State 44-yard line with a minute and a half left.
Northern Colorado moved the ball to the 10 with four seconds to play, setting up freshman kicker Mike Schauer with a 27-yard field-goal attempt. After two Pitt State timeouts, Schauer converted, giving Northern Colorado its first ever playoff win.
Then, in a stroke of luck for the Bears, their next playoff game against Northwest Missouri State was moved to Nottingham Field because of an unplayable field in Maryville, Mo.
The Bears were about to play the week of Thanksgiving, something that would become a goal for UNC head coach Joe Glenn.
"Coach Glenn was amazing; I'll never forget him," Grable said. "He believed in the players, was always positive, upbeat. He never had a bad day."
The game against Northwest Missouri was especially memorable for me. My sister had just been born earlier in the week, but, for some reason, my mom let my dad take my brother and me to the game on that cold, windy day.
And it was a classic.
It was also a memorable game for current Northern Colorado head coach Earnest Collins Jr., who in 1996 was a first-year secondary coach at Northwest Missouri State.
"It wasn't fun because we didn't win," Collins said of his Bearcats. "I still think we got robbed."
Yet another unsung hero came through for the Bears, as freshman wide receiver Omar Zuniga caught a touchdown pass with just 12 seconds to play, giving UNC a 27-26 win.
"It was fun coming back, up to the point where we lost in the last minute," Collins said.
But it wasn't the day for Collins' Bearcats—who would later go on to beat UNC in the playoffs in 1998 and 1999—it was a day for the Bears, who headed to the national semifinals to face Clarion (Pa.).
The field in Clarion was a mess (just dead grass and mud), but the Bears and Golden Eagles combined to score six touchdowns. They converted just one extra point, though, and it was that extra point, converted by Schauer, that made the difference in the game.
The Bears held a 19-18 lead late, but Clarion drove 61 yards in eight plays and in just more than a minute to set up a game-winning field-goal attempt. It was a 27-yarder, just like Schauer had kicked two weeks earlier.
But, unlike Schauer, Clarion kicker Tyler Palisin did not write a storybook ending for his team. UNC cornerback Delano Washington blocked Palisin's kick as time expired, sending the Bears to Florence, Ala., and the national championship game.
The championship game against Carson-Newman was shown on ESPN2, which we didn't have at my house, so, we went to my aunt and uncle's to watch the game with them. I remember being not all that confident in the Bears winning, seeing as they had just barely won each of the last three games, and Carson-Newman was supposed to be better than any of the ones we had beaten in the playoffs so far.
But, for one time in the playoffs, the Bears actually had a fairly easy win. They led the Eagles 17-14 at halftime after Beck threw a touchdown pass to tight end Andy Haase and Holmes ran one in.
And then Schauer kicked two second-half field goals to seal the 23-14 win and the national championship.
"That was such a special moment for me, my teammates, this university, this football program, and it's something I'll never forget," Grable said.
There are a lot of UNC fans out there, including this one, that won't forget it, either.