Saturday, January 27, 2024


When looking back at old photos, you never know what you will find. Here's one from October 20, 2001, Montana winning over Northern Arizona in Flagstaff 38-27. Griz quarterback John Edwards is getting sacked by NAU's Pisa Magele. Their paths in life diverged after that. Edwards is now an attorney in Billings. Magele was convicted in two sexual assault incidents (one of them the same month as this game) and was sentenced to more than 40 years in prison.

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

One (or two) more

Jeff Mezydlo of Yardbarker places South Dakota State as #8 among all-time greatest FCS football programs. That's about right, no argument there. But he concludes by saying, "Two-time Super Bowl champion and Hall of Famer Jim Langer and star Philadelphia Eagles tight end Dallas Goedert remain the two most prominent football products of the school."

Interesting. You would think that the player who has scored more points than anyone else in the history of the National Football League, Adam Vinatieri, would be on the list. You would also think the 1965 NFL MVP whose number was retired by the Philadelphia Eagles, #44 Pete Retzlaff, would be mentioned.

Friday, January 12, 2024

Local boy makes good

A few days ago, I wrote I never thought that my alma mater South Dakota State would ever have an All-American championship quarterback. Today I will say I never thought a Milbank, South Dakota boy would follow in the footsteps of Bear Bryant and become the head coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide football team.

Word hit the interweb a few hours ago that Kalen DeBoer is the new coach at Alabama. Kalen (can I call you Kalen?) is a native of Milbank and got his start in college football playing and coaching at the University of Sioux Falls. When I moved back to Sioux Falls in 2007, the college's stadium was a short bike ride from my house and I caught a few games at the tail end of his coaching tenure there, where he won three NAIA national championships. In those days, the Fighting Baptists (actually the Cougars) from Sioux Falls ran roughshod over the other Midwestern church schools that make up a majority of NAIA membership. In his final season of 2009, some of his team's wins were 80-0 over the Lutherans from Concordia University, Seward, NE; 58-0 over the Evangelical Christians from Dordt University, Sioux Center, IA; and 59-7 over the Methodists from Dakota Wesleyan University, Mitchell, SD. Now he goes to Alabama where football is a religion.

DeBoer has been the HC at the University of Washington and just lost to Michigan in the national title game, so he has experience as a Power 5 (now 4?) coach. But Alabama is another level.

It got me wondering about how many South Dakota natives became big-time college football coaches. The most famous would be Frank Leahy from Winner. He played for Knute Rockne at Notre Dame 1928-30 and coached four national championship teams there in the 1940s. The next one I know offhand is Josh Heupel, an Aberdeen native who quarterbacked Oklahoma to the national championship in 2000 and is now the HC at Tennessee. After some internet searches, I was reminded that Smokey Joe Salem from Sioux Falls worked his way up the ladder and coached the Minnesota Golden Gophers 1979-83. I did not know that George Veenker from Sioux Falls was HC at Iowa State in the 1930s, and was the head basketball coach at Michigan for a few years before that. As far as I can tell, that's it, that's the list.

At the pro level, Norm Van Brocklin was born in desolation near Eagle Butte but his family moved to California when he was 5. After a Hall-of-Fame NFL career, he was head coach for 13 seasons with Minnesota and Atlanta, never making the playoffs. Richard Bisaccia was the interim coach for the Las Vegas Raiders in 2021 after John Gruden quit/was fired due to scandal. Bisaccia is a native of New York but graduated from Yankton College, which no longer exists. (The college was best known as the alma mater of another New Yorker, Lyle Alzado. The campus is now a federal prison.) Despite a 7-5 record, making the playoffs and receiving support from the players, Bisaccia was passed over for the permanent position in favor of Josh McDaniels. (How did that work out for you, Mark Davis?) Bisaccia interviewed for the HC position with the Colts last year and is now an assistant with the Packers.

A few days ago, ESPN posted some very speculative 2024 Top 25 rankings that place Alabama at #4 and Tennessee at #17. Jot it down, October 19 in Knoxville, Alabama Head Coach Kalen DeBoer from Milbank, South Dakota will face off against Tennessee Head Coach Josh Heupel from Aberdeen, South Dakota in what is likely to be a crucial Southeastern Conference Top 25 showdown game.

