Speaking of Sports: A Championship Season



One for the Record Books

The 2002 Wabash College football season was one for the record books. A return trip to the NCAA playoffs for the first time since 1977, the first undefeated regular season since 1982, the first North Coast Athletic Conference championship since joining the league in 1999—all of these accomplishments will be relived over and over for years to come.

But other stories—stories away from the ball—show what a special season can provide in addition to wins and records.

Of course, the records themselves are impressive. Senior quarterback Jake Knott broke more school records early in the season, including setting the school mark for career total offense. Because Wabash did not participate in the NCAC in football during Jake’s freshman season, none of his statistics from that year count toward conference career numbers. That didn’t seem to matter as the hard-throwing son of former Wabash quarterback Dave Knott ’69 still managed to break the league’s career passing record while shattering the total offense record.

Knott finished second only to former Purdue Boilermaker Drew Brees for career passing yardage by an Indiana collegiate quarterback. Knott also passed a former University of Tennessee and current Indianapolis Colts quarterback by the name of Peyton Manning on the NCAA career passing charts. Knott became one of only 16 quarterbacks in NCAA history to throw for over 10,000 yards and 100 touchdowns in a career. He ended his four-year stint under center for the Little Giants with 11,213 passing yards, 116 TDs, and 12,054 yards of total offense.

Add to those records the numbers set by fellow seniors Ryan Short and Nate Boulais. Just as Knott broke the seemingly unbreakable numbers of Chris Ings ’96, Short went after the receiving records set by Wabash Athletic Hall of Famer Mike Funk ’89. Short became the all-time Indiana collegiate leader in touchdown receptions by hauling in 45 career scoring catches. Interestingly, he broke that record that was set by DePauw receiver Dan Ryan by playing against him in the 109th Monon Bell Classic this season. The Wabash defense kept Dan Ryan out of the endzone, while Ryan Short made four TD catches to claim the top spot. Short broke Funk’s career records for career receptions and career touchdowns. In addition to his 45 TD grabs, Short finished his career in a Wabash uniform with 243 receptions. He had 2,773 career receiving yards, closing to 85 yards of tying Funk for the Wabash career record.

Boulais finished second in career tackles for a Little Giant with 364, just behind Jim “Killer” Kilbane ’84 and his top mark of 400. Boulais topped the 100-tackle mark twice in his career, finishing with 108 as a freshman and 102 in his senior year. For all of their efforts this season, Boulais, Knott, and Short were named to the Hewlett-Packard All-American team.

But as I said, it’s more than the records. There are more of those to talk about. But it’s the stories. In the week going into the conference title game against Wooster, the talk on the D3Football.com message board was all about whether the vaunted Wabash defense could stop the seemingly unstoppable Scots running back Tony Sutton. Sutton had topped the 200-yard rushing mark in the two games leading up the meeting with Wabash and had just appeared in Sports Illustrated’s “Faces in the Crowd.” Fans from both schools were talking about this great game and talking about the football pregame tradition at both institutions. Two fans, one posting by the name of WooScot and Wabash poster Greg Thomas ’00, decided to get together before the game that Saturday and meet in person after talking online for so many weeks.

The Little Giants dominated the game, leading 35-0 at halftime on the way to a 42-22 victory over the Scots. The postgame talk on the college football website was complimentary to the way the Wabash defense dominated the game and the performance of the Little Giants’ offense. But the best post came from WooScot when he got home that night. He thanked Greg for his hospitality, then spent the remainder of the lengthy post praising the atmosphere at Byron P. Hollett Little Giant Stadium. He went on and on about the friendly nature of the fans, the pride that Wabash fans took in talking about the team, and the stories of Wabash football games past that have become legend. He even talked about trying to come to the Monon Bell Classic just to see this great rivalry game that he hear so much about that day.

The Mount Union fans learned the same lesson about the zealousness of Wabash fans when the Little Giants hit the road to go to Alliance, Ohio in the national quarterfinals. Tony Altivilla ’85 led cheers in an Alliance restaurant that had become Wabash headquarters on Friday night. There wasn’t a person in the place that didn’t know the words to “Old Wabash” by the end of the evening. Well over 150 Wabash fans packed the booths and tables and shared more of the stories of the Little Giants’ exploits over the years to fans of the Purple Raiders, who certainly know something about football success with six national championship trophies on display in their athletic complex.

The real experience took place on Saturday. As I pulled into the media parking lot at the Mount Union stadium, there to great the Wabash faithful was a huge recreational vehicle with Jim Davlin ’85, Kelly House ’90, Bruce Polizotto ’63, Tom Kilbane ’91, and Altivilla all standing by the grill cooking beef tenderloin. While the majority of the fans were there to support Wabash, the Mount Union supporters were welcomed to the tailgate to share stories, as well. The Little Giant fans braved the frigid temperatures throughout the game, and stayed to the final play despite trailing to the eventual national champs.

After the game, it was time for another Wabash tradition. The fans sang the school song when the clock read zero, just as they had after the previous 12 victories. Then the 52 players on the playoff roster, the coaches, support staff, parents, and alumni who had worked their way to the field, responded in kind. Voices mixed the joy from the pride of being a Wabash football player and sadness from seeing a great season come to an end sang “Old Wabash” one final time on the gridiron. Two of the Mount Union players walking toward their locker room stopped and watched as our players sang. One finally asked, “Do you do that after every game?” When he learned that we did, his only response at a school that has enjoyed the success of playing in the championship game for nearly every season in the past ten years was, “I wish we had something like that. That’s really cool.”

Wittenberg fans certainly learned something about the “Red Army”, as some of the media began to call the Wabash supporters on the road. It was Homecoming at Wittenberg when the Little Giants played in a back-and-forth contest that wasn’t settled until freshman Mark Server banged home a 27-yard field goal to give Wabash a 46-43 overtime victory to end the Tigers’ dominance in the NCAC. With over 800 Wabash fans outnumbered by the nearly 3,000 Wittenberg supporters. Standing on the far side of the field I could see the dividing line between the fans. You see, Wittenberg has stands on only one side of the field. The fans from both teams sit together. The Tiger faithful were certainly into the game early when their team took a 14-0 lead. But despite the lead by Wittenberg, everyone on the Wabash bench could hear the Little Giant fans yelling their support, cheering the team on in their comeback effort.

The team gave those fans something to cheer about, silencing the Wittenberg Homecoming crowd with three second-quarter touchdowns and school-record 86-yard pass from Knott to freshman Eric Summers to open the second half to take control of the game. Even when Wittenberg mounted a comeback to tie the game in the fourth quarter, it was the Wabash fans that you could hear echoing throughout the stadium, overpowering the voices of the home team’s cheers.

It was that way all season long. No matter where we went, you could find the Wabash fans. If you weren’t sure where Little Giant fans were sitting at a road game, just wait for Director of Alumni Affairs Tom Runge ’71 to lead the group in the cheer for “another Wabash College FIRST DOWN.” Or watch sophomore receiver Brandon Clifton’s father, Michael, return to his seas after joining the Sphinx Club tradition of doing pushups after ever Wabash score,

I could go on and on. There are almost too many stories to tell. It was a season to remember. We were proud of our team, and not just because of the 12 wins, the conference title, the records, and the trip to the playoffs. They were Wabash men playing Wabash football, showing everyone else what it means to be “Some Little Giants.”

Harris is the sports information director at Wabash College.


Wabash College Little Giants — 2002 Football Results