Brian Hoffman: A great time while it lasted

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Scott Sampson’s office at Salem Stadium is located behind the field house, and it also serves as the interview room for the Division III National Championship Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl football game.

Last Friday, as players and coaches from Mount Union and Mary Hardin-Baylor answered questions about the game that just took place, you could see 20”x 30” photos posters circling the office just below ceiling level. Above the main door was a poster with a scene from the 1993 Stagg Bowl, won by Mount Union over Rowan College. Going to the right, there are posters representing each season since. They make a right turn over Sampson’s desk, then another right turn and a left. At one time Scott was wondering what he would do when he ran out of wall space.

That won’t happen. Last Friday’s Stagg Bowl was the last that will be held at Salem Stadium. I’ve been to every one, and in fact I took all 24 of the photo posters that line the office wall. There’s plenty of room for one more.

It was a bittersweet evening at Salem Stadium last Friday night, when the last of the 25 Stagg Bowls was held. It had a great matchup with Mount Union, the first champ in Salem, taking on Mary Hardin-Baylor, who had won last year. Most Division III experts considered Mary Hardin-Baylor to be the favorite. The Crusaders came in ranked number one in Division III and they rolled through the season at 14-0. Mount Union was also 14-0 and ranked third in the country, but the Purple Raiders had a few battles along the way.

While the “experts” were picking the “Cru,” Salem football fans have learned two things over the years. Number one, don’t ever bet against the hometown high school Spartans no matter who the opponent. Number two, ditto with Mount Union.

The Raiders not only won Friday’s game, but shut out the Cru, 12-0. It was their 20th Stagg Bowl appearance and 13th Division III championship win, all in Salem.

It was a fitting way to end it and a nostalgic night at the Stadium. The entire halftime was a celebration of Salem’s 25 years of hosting the games. City officials and ODAC representatives who helped bring the game here 25 years ago were honored at halftime. Some were presented specially made NCAA rings and others were given a souvenir NCAA trophy to commemorate the 25 years the game was here.

I have some fond memories of the Stagg Bowl. The very first game, in 1993, was one of the coldest games I’ve ever been to. I can remember bundling up at home and convincing myself this would be an “exciting adventure” like the Green Bay-Dallas “ice bowl” where Jerry Kramer led Bart Starr over the goal line in the final seconds to win the NFL championship. Long time football fans and historians know it well.

I got out of my car and headed up to where fans were tailgating in the frozen parking lot. After about 10 minutes of taking pictures I was taking refuge in the warmth of the civic center at the “Championship Breakfast.” I made it through the game but I can remember not being able to feel my feet as I wobbled onto the field to take post-game celebration photos.

The second year of the Stagg Bowl was a little warmer, but not better as far as the weather. Most of the game was played in a downpour and the wet rain made it miserable as Albion took a win in what would be the school’s only Stagg Bowl appearance in the 25 years it was here. At that point “Stagg Bowl Weather” became a catch phrase for any football game played in cold conditions.

There was snow one year, but for the most part the weather has been decent and I have many fond memories of the games. I remember St. John’s, with legendary coach John Gagliardi, upsetting Mount Union in the 2003 Stagg Bowl. The NCAA Division III Player of the Year trophy is named for Gagliardi.

And who could forget Bridgewater taking Mount Union to the brink before losing, 30-27, in 2001 before a crowd of about 8,000. It’s the only time in the 25 years an Old Dominion Athletic Conference team made the game, and it drew the largest crowd of any of the games in Salem.

Nine times Mount Union played Wisconsin-Whitewater in the game in a span of 10 years from 2005 to 2014. Whitewater won six of those games, and each one was an “Ali-Frazier” of Division III football.

As entertaining as the games have been, the surrounding festivities have been equally fun. I got to meet the likes of Rocky Bleier, Paul Hornung, Ray Nitschke and Tom Brookshier through the Stagg Bowl Friday luncheon during the early years of the game. Charlie Hammersley, Terry Murphy and myself were in charge of chauffeuring the guest speaker around Salem and it was a thrill to meet these legends of pro football.

But, as you know, all good things must come to an end. The game will move to Texas for the next two years, then go to Canton, Ohio at the site of the NFL Hall of Fame, where the participants can see busts of players like Hornung, Nitschke and other NFL greats. I’m sure the weather will be warmer in Texas and the Hall of Fame will be a thrill for the players to tour, but I’ll guarantee you one thing. The teams in future Stagg Bowls won’t find better folks than the ones right here in Salem, who dedicated themselves to providing the southern hospitality folks from places like Alliance, Ohio and Whitewater, Wisconsin have grown to love.

Congratulations to Salem for putting on a great show for 25 years and truly earning the nickname “Championship City.”