University of Sioux Falls souvenir football

Jan. 17 update: Dan Lyons of Sports Illustrated took a stab at guessing the replacement for DeBoer at Washington. He came up with five names: Ryan Grubb, UW offensive coordinator; Lance Leopold, Kansas HC; Chris Klieman, K-State HC; Jimmy Rogers, South Dakota State HC; and some guy named Pete Carroll. Grubb was an assistant coach at South Dakota State then joined DeBoer at Sioux Falls. Klieman was HC at D3 Loras College in Iowa and at North Dakota State before going to K-State. And of course Rogers has been at South Dakota State in various capacities for many years now. Leopold has no Dakota connections but somewhat paralleled DeBoer's career by starting at Wisconsin-Whitewater, a Division 3 powerhouse. (Carroll has no small college connections.) It turns out that Lyons was completely wrong as UW plucked the HC from Arizona, but it is interesting that guys who start out at small colleges in the Upper Midwest are getting considered for jobs at the FBS level.

Wednesday, January 10, 2024

The Greatest Jackrabbit (updated)

My undergraduate alma mater has been playing football since the 19th century but rarely had notable team success. When South Dakota State announced it was going Division 1 in 2004-05, I thought they were suffering from delusions of grandeur. The football team made the playoffs once in Division 2, in 1979 when they got blown out 51-7 by Youngstown.

Despite this mediocrity, some good players made their way through Brookings over the years, including 1953 grad Pete Retzlaff (Eagles Pro Bowler, NFL MVP 1965), 1970 grad Jim Langer (Hall of Fame center on the undefeated Dolphins) and 1995 grad Adam Vinatieri (NFL all-time leading scorer). I proclaimed Vinatieri as the Greatest Jackrabbit in 2006. This was based on his pro career because he wasn't really a household name in college. He did make all-conference teams, but there have been kickers with better stats for the Jackrabbits since then, including his own nephew Chase Vinatieri.

After the transition to D1, a strange thing happened to the former mediocre D2 program: It became one of the bullies of the FCS. The Jackrabbits rose almost unnoticed in the shadow of dominant North Dakota State, going further and further in the FCS playoffs as the 2010's progressed. In 2022 it culminated in a beatdown of the Bison 45-21 in the FCS championship game. Including the regular season in 2023, the Jackrabbits have beaten the Bison five straight times, and they won the FCS title for a second time a few days ago 23-3 over Montana. SDSU has had incredible depth and balance in recent years, but every championship team except the Baltimore Ravens has to have a dude at quarterback.

We don't know whether Mark Gronowski will make it in the NFL. He could declare for the draft now, or he could play two more years in college. He could return to SDSU, or he could transfer to an FBS program (rumor: Northwestern). But based on just his college career to date, he is The Greatest Jackrabbit. Some highlights:

  • First team FCS All-American Quarterback, 2023, according to the AP, Sports Illustrated, STATS, Phil Steele and others.
  • Walter Payton Award, FCS Offensive Player of the Year.
  • The Athletic Directors Association named Gronowski as FCS Offensive Player of the Year, and one of 52 Academic All-Stars in FCS.
  • Most Outstanding Player, FCS Championship Game, 2022 and 2023.
  • Career record of 37-3. The only real FCS loss was to North Dakota in the COVID spring season 28-17. The second loss was in the COVID spring championship game when he was injured on the fifth play of the game. After missing 2021, the third loss came in his first game back from injury in 2022 to FBS Iowa 7-3. (Sam Herder of HERO Sports phrases it this way: He is 36-1 as a full-game starter against FCS teams.) Since the Iowa loss he has quarterbacked 29 consecutive victories.

There's more, but you get the idea. When I was going to lackluster D2 games as a student back in the '70's, I never thought the Jackrabbits would have an All-American quarterback leading the team to multiple national championships. Even if he announces in the next few days he's moving on, Mark Gronowski is The Greatest Jackrabbit.

Update Jan. 17: Gronowski has said he will finish his mechanical engineering degree at South Dakota State, so he has not declared for the NFL draft or the transfer portal. I think it is pretty certain he is not going into the draft this year, but he could still decide at a later date to enter the portal. The SDSU offensive coordinator said today Gronowski is participating in off-season conditioning. Maybe the next hint will be whether he participates in spring football practice which starts around March 20.

