The subject was raised in a conversation eight years ago. A diehard Florida State Seminoles fan was trying to convince me that the "Team of the Decade" for the 1990s was his beloved FSU. My almost immediate response took him by surprise.
Taking nothing away from the great run of the 'Noles in the 1990s, the "team of the decade," I argued, was not FSU but YSU—Youngstown State.
LOOKING BEYOND DIVISION I-A
It is easy to focus on the national title race and the Division I-A schools as contenders for the best of the best in collegiate football—and there are some very fine contestants.
Florida State's Bobby Bowden has won an impressive 382 career games, one win behind Joe Paterno at Penn State, the all-time winningest Division I-A coach. Oklahoma, Alabama, Miami, Southern Cal, and Ohio State all can enter the discussion with ease.
But for the sake of argument, you have to look beyond Division I-A to find the teams that are accomplishing something truly amazing outside of center stage in college football.
My argument about Youngstown State was simple. From 1991 through 1997, Youngstown State won four national titles. Through 2000, the Penguins made 10 appearances in the playoffs under now-Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel, whose 103-27-2 record at Youngstown State gave him more wins than any other Division I-AA team and fourth most of both Division I-A and I-AA COMBINED.
Pitted against Tressel's Ohio State Buckeyes in the first game of last season the Penguins were obvious underdogs. But within its conference, everything being equal, YSU has had to compete on a level playing field, and it is hard to argue against their success.
GO SOUTH, YOUNG MAN
During that time, one of the teams Youngstown State had to compete with to earn those titles was not the Georgia Bulldogs, but a team out of Statesboro, Ga., called Georgia Southern, a school that didn't even have a football program before 1982.
After restarting their football program, the Eagles won six NCAA Division I-AA national championships in 1985, 1986, 1989, 1990, 1999, and 2000. The Eagles held Division I's longest home win streak at 37 games, becoming the only 15-0 college team of the 20th century.
The team's success is largely attributed to the man who was hired to restart the program, coach Erk Russell, under whom the Eagles won three of those titles.
MEANWHILE, BACK IN OHIO...
While all of that is impressive, it does not match the more recent accomplishments of the amazing program at Mount Union College in Alliance, Ohio. Under head coach Larry Kehres, the "Purple Raiders" have amassed one of the nation's best records, 260-21-3, over 22 seasons.
Along the way, Mount Union collected a record nine Division III national championships between 1993 and 2006. They also hold the all-division record for consecutive victories at 55.
The Purple Raiders won 110 consecutive regular season games between 1994 and 2005, posted 14 undefeated regular seasons, and had the best overall record in the 1990s (120-7-1).
While Mount Union was tallying up all of those records, the coach from a college team in Collegeville, Minn., was helping his school achieve records that might never be broken.
Saint John's University has earned the distinction of becoming the winningest football program all-time in NCAA Division III history with a 537-219-24 record in 96 seasons.
The Johnnies have been nationally ranked 40 times, and in 1993, SJU averaged 61.5 points per game, a record that might never be broken.
With nine consecutive victories in the 1997 season, SJU completed its 40th consecutive season without a losing record. The team has earned 12 NCAA playoff appearances in the last 15 years.
The season also solidified coach John Gagliardi's place as college football's all time winningest coach, 453-122-11 (.782) in 59 seasons overall.
You will find similar success stories at schools like Grambling and Pacific Lutheran University (with four national titles between 1980 and 1999, and 32 consecutive winning seasons under former coach Frosty Westering).
So where are college football's best programs? Not in the SEC or the Big Ten, the ACC or the Pac-10.
Dig deeper and you will find some of the best college football isn't on TV on Saturday. It just may be at the small school next door.
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