Pro-caliber talent doesn't guarantee success at the Division II level
Roger Thomas and Bob Babich could retire tomorrow, if only they knew the answer to this question: How do you harvest a crop of talented football players?...
Roger Thomas and Bob Babich could retire tomorrow, if only they knew the answer to this question: How do you harvest a crop of talented football players?
The best guess: try your best and hope it works out.
In the world of coaching young men who are living away from home for the first time, or are experiencing life in the pre-Real World, nothing is certain.
- To wit: In 1998, Thomas' University of North Dakota team had nine players who were eventually considered for professional football. Most were long shots, yet a few made some bucks off of it.
Season record: 9-3. The Sioux did make the playoffs, but were fortunate to do so. Emporia State (Kan.), which looked to be the Midwest Region's No. 4 seed, was unexpectedly blown out in its last regular-season game.
- To wit: In 2001, Babich's North Dakota State team featured the nation's best Division II running back -- Lamar Gordon -- and four others who have, or will, sign NFL contracts.
Season record: 7-3, and no playoff bid.
Two teams, six losses and, in the analysis of it, two groups that were perhaps major underachievers. Why? Most likely, the answer lies somewhere between the players' inner souls and luck.
You can't bank on getting a break. But you can try to work on the all-important intangible that nobody has mastered: chemistry.
"You can do some things to help the chemistry," Babich said. "But it naturally happens."
Said Thomas: "I don't know if the most talented teams on paper or by awards were necessarily our best teams. There's something with a team that has the chemistry or the magic or something."
The 1998 UND team was a prime example. It had Jim Kleinsasser, a second-round draft choice of the Minnesota Vikings, who is still enjoying a productive NFL career.
It had imposing offensive lineman Greg Lotysz. It had productive tailback Phillip Moore. They both got in NFL camps.
It had offensive lineman Grant Everett, linebacker Ryan Goven, noseguard Mark Callahan, defensive tackle Glen Matthews, center Marcus McKenzie and defensive lineman Scott Schultz.
All nine signed a pro contract of some sort.
That's nine who didn't win a national title.
"The right things have to happen," Thomas said. "You have to stay healthy. You have to have leadership. You have to win a close one that maybe you shouldn't have."
Babich's 2001 team can relate.
The Bison were poised to win it all; they returned the core of the team that reached the Division II semifinals the year prior.
They started the season looking indestructible. They ended it in disappointment, failing to reach the playoffs after losing three of four games in a midseason stretch.
Two of the losses were decided in the final minute.
"In big games, your big guys have to come through," said Thomas, who cited the example of UND quarterback Kelby Klosterman. "Big-timers have to play in big games. If your big star has an off day, you're probably not going to win anyway."
Yet, the St. Louis Rams took Gordon in the third round and offensive lineman Pete Campion went in the seventh round to the Carolina Panthers.
It wasn't long before the New Orleans Saints grabbed linebacker Andrew LeClair, the Denver Broncos latched tight end Jared Peck and the Green Bay Packers signed kick returner Richard Lewis -- all to free agent contracts.
That's five legitimate senior pro prospects from a Division II team. Heady stuff. But that doesn't guarantee a post-season ticket.
The '98 Sioux and the '01 Bison had two common threads: their star was injured and the schedule wasn't easy.
Kleinsasser missed the first round of the playoffs, an embarrassing 52-24 defeat to Northern Colorado, because of a foot injury. Gordon was suspended in the seventh game, then hurt his ankle the next week and ended up missing 4½ games.
Both teams felt the pain. Neither won the North Central Conference.
"I felt like in the NCC in football, you had to work hard at being two deep," Thomas said. "You needed that second-team guy. If we had a good team -- and we had a handful of stars -- you needed about 50 guys to hold up their end."
The Sioux didn't do it in '98. But they won the Division II title in 2001 without a legitimate pro prospect. Not one senior from that team has been offered a free agent tryout.
It's not all about talent.
"Certain teams have different personalities," Babich said. "It's a phenomenon. As coaches, you try and work to create those situations."
Babich lived the good chemistry life as a linebacker at the University of Tulsa. His team finished 10-1. After the season, the players said team camaraderie was a major reason.
After the Sioux won their national title, the players pointed to their teammates -- not at themselves.
"You know when you've got that happening in the locker room," Thomas said. "You can see it at the team meal. You can see it in crunch time. You have guys with a genuine 'something.' You try to have guys realize it's there, but I don't think you can make it happen."
The New England Patriots proved that this year in the Super Bowl; they beat the favored Rams. In nearly every corner of sports, the theory of best-team-doesn't-always-win is consistently proven.
The Bison of last year, for instance, had no business losing to Minnesota, Mankato and Northern Colorado.
"If a team gels and everybody works toward one common goal, it makes it easier," Babich said. "I thought our chemistry was good, but I don't think it had a chance to blossom."
The Bison had one convincing defeat: at UND. But they exercised poor judgment in having three players suspended for the Mankato game and they played tight in a loss at Northern Colorado.
Yet, in 2000 the Bison reached the semifinals with a team that yielded only one professional tryout. Quarterback Ryan Johnson got a late shot in the Canadian Football League.
Fortune went against the Bison, though, when they were forced to play their third consecutive playoff game on the road. They ran out of gas, saw their top two quarterbacks go down with knee injuries and ran into a hot team at Delta State (Miss.).
"There's luck involved," Thomas said. "It helps them believe."
Believe this: there's more to a football team than talent.
Both the University of North Dakota and North Dakota State have enjoyed seasons where talent level and results did not add up.
- UND: In 1998, the Sioux featured Jim Kleinsasser and eight other players who garnered pro-football attention. Kleinsasser has enjoyed a successful career thus far with the Vikings. Regardless, UND barely made the playoffs and did not make the impact expected.
- NDSU: In 2001, the Bison boasted Lamar Gordon, the top running back in Division II, and four other players who have, or will, sign NFL contracts. Despite, NDSU did not make the playoffs.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Jeff Kolpack at (701) 241-5546