Jan. 24: Another honor for Gronowski, named second team Academic All-American by College Sports Communicators. This is all of Division 1, not just FCS, and the first teamer was Bo Nix of Oregon.

Monday, January 08, 2024

My tribe

College football tribalism is something I ponder from time to time. I haven't been to a South Dakota State game since I was graduated from there in 1978, but this season I was hanging on every game as they have marched through their schedule undefeated, including yesterday's FCS national championship win over Montana 23-3. I am a current resident of Montana, and in comparison to SDSU, I've been to more Montana games in the past 35 years (two, including one this year), I have more Griz swag, and I know more Griz fans. But my loyalty yesterday was not in doubt. My tribe won.

With the FBS championship today, I recalled that I have been to more Michigan games in the past 35 years than SDSU games: Michigan 35, Boston College 13, September 7, 1991. Desmond Howard scored four touchdowns that day and won the Heisman Trophy that year. I had just moved to the Boston area and BC had an impressive home schedule, so I was a season ticket holder for that one year. (And got fundraising letters for the next 15 years.) In addition to #2 Michigan, BC also played #1/AP national champion Miami and #17 Georgia Tech at home.

I also have been to games coached by current Washington Coach Kalen DeBoer, back in 2007-09 when I had just moved back to Sioux Falls. The University of Sioux Falls stadium was a short bike ride from my house, and DeBoer won three NAIA national championships there before starting his climb to the FBS national championship game. The tribe I rooted for Monday night was Washington due to this tenuous connection, but that didn't work out too well, 34-13 Michigan.

College football schools, or should I say college football programs, rely on this tribalism for financial support. These days, everything illegal Reggie Bush and his family did when he was in college is now legal (so they may as well give him back his Heisman). It is hard to believe that South Dakota State quarterback Mark Gronowski (FCS All-American, Walter Payton Offensive Player of the Year, Most Outstanding Player of the FCS championship game twice) will not attract attention from FBS boosters who want to give him NIL money. One rumor is Northwestern because his offensive coordinator at SDSU, Zach Lujan, is (according to another rumor) heading there to be OC for David Braun, who was elevated to head coach after an early-season scandal. Gronwski grew up in Chicago's west suburbs and Northwestern is in Evanston just north of Chicago. Braun was defensive coordinator for North Dakota State last year, so Braun went head-to-head with (and lost to) Lujan and Gronowski just last year. Twice! Suck it Bizon! (That's my tribalism leaking through.)

I don't know what the dollars would be for Gronowski. Jeff Kolpack of the Fargo Forum said $800,000, but I don't know if he has some basis for that estimate or just pulled a number out of the air. From everything I have heard, it would be six digits. I would be sorry to see him leave my tribe, but I understand that sort of money would be hard to pass up for a college student who may or may not be drafted by the NFL. And Gronowski, unlike the many Exercise Science majors in the SEC, is an engineering major. Northwestern has an engineering school.

If all this comes to pass, Lujan and Gronowski may discover that Northwestern is a step down in player talent from this year's South Dakota State team. Bill Connelly of ESPN wrote that SDSU could have won the Big Ten West this year. Sagarin ratings support this claim, indicating SDSU would be eight-point favorites over both Wisconsin and Iowa, and 11 points over Northwestern. Sagarin's final ratings put SDSU at #18 in all of Division 1, ahead of every G5 team and most P5/P4 teams. But Lujan and Gronowski will make a lot more money by leaving South Dakota State, and as a member of a powerful but minor tribe I have to accept that.

It makes me wonder. The schools cannot play the players directly, so (for example) Texas A&M's player NIL "payroll" of $10 million is all privately raised. Many more millions are donated in support of facilities and staff. What sense of satisfaction does someone get from donating large sums of money to a football program, particulary one like A&M that went 7-6 this year? If SDSU called me up and said, "Donate $100 and we can keep Mark Gronowski," I might do it. But $1,000, probably not. I'm not THAT tribal. The beneficiaries for my IRA are my spouse and the Gary Sinise Foundation, a highly-rated charity that supports veterans and first responders. The protectors of all of the tribes that make up the USA need our support more than football players.