It was a beautiful night for football as summer was winding down, a warm and breezy Saturday night. Fans cheered without being prompted by a wacky video scoreboard. The final score wasn’t decided until three seconds remained on the clock.
No, it wasn’t the state’s only Division I school playing, but instead Hamline University, one of two Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) schools located on St. Paul’s Snelling Avenue just before the bridge that takes you to the State Fair. They were hosting Macalester College, which is a little over two miles and eight minutes away going south.
The visitors won last Saturday by two points.
Some sportswriters and fans too often look down their big-time-college-football snobbish noses at so-called small-school ball. It’s foolish to compare non-Division I athletes to their larger schools’ counterparts, but the fact is that the former work equally hard and passionately for their sport as does anyone else.
Good competition is good competition whether it’s Division I, II or where the 13-member MIAC resides in Division III, where one in five students at MIAC institutions are athletes.
Another non-comparable point: D3 players and coaches welcome media types like myself. D1 staff these days act more like those at White House press briefings, seeming intent on limiting access to microsecond opportunities. This isn’t the case in the MIAC.
“It’s good to see you” – so Charles “Chip” Taylor greeted me Saturday. He is the Twin Cities’ only Black head college football coach, now in his third season at Hamline. He and his Pipers players quickly returned to the field after Saturday’s 29-27 defeat to greet fans and others.
The Hamline-Macalester football rivalry is one of the state’s oldest. Last Saturday’s was the 118th meeting, and the annual Battle of the Bucket game has existed since the mid-1960s. The winning coach keeps the bucket in his office until the next Bucket contest next season.
There is, however, one common thread that links the MIAC with the bigger conferences, especially in football: Like the Big Ten, it’s a penthouse-type league with two or three usual contenders, a middling group with the occasional escapee that competes with the top clubs, and then the annual lower division hopefuls. It’s St. Thomas, St. John’s and Bethel; or St. John’s, St. Thomas and Bethel; or Bethel, St. John’s and St. Thomas – you get the picture.
Hamline is a MIAC founding member school since 1920. Macalester was a league member until 2006, when they moved to the Midwest Conference for football only.
“I love the job. It’s a challenge,” Taylor told me after a preseason practice. “There are great coaches and great players in this league. We’re building [the program] the right way, but it takes time.”
The Pipers this season returns five starters on offense and seven on defense. According to the coach, senior QB Justice Spriggs “has been consistent” with five TDs thus far this season, and RB Triston Thomas last Saturday “made some plays,” including a 93-yard scoring scamper, and caught a 46-yarder from Spriggs for another score, added the coach. “We got some young offensive lineman. It’s just a work in progress.”
Taylor is now 1-2 in bucket games since his hiring in 2016. Hamline has lost its first two games this season. MIAC regular-season play starts Saturday when Hamline travels to St. Thomas on the corner of Summit and Cretin Avenues.
“Everything is faster, the players are quicker, the coaching is little sharper” in the MIAC, Taylor notes. “We have to stay focused.”
Nonetheless, he remains optimistic. “We still have a long way to go. We got to tighten things up.”
Next week: Lindsay Whalen is not the only player around here to return to her alma mater as coach.
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.