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Other Colleges Coach Larry Kehres has built Mount Union College into a Division III football juggernaut

Sunday, August 31, 2003

By Milan Simonich, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

ALLIANCE, Ohio -- Larry Kehres, the best college football coach you've never heard of, is doing an excellent imitation of basketball legend John Wooden. Kehres' Mount Union College teams have won 96 of their past 97 games, three consecutive NCAA Division III national championships and six of the past seven. In small-college circles, Kehres often draws comparisons to Wooden, the storied UCLA coach who won 10 NCAA national championships in 12 seasons from 1964 to 1975.

Mount Union College football coach Larry Kerhres has been pointing the way to NCAA Division III titles for 17 seasons. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette)
Click photo for larger image.

Mount Union opens its season Saturday on a 42-game winning streak, a total that is second-best in school history. Kehres' teams won an NCAA record 54 consecutive games between Sept. 14, 1996, and Dec. 11, 1999, when Mount Union was upset by Rowan University in the Division III national semifinals. The Purple Raiders haven't lost since.

Perhaps the most refreshing part of the Mount Union football dynasty is that Kehres accepts anybody who wants to be a part of it. He never cuts a player, even though about 200 come out for practice each fall. Many are a step slow or lacking the instinct necessary to succeed in the college game, yet they are welcomed onto the team.

"But you don't want to print anything about the size of our roster," Kehres says. "Parents might get the idea that their kids will never play if they come to Mount Union."

A lanky, gray-haired man of 54, Kehres looks more like an economics professor than a football coach, especially when he looks at players from behind wire-rimmed glasses. He rarely raises his voice, but the Purple Raiders hang on every word.

Players describe Kehres as quiet and humble. If at all possible, he avoids discussions about Mount Union's winning streaks, which he says are of far more interest to the media than they are to his players.

What he does harp on is excellence.

"He works for perfection," said Matt Caponi, a senior defensive back and a Baldwin High School graduate. "That's how his offense has been for the last three years -- perfect."

What's the secret?

Kehres may be the most-studied man in small-college football, but opponents still regard him as something of a mystery.

"How does he win all the time? I wish I knew because then I might beat him one day," said John Gagliardi, who is starting his 51st season as coach of St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn.

Gagliardi has won 400 college games but is 0-3 against Kehres, including a defeat in the 2000 national championship game. St. John's also lost twice to Mount Union in playoff semifinals. Both times the Purple Raiders went on to win national titles.

"He's brilliant," Gagliardi said. "Every time you think you've caught up to him, he adjusts and his teams get better. I would guess that only John Wooden has had more success as a college coach."

Others are not so complimentary when it comes to Kehres and Mount Union's domination.

"Many people assume we must be doing something illegal to have so much success," said Jack Ewing, president of Mount Union College. "We're not, of course, but people say it."

Mount Union, like all Division III schools, cannot offer football scholarships. Its only real advantage in recruiting players is the tradition Kehres has established. Most of his prospects come from Northeastern Ohio and Western Pennsylvania, the same fertile territories mined by dozens of other colleges with records nowhere near as good as that of the Purple Raiders.

 
 
COACH'S BOOK

Mount Union College Coach Larry Kehres by the numbers.

Home record: 103-7-3

Road record: 82-10

Neutral sites record: 7-0

National playoffs record: 36-6

Current winning streaks: 42 in a row heading into Saturday's season opener against Wisconsin-Whitewater; 76 in a row in the NCAA Division III Ohio Athletic Conference.

Player graduation rate: In excess of 98 percent for players in the program for four years.

   
 

Ewing says Mount Union wins like no other team in Division III because it has a one-of-a-kind coach.

"This is a culture of excellence that I have never seen before," said Ewing, who came to Mount Union in 2000 from Dakota Wesleyan University. "Coach Kehres is the key. Few, if any, Division III schools pay as much attention to every detail of having a successful program."

During Kehres' 17 years as Mount Union's head coach, he is a staggering 192-17-3. Nine of those losses came during his first four seasons. Perhaps just as impressive is that his record was made in the Ohio Athletic Conference, one of the country's strongest small-college leagues.

Teams from the OAC are 20-4 in the national playoffs the past six years. Three of those defeats were to Mount Union, which often has faced the conference runner-up in early round playoff games in the Division III tournament.

Kehres has been a fixture at Mount Union for much of his life. He played quarterback for the Purple Raiders and apprenticed for 11 years as its offensive coordinator before ascending to head coach in 1986.

He took a solid program and turned it into a spectacular one by emphasizing precision, mental preparation and weight training. Kehres' players rarely hit during practice. He knows injuries could sink his dynasty faster than an emerging rival, so he mandates that players study film and take out pent-up emotions on tackling dummies.

The right stuff

To win all those championships, Kehres also made sure he had the right type of players. Speedy all-staters seldom want anything to do with Division III colleges, so he doesn't waste time recruiting them. Instead, he looks for raw recruits with a decent high school pedigree, then interviews them to see if they would fit into Mount Union's program.

"I only ask them three questions, but they're important," Kehres says. "Are you a good man? Do you have a passion for football? Do you plan on getting the grades you're capable of?"

Talk about grades is not a matter of political correctness at Mount Union. Tuition, fees, books and living expenses are $22,000 a year. Football players must pay their way, just like everybody else at the college, which has an enrollment of 2,400.

Players say nothing annoys Kehres more than mental mistakes on the field and lackadaisical efforts in the classroom. On the rare occasions when Kehres yells, it's because somebody has blown an assignment or underachieved academically.

