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.

April 30: Gronowski announces he will play for the Jackrabbits at least one more year. Celebration ensues.

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