Two years after finishing 0-11 – and two years before winning the first of their program’s back-to-back national championships – the Northwest Missouri State football Bearcats could only shake their heads. But in a good way.
In December 1996, the team they nearly beat in the playoffs went on to win it all.
“We were like, ‘That should have been us,’” quarterback Chris Greisen said.
Soon it was, and it’s why the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame is proud to induct Northwest Missouri State University’s 1998 and 1999 Football Teams that won NCAA Division II national championships.
Those Bearcats launched one of the most significant powerhouses in college football as they played with a purpose, chemistry and, along the way, repeatedly found magic.
The 1998 Bearcats became the first D-II program to finish 15-0 after beating Carson-Newman 24-6.
The 1999 team featuring quarterback Travis Miles also beat Carson-Newman for the title, this time 58-52 in four overtimes. It marked the Bearcats’ fourth come-from-behind victory in the playoffs, as Northwest Missouri State scored 30 points in the fourth quarter, including 15 in the final three minutes. That team had survived after an early season loss at Nebraska-Omaha.
“I came in 1994 and, honestly, it was a bad program. Northwest had not had back-to-back winning seasons in 20-plus years,” said Mel Tjeerdsma, who coached until 2010, winning 183 games, a third national title and was a 2010 MSHOF inductee.
Tjeerdsma was able to hire his own staff, all who came from winning programs, and then recruited a 200-mile radius around the Maryville campus, targeting high school recruits rather than transfers
Greisen, a Green Bay, Wisconsin native, was among the first to sign and accepted a half-scholarship. He and many freshmen were redshirted in 1994 and later led the ’98 season. But he briefly flirted with transferring to Notre Dame after the 0-11 season, although, by spring, he saw the roster evolving.
“In the spring, we were a bare-bones team. But our coaching staff was unbelievable recruiters,” Greisen said. “How do you recruit from 0-11?”
The Bearcats finished 6-5 in 1995, then lost to eventual national champion University of Northern Colorado in the playoffs the next two years in 11-2 and 12-1 seasons. In the first meeting, a false start penalty late in the game denied the Bearcats the go-ahead TD.
“Before the (1998) season, we came up with the mantra, ‘Florence or Bust,” Greisen said, referring to Florence, Alabama, home of the D-II title game.
The 1998 team’s offense also included: linemen Steve Coppinger, Bubba Baker, Joe Glabb, Sherman Wilderness, Chad Thompson, Jay Eiler and Andy Erpelding, tight ends Mark Maus, Steve Comer and Jared James, a backfield of Derrik Lane and Tucker Woolsey and receivers Tony Miles, J.R. Hill, Willie Coehn, Seneca Holmes, Ryan George and Scott Courter.
The defense featured: linemen Aaron Becker, Matt Voge, Josh Knutson, Alan Buckwalter, Adam Horn, Cole Sidwell, Brandon Simpson, linebackers Aaron Crowe, Wes Simmons, Brian Williams, Greg Bonnett, Joe Quinlin, defensive backs Twan Young, Greg Wayne, David Carlson, Charlie Pugh, Brian Sutton and Daniel Keys.
“In ’99, it was guys who knew how to get there,” Tony Miles said. “We didn’t think anyone could beat us. It wasn’t bravado. It was confidence.”
The 1999 Bearcats won 13 in a row out after losing early to Nebraska-Omaha – and losing All-American Becker in the process. Along the way, they beat Northern Colorado in the playoffs.
“That was a testament to the coaches, who didn’t let us push the panic button,” Tony Miles added.
Travis Miles threw five TD passes in Florence, including a 34-yarder to Hill with 10 seconds left in regulation. They won it on a fumble recovery.
“It was incredible,” Tjeerdsma said. “We went through some real adversity. We just kept finding ways to win.”
The 1999 team included Erpelding, Jansen, Holmes, Tony Miles, Hill, Comer, Woolsey, Ryan George, Thompson, Simmons, Williams, Pugh, Quinlin, Simpson, Bonnett, Voge, Sidwell, Buckwalter and Bonnett. Other names were Monte Williams, Adam Horn, Ryan Miller, Tony Warren, Brian Shertz, Geoff Goudge, David Carlson, Justin Bowser, David Carlson, Tony Sly, Williams, Grant Sutton, Nick Dowell, Ryan Miller, Marcel Smith and Frank Taylor. Jeff LeBlanc handled punts, and David Purnell the kicks.
All of which had roots from 1996.
“It was the perfect storm. Things were coming together,” Greisen said. “It was that attitude, ‘You expected to win,’ and that’s what started to happen in ‘96. It wasn’t arrogance. We knew we were going to find a way to win.”