By Zach Baker
The players said they didn't even recognize how special the 1972 season was at the time.
That came much later.
Before there were college football playoffs, before there was a designation between Division II and Division III, before their even was a specific national championship game, Heidelberg did something remarkable. Under coach Pete Riesen (who died in 2007), the school went 11-0 and won the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl in 1972.
Today, the Stagg Bowl is the pinnacle of Division III football, the unquestioned national championship game. It wasn't that way in 1972. There were two "regional bowls" for small colleges - The Stagg Bowl for the West and the Knute Rockne Bowl for the East.
Still, Heidelberg's 28-16 victory over Fort Valley State in Phenix City, Ala. marked the program's only postseason game. That is, until Saturday when Heidelberg hosts Wittenberg in the first round of this year's Division III playoffs.
Heidelberg coach Mike Hallett knows that the 1972 team set a standard for the program by which all teams are measured.
"You use the word 'Stagg Bowl,' and it was a little different kind of game than it is now, but it's still ... that resonates," Hallett said. "I don't know who played in the '72 Knute Rockne Bowl, because that bowl no longer existed after they went to a national playoff, but that Stagg name carried on, starting in '73 to today."
The Stagg Bowl became a national championship Bowl in '73, won, ironically, by Wittenberg.
But back in 1972, Heidelberg played in what was then a 14-team Ohio Athletic Conference, one that included Denison, Hiram, Oberlin, Wittenberg and others.
Then-Heidelberg linebacker Gary McKillip said the pieces of the 1972 team came together years earlier, with a 1970 recruiting class brought in by Jack Murphy. The 1972 Heidelberg team went 3-6, and Murphy was replaced by Riesen. It went 6-3 in '71.
"It was our junior year where we meshed very well and got things rolling," McKillip said.
Much like this year's squad, Heidelberg won a number of games with outstanding defensive efforts. The Student Princes beat Wittenberg 7-0, and Lee Tressel's Baldwin-Wallace 10-7.
"Whenever the offense didn't click, they knew the offensive would pick them up," McKillip said.
It was in the game against Wittenberg where a photo was taken that remains an iconic one for the program.
The picture, taken after a defensive stand, shows McKillip, George Freeman, Tom Coffman, Larry Risner and Bob Dierkes triumphantly charging off the field at Frost-Kalnow Stadium.
McKillip remembers the photo well.
"I have a picture of that photo I keep around," McKillip said. "I talked to George Freeman [at this year's game with John Carroll]. He's getting a Fathead of it."
Riesen's offense, at least in style, is different than the ones seen today in the OAC. While Hallett has always had strong running backs, from Kenny Sims to Jemar Lewis to Cartel Brooks, it's never run quite like that '72 team did. With Columbian graduate Bob Hunt leading the way, the Student Princes ran a school-record 533 times.
Jim Ruth was the quarterback in 1972. He had almost 2,200 yards of total offense that season.
"I don't know how successful I was, but I was only as successful as our offensive lineman were, and especially our defense," Ruth said. "We had an outstanding defense, that was probably our biggest strength.
"We played well together, we had a camaraderie," Ruth said. "I would guess we weren't the most talented of kids, but we really played well together."
Jerry McDonald, a coach for a number of sports and former athletic director at Heidelberg, was a scout team player at the time. He said a big key to the team's success was the coaching of Riesen, who never allowed his players to get too far ahead or get too comfortable.
"Pete really commanded that type of respect," McDonald said. "I will say this, there was a small amount of - you hate to say fear - but there was a little bit of, you didn't want to get on his bad side. Even though you had that little bit of fear and intimidation from him, oh, the respect for him, and what you were willing to do for him."
McKillip also praised the work of Riesen's assistant coaches in '72.
"Riesen was definitely an old school coach, hands on quite a bit," McKillip said. "If you were out of line you felt the wrath of Pete Riesen, that's for sure. He had some good assistants. The head coach is more of the motivator, the assistants do the actual coaching."
Heidelberg finished the '72 regular season undefeated, as did Ashland, and there was some question about who would go to the bowl game.
"They didn't really talk to us as a team," McKillip said. "I did know that coach [Edgar] Sherman from Muskingum, he was on the board, because Ashland also was undefeated at the time, he made the deciding vote to get us to go."
There was even a question if Heidelberg would go to the Stagg Bowl when it was selected.
Because of cost concerns, McKillip said there was doubt if the school would allow the team to fly to Alabama for the game.
But Jim Getz, the school's athletic director at the time, and a few of the players met with the faculty, and the faculty voted to let the team go to the game.
"There was a short period of time where, well, we might not be going," McDonald said. "But that didn't last very long, thanks to Jim."
McDonald remembered two major things about the preparation for the Stagg Bowl - practicing in four inches of snow, and not seeing any film of Fort Valley State.
Riesen had film of Fort Valley State, but decided not to show it to his team, afraid it might intimidate them.
Ruth said that probably was a good move.
"If we had seen them on film, we'd have been pretty discouraged," he said.
McKillip said the Student Princes finally saw their opponents in the days leading up to the game.
"We saw them," he said. "It was the biggest team we had ever seen."
It also was explosive. The Wildcats averaged more than 45 points a game in 1972.
But in the game itself, Heidelberg's defense notched a few big plays on the Wildcats, including a blocked punt that turned into a touchdown, and won, 28-16.
It was a big moment, but one the players said took a while to sink in.
"We didn't realize the magnitude of the accomplishment, or realize how special of a time it was," MacDonald said. "And it's gotten more special, and we've realized how special it was as the years went by."
At the time, McKillip said the team expected to be as good for years to come. Of course, that didn't happen.
"It's easier to get to the top than to stay there," McKillip said. "And we had some key injuries."
With this year's Heidelberg team days away from the playoffs, Ruth was asked if he had any advice for
"Only advice I'd give is for the kids to believe in one another," Ruth said. "They work really hard and have played a tough schedule. To be able to make it to the playoffs it's a tremendous honor for them.
McKillip, who lives in the Columbus area, said he's hoping to make Saturday's game.
"I think it will be one heck of a game," he said.