The unofficial credo of Saturday's Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl in Bradenton, Fla., was uttered at a Kiwanis Club barbecue two nights before the game. With a sweeping gesture that took in his Ithaca College teammates, who were busy inhaling hush puppies and fried alligator, fullback Jeff Wittman made this fond observation: "There's something wrong with every one of us."
The Stagg Bowl determines the football championship of the NCAA's Division III, whose players generally fall into one of three categories: a step slow, a shade small or all of the above. "Sawed-off shotguns and cigar butts" is how coach Mike Kelly of Dayton, Ithaca's opponent, lovingly described his team.
But come game time, when Wittman and his flawed mates took on Team Cigar Butt on a high school field, who cared that the linemen averaged 237 pounds instead of 280 or that no one ran faster than a 4.4 40? The football was terrific, even though both teams were playing in 83° heat and had to contend with unfamiliar interruptions known as TV timeouts (ESPN carried the game). There were gutsy calls, goal line stands, unbalanced formations, acrobatic catches, long, broken-field runs and a 77-yard punt by Dayton's Brad Burns. When it was over, Ithaca had beaten the Flyers 34-20 because 1) Dayton's offense threw a rod when 5'7¾" quarterback Steve Keller—he is adamant about including the fraction—left the game with a wrenched left knee late in the first half, and though he limped back in the fourth quarter, the Flyers went without a first down after intermission; and 2) there was less wrong with Wittman, a 6-foot, 205-pound blunt instrument of a back, than with anyone else on the field.
A junior from Rochester, N.Y., Wittman plowed forward for 159 yards and three touchdowns on 30 carries, conducting in the process an informal seminar on the use of the human cranium as a battering ram. "I like it when defensive backs hit Jeff high and try to bring him down," said Bomber safety Joe Palladino with a giggle. "He just runs them over."
December 23, 1991
When those same Flyer defensive backs started moving closer to the line in an effort to stop Wittman, Ithaca quarterback Todd Wilkowski simply threw the ball over their heads, usually to wide-open wide receiver Nick Ismailoff. It's tempting to say that the difference between Division I and Division III is the difference between Ismail and Ismailoff. Last Saturday, however, that distinction was often blurred: Ismailoff caught 10 passes for 193 yards and two touchdowns, a performance that can fairly be described as Rocket-like.
As a senior at Trumbull (Conn.) High, the 5'9" Ismailoff got feelers from Southern Connecticut and a few Yankee Conference schools. None of the prospects quickened his pulse. "When you have a chance to play for the national championship every year, the thought of going 4-5 in the Yankee Conference isn't that thrilling," said Ismailoff. "When I visited Ithaca, I talked to Coach, saw the trophy case and was sold in five minutes."
Ithaca's much beloved coach, Jim Butterfield, has now been to seven Stagg Bowls in his 25 years with the Bombers. Ithaca also won in 1979 and '88, which makes him the only college football coach other than Woody Hayes to have national championship teams in three decades. Though Butterfield has a 191-65-1 career record, he is not so impressed with himself that he objects to the nickname by which he is universally known: Butts. The respect his players impart to that monosyllable is telling and impressive.
Still, after having chosen to attend Ithaca, Ismailoff took all of about an hour to begin second-guessing his decision. "For the first two weeks of camp we hardly saw a football," he says, recalling his freshman year. "We practiced blocking." Under Butterfield, the Bombers have always been an option team, and the option won't work if you can't block the corner-back. Thus, early in every practice, Ithaca's wide receivers grudgingly hurl themselves into a blocking sled. Upon hearing that Dayton cornerback Dan Rosenbaum had described Ismailoff as "the best-blocking receiver I've played against," Butterfield said, "He'd better be!"
Ithaca became a more receiver-friendly team two years ago. After operating all those years out of Butterfield's trademark "split-back veer option," the Bombers had become a bit predictable, so Butts began tinkering with a one-back, four-receiver set. His decision to diversify was made easier by Wilkowski, who was a sophomore at the time. A 6'3" rail from Depew, N.Y., Wilkowski could run the option—he proved that the year before, when he led the Bombers to the '88 national title—but he could also throw. It seemed a shame to waste that arm. Thus, Wilkowski became the pilot of a phenomenon known around Ithaca as Air Butts.
Wilkowski entered this, his senior season, with six school passing records and one nagging doubt: Would his left knee hold up? He had undergone surgery in the off-season. What specifically was the problem? "Lateral release and subluxation of the patella," says Wilkowski, a physical therapy major. Translation? "My kneecap was over where it didn't belong."
The joint held through the season, enabling the bookish Wilkowski to bookend his college career with national championships. Saturday's Stagg Bowl appearance was a surprise; the '91 edition of the Bombers was not thought to be one of Butterfield's better squads. "The '88 team won on talent," says offensive tackle and co-captain Chris White. "We won on character."
Ithaca's darkest moment came on Oct. 12, when it trailed Division II American International by 10 points late in the game. The Bombers had lost the week before to Springfield, also a Division II school, and another defeat would have scotched their playoff hopes. (The committee that selects the 16 playoff teams considers all games, regardless of an opponent's division.) In the final four minutes against American International, Wilkowski engineered two touchdown drives to give Ithaca a 23-20 win.
Hairy moment number two came last Saturday before 5,469 spectators at Manatee High's Hawkins Stadium. After taking a 17-6 lead in the second quarter, the Flyers smelled a rout. But three plays later, Ismailoff scored his first touchdown on a 42-yard pass from Wilkowski. Ithaca's next possession was all Wittman: He had four carries, broke five tackles and gained 34 yards. After he capped the series with a three-yard, one-broken-tackle touchdown run, the Bombers led 20-17. They never looked back.
"I cried," said Dayton's senior tailback, William Peterson, afterward. "Not because we lost, but because it's the last time I'll be together with this group of guys. The camaraderie we had transcends winning and losing." Division III football is refreshing that way—you find this kind of perspective in defeat. You also find guys who use words like transcend.
Reluctant to leave the field after the game, the Bombers milled for 20 minutes, embracing, crying, whooping it up. One group of linemen hoisted Butts on their shoulders until their strength ebbed, after an appropriate-to-Division III interval of 20 seconds. Later, White held the championship plaque over his head. "Brothers!" he bellowed, to raucous woofs and cheers, "the legend is complete!"
Would White care to explain this cryptic pronouncement? "Happy to," he said. "We call each other brothers because this is a brotherhood, a family. We'd die for each other."
While not every Bomber seemed as eager to go to such extremes, most did cite unity as one of the key ingredients in their success. "No cliques," said Butterfield.
Many players, following a hoary Ithaca custom, had their heads shaved in the preseason. Others submitted to Mohawks or other bizarre and hideous coiffures. This year, to demonstrate their willingness to sacrifice for the team, many players kept these celibacy-assuring 'dos throughout the season. "Your hat was your best friend," said Ismailoff.
Ithaca became an even more tightly knit unit by attending what White called "our Friday night motivational meetings." These confabs, which began at nine o'clock and occasionally ended with the splintering of furniture, "were kind of like New England town meetings, but more primitive," said White, a history major. He would regale his teammates with the feats of Bomber teams past and exhort them to "become legends ourselves."
With Saturday's win, they did.