While extending their NCAA-leading winless streak to 28 games before about 400 home-field spectators last Saturday, the Marietta (Ohio) College Pioneers resembled a dead-game but all-too-human Greek hero bound for his inevitable undoing. However, the Pioneers have not one, but three tragic flaws, none of which could be considered heroic. They're small, slow and weak.
On the other hand, it's doubtful that any of Marietta's 44 players—their 13 Division III rivals in the Ohio Athletic Conference all suit up at least 80 players—suffer from hubris. With no wins and only one tie since Sept. 27, 1980, the Pioneers have had as much trouble maintaining self-esteem as one of their 175-pound linemen has blocking a 230-pound defensive tackle.
Granted, the football stakes aren't very high at Marietta, which is located in the southeast corner of Ohio. Division III schools don't give athletic scholarships, and very few of their players are ever drafted by the pros. Playing is its own reward there, and winning is the highest reward.
"Losing isn't a good experience," says Marietta Athletic Director Phil Roach, who has lost 53% of his games in his other role as the Pioneers' basketball coach. "This losing streak won't build character. It builds heartache. Winning is much healthier for the players and the program."
Parts of Marietta's athletic program are in exceedingly good health. The Pioneers have won the NCAA Division III baseball championship two of the last three years. Its men's four-and eight-oared crew is among the nation's best. But except for a brief fling with history in 1906, Marietta's football team has had only a fleeting acquaintance with respectability.
The Pioneers even had a brush with it on Saturday. Marietta was trailing Mount Union of Alliance, Ohio only 7-0 at halftime and might have been tied if it hadn't lost a fumble inside the Purple Raiders' one-yard line in the first quarter. Unaccustomed as they are to close games, the diehards who attend Pioneer home games started making more noise than they have in years. But in the second half the Pioneers bowed to custom—and a bigger, faster and deeper opponent—for their 22nd consecutive loss.
Still, there was general agreement afterward that Marietta's hard hitting and 314 yards in total offense made this 28-0 loss one of the Pioneers' best performances since they tied Ohio Wesleyan at the end of the 1980 season. Of course, it was good only in the light of Marietta's recent history:
•Since their last win, a now hallowed 14-7 victory over Otterbein three years ago, the Pioneers have been outscored 928 to 127.
•In 1981, the Marietta soccer team scored more points than the football team, which was shut out in five straight games.
•In a 41-7 loss at home to Capital on Sept. 17, the Pioneers attempted 20 passes, of which 14 were caught. Seven were completed and seven were intercepted.
•Marietta's offensive and defensive lines average exactly 200 pounds per man. The fastest player runs a 4.7 40, and only five Pioneers can bench-press more than 300 pounds. "I don't think we are blessed physically," says first-year Coach Mike Hollway.
Hollway, 31, went to Marietta last April with the immediate intention of burying the past and laying a foundation that would attract better players. The previous coach, Tom Mulligan, 1-25-1 over three seasons, is perhaps best remembered for installing the Play of the Week; he invited students, gas station attendants and any other interested parties to suggest plays, the best of which would be used in that week's game. Mulligan resigned after last season.
Hollway comes from a much different tradition. His father, Bob, is the defensive coordinator with the Minnesota Vikings and the former head coach of the St. Louis Cardinals. Mike Hollway never played a down of college football, but he was a graduate assistant at the University of Michigan for two years under Bo Schembechler. For the next seven years, before coming to Marietta, he was the defensive coordinator at Augustana (Ill.) College, where his 1982 unit allowed only 7.1 points per game.
"We don't have a tradition here," Hollway says with quiet intensity. "We have to get one. I think we will win a couple of games this year."
His first step was to insist on an almost exaggeratedly positive attitude on the part of his players. No one shows discouragement even at the end of blowouts. "Keep your head up!" has become the Pioneer battle cry. Of the losing streak, Hollway says, "We don't discuss it." End of discussion, but not of losing streak.
The citizens of Marietta (pop. 16,000) don't discuss the losing streak either. In fact, they don't pay much attention to the football team at all. Their town, which was planned by a group of New Englanders in 1787 and hasn't changed much, has handled adversity with Midwestern stolidity ever since 1793, when Marie Antoinette, for whom Marietta had been named, was beheaded. As for most of the 810 young men and 446 young women who pay as much as $8,000 a year in tuition to attend Marietta, a private college, they seem to be more drawn to picnics on the nearby banks of the Ohio and Muskingum rivers on Saturday afternoons than they are to Don Drumm Field.
But even the successful baseball team and crew fail to attract big student followings. Marietta is more noted for its academics than its sports, particularly in the fields of petroleum engineering and sports medicine. Its most famous graduate is Charles Dawes, who was Vice-President under Calvin Coolidge and a Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1925. The school's most notable athletic personages are the first American League president, Ban Johnson, and Pittsburgh Pirate Reliever Kent Tekulve, another guy who isn't overly blessed physically.
"Even though the football players hate to admit it, the vast majority of the students don't care whether we win or lose," says senior David Henrie. Henrie recently was the target of some choice words from football players after he told the campus newspaper he hoped the Pioneers would lose every game, "so we can get some kind of record," He didn't realize the NCAA record for consecutive losses is 50, set by Macalester College of St. Paul between 1975 and 1979. "I guess I sounded a little harsh," Henrie admits.
Marietta players have been losing for too long to see anything funny about ribbing from fellow students. At Saturday's game, six Marietta undergraduates took their seats wearing brown paper bags over their heads a la New Orleans Aints fans. But they took them off after being confronted by a band of hardcore football supporters. "Nobody knows how to have any fun around here," said Robert Coleman, one of the bagmen. "We want the team to win."
"We're proud to play for Marietta," said senior Linebacker Tate Plachecki, "but on campus everyone views us differently from the way we view ourselves. As a team we feel positive about what we do. It's never been a joke and it never will be. I just wish I were a freshman again."
The Pioneers' football history is not without its high points. In 1906, Marietta achieved its best record ever, 9-1, and in a 12-2 win at home that year against Ohio University the Pioneers completed what may have been the first legal forward pass, a 52-yarder for a touchdown from Petey Gilman to Verne Moses. Branch Rickey was an official in that game, and he is said to have remarked, while the Ohio players were yelling at him to call the play back, "Judas Priest, did you ever see a thing like that!"
Frank Sutton, 92, former athletic director at Marietta High and a football player at the college in the class of '15, was at that game and remembers Moses was "wide open, there was nobody there." Sutton still roots for his alma mater, but he says he can't quite understand why it has become a loser. "I guess you can't be a small one anymore," says the former 135-pound end.
The Pioneers' current roster is loaded with small ones, many of whom are starting to believe they can win. Mark Gagliardo, a 185-pound freshman running back, provided Marietta fans with both the most exciting and the most disappointing moments of Saturday's game on one play, a zigzagging 18-yard run that ended in a goal-line fumble.
Later, in an upbeat Marietta locker room, Gagliardo chose to think of the play as a sign that the Pioneers aren't far from winning. "We didn't get down," he said. "We thought, 'O.K., we fumbled, but we drove on them.' It just made us want to get the ball back that much quicker. They couldn't stop us."
From losing, that is.