The Rickety Bleachers at John Carroll University's Wasmer Field hold all of 3,500 people, but on Sept. 8 the small Jesuit school in University Heights, Ohio, will host more than twice that many fans. That's the day national champion Dayton arrives for a visit. "They'll be sitting on neighboring rooftops," says John Carroll quarterback Larry Wanke. "It's going to be a zoo." The biggest football game played at John Carroll in two decades will be a rematch of last year's first-round Division III playoff game, won by the Flyers 35-10 at Dayton. The 13-0-1 champs were a young team last season and were thought to be at least a year away from the title. That's bad news for the rest of the division this season. The Flyers have 17 starters returning and have added a 290-pound offensive lineman, Dave Postmus, a transfer from Illinois. Dayton may well go unbeaten again.
The Flyers may be the stronger team, but John Carroll has the best small-college player in the land in Wanke, a 6'3", 220-pound drop-back passer. After a redshirt year and two seasons as the backup quarterback at Pittsburgh, Wanke went back home to nearby South Euclid, in January 1989, and enrolled at John Carroll. Last fall, he led the Blue Streaks to their first-ever NCAA playoff appearance. "I thought I was coming back to play high school football," Wanke says. "But after I got hit a few times, I realized that these guys meant business. Division I has the size, speed and depth, but Division III has more flat-out team competition." Wanke's ability to put points on the board will be sorely needed this season, as John Carroll has nine defensive vacancies to fill.
Union, last year's runner-up, has a better chance than John Carroll of unseating Dayton for the title. The Dutchmen, from Schenectady, N.Y., are a veteran team with talent that includes quarterback Brett Russ, who is 17-3 in his 1½ years as a starter. In the past five years coach Al Bagnoli has led Union to three undefeated regular seasons but is still looking for his first national crown. The Stagg Bowl loss to Dayton was especially frustrating for Bagnoli, because his Dutchmen finished the game ahead of the Flyers in nearly every statistical category. "There are a few plays we'd like to have back," Bagnoli says. "We had 20 first downs, seven points; they had seven first downs, 17 points."
As in seasons past, you can fast-forward Augustana into the playoffs. The Vikings, the only team to repeat as champions of Division III, owned the title from 1983 to '86 but haven't gone to the Stagg Bowl since. Though the Rock Island, III., school has reached the playoffs for nine consecutive years, the Vikings are in a bit of a slump—by their standards. They even lost at home last season, to Millikin, 33-8, for the first time in 42 games. Coach Bob Reade's son Barry, the oldest of his 11 children, will once again be at quarterback for the Vikings.
St. John's of Collegeville, Minn., is the best Division III team west of the Mississippi, but if the Johnnies played the way they practice, they would never win a game. Coach John Gagliardi's team doesn't hit in practice and never scrimmages. In extreme weather, the players take a vote on whether to brave the elements or practice in the gym. The Johnnies do not wear full pads in practice, nor do they engage in any rigorous conditioning. And the team never stays on the field for more than an hour and a half—except for Tuesdays, when they stay two hours. "John stresses the mental part of the game over the physical," says senior wide receiver Todd Fultz, who two years ago transferred from South Dakota State. "We go half-speed in practice. We're loose and comfortable and save everything for Saturday." On those Saturdays, Gagliardi has won more football games (268) than any other active coach except Grambling's Eddie Robinson, who has won 358.
Wagner, which missed out on the Division III playoffs last year for the first time since 1986, got a jump on the '90 season by obtaining permission to have spring practice. The Seahawks worked out for 10 days to prepare for an exhibition in Denmark against the Copenhagen Vikings. Wagner welcomes back all but five starters this fall, and gave Division III a taste of things to come when they whipped the Vikings 51-0 on May 27.