The gorilla is less an animal than a life style in Pittsburg, Kans. Around the tidy Pittsburg State University campus, there are gorilla sculptures, and in the bookstore you can pick up a wide array of gorillawear. The football coach's office is a menagerie of stuffed gorillas; in the college president's office, amid artifacts from the Far East, there is a portrait of a great ape in deep thought, with an engraved nameplate that reads THE HEAD GORILLA. Tethered atop the Bank IV building downtown is an inflated effigy of King Kong, 40 feet high and baring its plastic choppers, a silo-high beacon of gorilla pride and available mortgages.
Pittsburgers will tell you that while the nickname Gorillas is used by two U.S. high schools—one in Picher, Okla., and the other in Oregon or Washington, they're never quite sure—Pitt State is the nation's only university to give the name to its men's teams. In 1920 a group of Pitt State students, wanting to inject more pep into the school, banded together as the Gorillas, which was slang then for "roughnecks." Five years later the Gorilla elbowed aside the Manualite (after the university's earlier name, the Kansas Manual School) as the college mascot. "The gorilla is an intelligent animal, a thoughtful animal, but it's also an animal you don't mess with," says Donald Wilson, the university's president. "It's a name that's both unique and meaningful."
That meaning is particularly clear in Division II football, in which Pitt State is the proverbial 500-pound simian that sits anywhere it wants. In the past eight seasons the Gorillas have won 92 games, more than any other team at any level, and last year they came within one deflected pass of seizing their second straight Division II championship, bowing 17-13 in the finals to Jacksonville (Ala.) State. The NFL has drafted five Pitt State players in the past three years, as many as it has taken from Kansas and more than it has taken from Kansas State. And the Gorillas' split-back veer offense has produced the last two winners of the Harlon Hill Trophy, awarded to Division II's top player.
One of this year's Harlon Hill favorites is Pitt State senior quarterback Brian Hutchins, who set a school record for total offense last year and is 19-1 as a starter. He's a product of Pitt State's reverse Darwinism, under which it isn't enough to play for the Gorillas; you must become one. "When you first come here as a freshman, you aren't sure you're a Gorilla," Hutchins says. "You have to show you're striving to be the best you can be."
As head coach Chuck Broyles puts it, "People relish the fact that they're Gorillas. The older players teach the younger ones what it's like to be a Gorilla."
An unpretentious town along the fruited plain of southeastern Kansas, Pittsburg (pop. 18,500) hardly conjures up images of an African safari. Shingled bungalows with flagpoles outside nestle on either side of Broadway, a four-mile main drag with fast-food joints, video stores, taverns and 21 stoplights, Originally a mining community that attracted immigrants from Eastern Europe, Pittsburg now relies heavily on the university for jobs. The strip pits created by the all-but-vanished coal industry are now fishing holes and hunting grounds and provide most of the entertainment in the area, unless you count the Little Balkans Days festival in September or a visit to Big Brutus, the world's second-largest electric mining shovel.
Or unless, of course, you follow Pitt State football. It's a galvanizing force, as sports often are in small towns. Some 120 ex-Gorillas still live in and near Pittsburg, and over the past three years they've raised more than $50,000 for the Pitt State athletic program by mounting an annual celebrity golf tournament, which one year lured Pat Boone. At Bob's Grill on Broadway, a shack of a place oozing gorillabilia and redolent of boiling fat, a dozen former lettermen will chow down on any given day. Some of them are from the 1957 and '61 NAIA championship teams coached by local legend Carnie Smith. Bob's proprietor, Steve Ginavan, a wide receiver from 1987 to '89, puts on a special feed for active Gorilla players on Saturday mornings before home games. "Every year it's something new here—winning streaks, the Harlon Hill awards, the championship game on ESPN," says Ginavan. "What can Notre Dame say is new? A new water girl?"
All might not be so cozy at Pitt State were it not for the vision and enthusiasm of the Head Gorilla himself, the 55-year-old Wilson, who says things like "I don't look at us as being in the southeast corner of Kansas. We're in the middle of a four-state region [Arkansas, Oklahoma, Missouri and Kansas], in the middle of the United States and in the middle of the world." Wilson's energy is local legend: He was once censured by the town recreation department for playing in three Softball leagues—instead of the maximum two—in the same season. And Wilson is an unyielding fan of Pitt State football. During a game last year at Missouri Western, stadium security threatened to remove the Gorilla mascot, who was swinging from a goalpost. Wilson bellowed that if the ape went, he went too. The cops were about to oblige when a Missouri Western official intervened.
