Linfield has 47 winning seasons, and it's not done yet
McMINNVILLE Ñ Oregon's most successful college football program doesn't hang its hat in Corvallis or Eugene.
No team in the country is more synonymous with success than Linfield, which will play host to St. John's (Minn.) at noon Saturday in the NCAA Division III quarterfinals.
Linfield has had a winning record in each of the last 47 years, an NCAA record at any level. The last time the school had a losing record was in 1955, when Paul Durham went 3-6 near the middle of a 20-year coaching stint.
And Linfield is gathering steam. The seventh-ranked Wildcats are 10-0 and taking dead aim at something the school accomplished three times in the 1980s Ñ a national championship.
'That has been our goal all year,' says junior defensive tackle Chris Riddell, an All-Northwest Conference selection who played at Centennial High. 'If we fall short, I'm going to be really disappointed.'
Linfield has had only four coaches during the last 55 years, and the current one ÑÊ Jay Locey Ñ has maintained the winning tradition. In his first season (1996), the Wildcats had to close the season with victories over Lewis & Clark and Whitworth to finish 5-4 and keep the streak alive.
Since then, it has been smooth sailing. Locey's succeeding six teams have gone 44-11, and this one is probably his best.
The former Oregon State safety, who has been at Linfield for 20 years, was an assistant on the national title teams of 1984 and '86.
'This team is every bit as capable as those teams, or the '92 team that made it to the national championship game,'
Locey says. 'It's a special group, with a lot of seniors, a lot of battle-proven kids with some pretty good talent.'
And extra motivation. Two years ago, after going 9-0 in the regular season, Linfield lost to Central (Iowa) 20-17 in overtime on a play that goes beyond the fluke category.
The Wildcats kicked a field goal to go ahead 17-14 in the extra session, then watched as the Central kicker slipped and booted the game-tying attempt into the line. The Central center picked up the ball and was surrounded by players from both teams near the line of scrimmage. Several seconds later Ñ the Wildcats kept waiting for a whistle signaling the game's end Ñ another Central player wound up with the ball in the end zone for a finish straight out of 'Twilight Zone.'
Team's new resolve
After opening last season 1-2, Linfield reeled off six straight wins and expected a playoff invitation that never came. The next day, a group of Wildcat veterans crafted the motto that has been with the team since: 'Leave no doubt.'
'It puts a little chip on your shoulder, no doubt about that,' says safety Ray Lions, who prepped at Sunset.
'You have no idea,' adds David Russell, whose 1,380 yards rushing this season is a school record. 'We have so many seniors (22), and most of these guys were part of both years. Everybody knows what it felt like. We don't want that feeling ever again. That's why 'Leave no doubt' fits perfectly.'
Injuries limited the 6-foot, 215-pound Russell to four games as a junior last season, when he played behind team MVP Marty Williams out of Grant High. The tables turned this season. Williams suffered a season-ending knee injury in Linfield's fourth game and has been relegated to the sideline and a little volunteer coaching since. Each of the Wildcats wears a sticker on his helmet signifying Williams' No. 36 jersey.
'Marty has been an inspirational guy who has really impacted this team,' Locey says. 'And Dave is the most unassuming guy you will ever find. He has so little ego. He would have been happy blocking for Marty the whole season.'
An experienced offense
Russell has an offensive line featuring six seniors, including tight end Luke Buchheit, to clear paths for him. The tailback from Burnt Woods, south of Corvallis, carried 56 times in one game for a school-record 234 yards.
'I'm ready for 75 carries, if necessary,' Russell says.
Lions leads Linfield in tackles and was named NWC defensive player of the year. Linfield was the only college that pursued the 6-1, 200-pound junior, who is in his third year as a starter.
'Ray is physical, plays like a linebacker back there,' Locey says. 'He always seems to end up being at the right place at the right time.'
Locey's staff includes three men who have been high school head coaches Ñ Ron August, Clyde Powell and Tony Mauze.
'Best coaching staff in the nation at any level, in my opinion,' Russell says. 'Those guys do a fabulous job. I can't think of a single game where we have not been the better-prepared team.'
Linfield has a small recruiting budget and, like other NWC schools, no athletic scholarships. Lions is paying his own way, with the help of student loans, and says it has been worth it.
'The guys we have aren't here for the money but to play football,' he says. 'A scholarship would be great, but you couldn't get better-quality coaches and teammates than I have had. It has been a blast Ñ the best time of my life.'
A run of more than four decades
Word of mouth is the program's best ally. The high school coaches of Lions (Floyd Halversen) and Riddell (Chris Knudsen) both played for the Wildcats. Their recommendations were taken to heart.
Men who played for Durham (1948-67) convene for an annual summer reunion in McMinnville, and Locey speaks to them about the coming season. Each year's homecoming game features a Walk of Honor, with lettermen returning to campus to show respect for the program.
'The neat thing is, you are part of a tradition of teams that go back 47 years, and every one was a winner,' Locey says. 'There is a bond between all of us. You are connected. There is great pride in our streak and what it means to everybody, and I think the current players feel that.'
They do, but it's not the team's driving force.
'The only time it ever gets brought up is when we're losing,' Riddell says. 'After we started 1-2 last year, people kept asking me, 'You guys going to be able to keep the streak going?' There was never a question in my mind. But it's not about maintaining an above .500 record. We are trying to win the league every year.'
This season, it goes beyond that. The Wildcats face a stiff challenge Saturday en route to what they hope is the national title game. St. John's is ranked No. 6, and its coach of 50 years, John Gagliardi, is going for his 400th career victory.
Gagliardi will reach his milestone next season if the Wildcats have anything to say about it.