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Ohio State vies for first of two national football championships this weekend

It looks like Ohio State will get two cracks at a national football title this season and the first one could be crowned as early as this weekend when the school’s top-ranked club football team takes on Oakland University (Mich.) in the club football national championship game on the campus of West Liberty University in West Virginia.

Club football?

Yes, club football has been around for more than five decades, the brainchild of Fordham student council president Donald Ross, who along with other students decided to field a team in 1964 and convinced one-time rival NYU to do the same. New York University had dropped football in 1952, two years before Fordham disbanded its program. 

Club football plays by the same NCAA rules — it’s the same tackle football with 11 players and four 15-minute quarters. They have professional referees officiating the games. The only real distinction between club football and other college games is that the clock continues to run in the second half when a team is leading by an insurmountable margin, a kind of mercy rule to protect prohibitive underdogs. Players, moreover, must maintain a minimum 2.0 GPA and undergraduates have to take at least six credit hours and graduate students must be enrolled in a degree-seeking program.

Only three teams — Fordham, Georgetown and New York University — fielded teams during that first lonely season in 1964.

Coached by student David Langdon, Fordham’s inaugural game took place on Oct. 31 of that year when the Rams were mauled by Maine Maritime 42-0.  The outcome didn’t matter, after a ten-year hiatus football had finally returned to Rose Hill — Vince Lombardi’s alma mater and the school that once boasted not one, but two legendary “Seven Blocks of Granite,” arguably two of the most famous defensive lines in college football history.  Lombardi was one of them.

In a resumption of the storied Fordham-NYU rivalry, the Rams defeated the Violets 20-14 before a crowd of 13,200 at Coffey Field on the Fordham campus the following week in a game that received quite a bit of local and national publicity.

Fordham’s players, like the other club football teams in those early years, competed out of love for the game and for the glory of their school. 

The same thing is true of today’s student-athletes competing at the club football level. 

Though NYU, which deemphasized most of its athletic programs in the late sixties, including its Div. I basketball team, abandoned its club football program following the 1966 season, Fordham continued playing club football for three more years until the school restored its varsity program.

The Rams, whose only loss was to Sewanee, were voted national champions in 1967, narrowly edging out Loyola of Los Angeles (Loyola Marymount).  Fordham defeated Detroit, St. John’s (N.Y.), Georgetown, LSU of New Orleans, Manhattan and Catholic University that season.

In any case, while some schools such as Marquette initially resisted the idea of fielding a club football team for fear that it was a “thinly guised attempt to restore the real thing,” the “Fordham Fad,” as it was dubbed, slowly caught on.

There were a dozen teams competing in club football within a year and twenty schools began participating in 1966.  In 1967, the number of school’s participating in club football swelled to 35 and a year later there were 43 teams.

By 1968, club football even had its own news service directed by New York public relations expert Robert D. Fierro in collaboration with Fordham’s sports information director Roger Hackett and former University of Scranton athletic director Pete Carlesimo. 

“We feel it deserves a place on the national sports pages and since it is continuing to grow each season we felt a news service was necessary to forward news concerning the various clubs, statistics, records, and other data,” said Hackett.

The idea was to put club football on the national map and to a degree it worked as several major newspapers began providing at least some limited coverage while including club football results in the Sunday papers along with the scores of other college games. 

There were at least fifty schools fielding club football teams by 1969, including Loyola of Chicago, whose Joe Leppert-led Ramblers claimed the national club football title two years later, and Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, which had abandoned its Div. I football program in 1950.

Loyola, which disbanded its varsity team in 1930, even played some of its club football home games at Chicago’s legendary 61,500-seat Soldier Field. 

Duquesne’s top-ranked Gridiron Dukes, who turned down a bid to play for the national club football championship a year earlier because of the travel costs involved, won the 1973 national club football championship by defeating second-ranked Mattatuck (Conn.) Community College in a 13-7 defensive struggle before a crowd of 3,724 at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh.  The Dan McCann–coached Dukes were 10-0 that season.  It was Duquesne’s first postseason football victory since defeating Mississippi State 13-12 in the 1937 Orange Bowl.

McCann and other supporters used the team’s national championship to eventually convince school administration officials to reinstate its football program, which happened in 1979 when Duquesne began playing at the NCAA Div. III level.  Duquesne currently participates in the NCAA Div. I Football Championship Subdivision (FCS).

Club football even drew the attention of the president.  By way of emissary Bud Wilkinson, a special White House consultant on physical fitness, President Nixon sent his personal congratulations to Kings College in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., the country’s No. 1 club football team in 1970.

All of this is to say that club football, which gradually lost some of its allure and prestige as more and more schools began reinstating their long-moribund football programs, has been around for a while and has a pretty rich history.

It’s somewhat surprising, however, to see major colleges like Ohio State — one of college football’s perennial powers — fielding a club football team.  The same thing is true of the Big Ten’s Michigan State, the SEC’s South Carolina and Pittsburgh in the ACC, but it is what it is. 

Traditionally, club football had been almost exclusively comprised of schools without an officially-sanctioned football program, but that has changed dramatically in recent years.

Many of the 27 schools that currently participate at the club football level also field university-supported football programs, including some of the largest programs in the country, but it’s an entirely student-driven and financed undertaking so any college in the country is free to field a team as long as the school’s administration approves it.

2018 National Champions

Governed by the Pittsburgh-based National Club Football Association (NCFA), it’s the only level in college football where students from, say, Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I., or Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y., can compete on a more or less equal footing on the gridiron against the likes of a Michigan State or Pitt.

Saturday’s championship game between top-ranked and undefeated Ohio State (8-0), led by sophomore quarterback Kellyn Gerenstein who threw for more than 1,200 yards and fourteen touchdowns in seven games this season, and the Ben Hajciar-led Oakland Golden Grizzlies (8-1) — a fifth-seed entering the playoffs — should be a good one, but the Buckeyes are clearly favored. 

Ohio State, which began playing club football in 2009, has outscored its opponents by a staggering 261 to 38 points this season.  The Buckeyes, who advanced to the title game by clobbering Coppin State 36-0 and defeating Columbus State (Ga.) 17-14 in the semifinals, crushed then No. 1 ranked Oakland 41-7 in their season opener on Sept 22nd.

“This is probably the best team we have ever had, in terms of the overall roster size and the pure talent that we have,” head coach James Grega told The Lantern.

Oakland, which began competing in club football in 2013, has won seven straight games heading into Saturday’s showdown with the top-ranked Buckeyes, including an impressive 44-7 shellacking of Loyola of Chicago in the Great Lakes Conference championship game and a 26-14 win over Sacred Heart in the national semifinals.   

While Saturday’s championship game probably won’t draw a large crowd or receive much in the way of media attention, the players on both teams will likely remember it for a lifetime.

Darcy G. Richardson is a historian and the author of more than a dozen books. His latest is Loyola's Improbable Ramblers: 55 Years in the Making, available now on Amazon.

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