When Wilson climbed aboard as Pitt State president in 1983, however, he found the football program uncertain about its direction. Two years later he persuaded a young alum named Dennis Franchione to return as head coach. A taskmaster who used the somewhat oxymoronic slogan Kick Ass with Class, Franchione whipped the Gorillas to a 53-6 record in five seasons, won five conference titles and reached the NAIA semifinals three times. Meanwhile Wilson set about raising the school's standards in academics as well as athletics, which allowed Pitt State to upgrade from the NAIA to the NCAA's Division II in 1989. Wilson's master plan paid off: After years of decline, enrollment at Pitt State increased steadily—to 6,500 this year—and fund-raising is more successful than ever.
"The program has things built into it that are easy to lose and hard to obtain," says Franchione, now head coach at New Mexico, 'it has community support and tradition, and the players always believe they'll find a way to win."
Pitt State has a few other advantages as well. Because it was a teachers' college for 46 years, until 1959, many alums teach and coach in the area, creating a strong referral system. There's also a handy wellspring of junior college talent not only in Kansas but also in Missouri and Oklahoma. And while becoming a lower primate does not have universal appeal, having a perennial shot at a national championship does. "No one else but Miami can guarantee you that," says Gorilla running back Seann Scott, "and [the Hurricanes] weren't exactly recruiting me."
The Gorilla staff has built its offense and defense around the sort of players the school attracts. "There are oodles of kids who weigh 275 pounds," says defensive coordinator Tim Beck. "The ones who are short, squat and fatty—those are the ones we get." Indeed, Pitt State's offensive line when it won the title in '91 was huge (282 pounds on average) if not tall (6'2"), but that suited its drive-blocking schemes.
To secure complementary speed the Gorillas have needed persistence and luck. Ronnie West bounced around two jucos and Army boot camp before wandering into the Pitt State football office in 1989 and asking to walk on. He won the Harlon Hill in '91 and is now a wideout with the Minnesota Vikings. Ronald Moore was widely pursued as a running back during high school in Spencer, Okla., but when he forgot to sign up for his ACT, many schools backed off. He wound up at Pitt State, rushed for 2,585 yards in '92, picked up the Harlon Hill and was a fourth-round choice of the Phoenix Cardinals.
Hutchins took a less arduous route. A graduate of Pittsburg High, he is central casting's idea of the Midwestern small-college quarterback, 6 feet and 183 pounds, with wide eyes and pinch-able checks. "I'm a hometown boy, and I thought coming here was the best thing for me," Hutchins says. "Football is everything in this town, but the number one thing I like to do is win, and they definitely do that here."
The classy ass-kicking tradition has continued under the 45-year-old Broyles, who is 39-3-1 since taking over the Gorillas after the '89 season. He grew up in nearby Mulberry (pop. 647), played defensive tackle under Carnie Smith and was Franchione's defensive coordinator for two years. In contrast to the fiery Franchione, Broyles would make Andy Griffith seem like a SWAT commando. During warmups before games at the Pit (as 5,600-seat Brandenburg Field/Carnie Smith Stadium is called), while Guns N' Roses' Welcome to the Jungle blares on the P.A. system and the transplanted Bank IV gorilla prowls behind one goalpost, Broyles walks around and chats calmly with each player. "I have no idea how we keep winning," Broyles says. "It's hard to fathom. Most of it is getting good players and getting lucky."
But with all of Pitt State's success has come increased pressure. Not long after the Gorillas took the '91 championship, beating Jacksonville State 23-6, Gorilla Club members asked Broyles about the playoff schedule for '92. Not coincidentally, Broyles collapsed two weeks before the '92 season. One of his arteries proved to be 90% blocked, and he immediately underwent an angioplasty. He came back for the first kickoff—he is, after all, a Gorilla—and later withstood a roller-coaster playoff ride in which Pitt State won twice in the last few minutes before losing in the finals when a Jax State defender deflected a Hutchins pass with his fingertip at the goal line. Had the Gorillas won that game, they would have entered this season on a 26-game winning streak, a roll that might really warp the community's perspective.
"People expect you to win at Pitt State," says athletic director Bill Samuels. "It's becoming a beast, that's what it's becoming."
Welcome to the jungle.