"Don't start bragging about a 2.8 [grade-point average] if you should have had a 3.8," Kehres says in explaining his intolerance for intelligent young men who do not apply themselves.

On the field, Kehres lays down a singular challenge to everybody who pulls on a helmet. "I expect them to play better than they ever thought they could," he says.

Players such as senior wide receiver Randell Knapp say Kehres' high expectations eventually rubbed off.

Knapp arrived at Mount Union as a middling 180-pound quarterback from Kent, Ohio. The coaches promised him nothing, but told him he could become a good player if he worked hard.

 
 
HIT RECORDS

Larry Kehres' year-by-year records at Mount Union College. His teams have a .913 winning percentage.

    Year -- Record

  • 2002 -- 14-0*
  • 2001 -- 14-0*
  • 2000 -- 14-0*
  • 1999 -- 12-1
  • 1998 -- 14-0*
  • 1997 -- 14-0*
  • 1996 -- 14-0*
  • 1995 -- 12-1
  • 1994 -- 10-2
  • 1993 -- 14-0*
  • 1992 -- 12-1
  • 1991 -- 8-1-1
  • 1990 -- 10-1
  • 1989 -- 7-2-1
  • 1988 -- 6-3-1
  • 1987 -- 6-4
  • 1986 -- 11-1
  • Overall -- 192-17-3

* NCAA Division III national champions

   
 

He saw little action his first two years, but lifted weights with a purpose and added 40 pounds to a frame that is now sinewy. Knapp, an A student in biology, also used his brains to master Mount Union's intricate offense.

The coaches switched him to receiver, which they considered his natural position, and Knapp blossomed into an all-conference performer last season. He caught 56 passes and scored 11 touchdowns -- statistics he never dreamed possible when his college career began. He says Kehres saw more in him than he ever saw in himself.

Solid staff

In addition to recruiting intelligent players with a good work ethic, Kehres has kept a skilled coaching staff in place. His top assistant, defensive coordinator Don Montgomery, has turned down head coaching jobs to remain at Mount Union, his employer the past 26 years.

Kehres is so confident in delegating authority to Montgomery that he does not involve himself in game-time conversations concerning the defense.

With Montgomery entrusted to shut down the opposition, Kehres concentrates on his offense, which has scored more than 500 points each of the past eight seasons. No other Division III program has hit the 500-point plateau more than three consecutive seasons.

Few small-college teams pass with the skill and daring of Mount Union.

"His system is especially sophisticated and unique to Division III," said Bill Borchert, a four-year starter at quarterback during the 1990s.

Borchert threw for about 600 yards in 1993 as a senior at Holy Name High School in suburban Cleveland. But when placed in Kehres' high-flying system, he passed for 4,035 yards and 55 touchdowns as a junior, and 4,335 yards and 63 touchdowns with only two interceptions as a senior.

Mount Union went unbeaten both years and Borchert was voted NCAA Division III Player of the Year.

If there was a flaw in his college experience, Borchert said, it was that the 10-2 and12-1 seasons he had during his first two years seemed disappointing.

"You hate to say it, but anything less than a national championship is not the Mount way," he said.

Critics of Kehres say he is so accustomed to winning that he is a miserable loser.

Jeff Brown, sports editor of the La Crosse Tribune, says Kehres shoved him after a stinging playoff loss to Wisconsin-La Crosse in 1992. Mount Union amassed more than 600 yards of offense that day and never punted, but lost, 29-24, after turning the ball over seven times.

Brown says Kehres skipped the postgame news conference, so he approached the coach in a hallway and tried to ask a question. In response, Brown says, Kehres launched into a profane tirade and shoved him into a wall.

Kehres says Brown's account is pure fiction. Never, Kehres said, did he lay a hand on Brown or curse at him. He admits the loss hurt, but not as much as the snowballs that rowdy Wisconsin-La Crosse students fired at him during the game. Afterward, Kehres said, he attended his press briefing as scheduled and answered questions, an account corroborated by others who were at the game.

Kehres gets much higher marks from rivals in the Ohio Athletic Conference.

Regis Scafe, coach of John Carroll University in Cleveland, said Mount Union teams are fierce but principled in their play, never showboating or trash-talking an opponent.

Mount Union has not lost a conference game since a 1994 defeat to Baldwin-Wallace, so Kehres' teams are an upset target every week. Twice John Carroll has come close to knocking off Mount Union, including a heart-palpitating, 57-51, triple-overtime game in 1999.

Scafe says he marvels at how poised and intelligent Kehres' teams are, especially in tight games.

"It all starts from the top," Scafe said. "He gets good talent, but he also gets the most out of it."

Staying put?

Kehres says the Mount Union program is so strong that it will continue to dominate when he quits or moves on, which could be sooner than people think.

He said in a recent interview that he would consider taking a Division I college coaching job if the right one were offered. Told of the comment, Mount Union President Ewing said he was surprised. Like most people in Alliance, an old railroad town ringed by farmland, Ewing expects that Kehres will finish his career as a Purple Raider.

Kehres said that probably will be the case, as he doubts a Division I school would take a chance on him since he's in his mid-50s.

Despite all his wins, bigger schools have not chased after him. Nearby Kent State was one of the few that coveted him. Kent tried to hire Kehres five years ago, but he turned down the offer.

Kehres says he's glad he stayed put. An inexperienced Mount Union team exceeded all his expectations that year, going 14-0 and winning the national championship.

Still, Kehres wonders how he might do in a larger arena. He isn't even the most famous coach from Mount Union. That designation goes to his old roommate, Dom Capers, coach of the NFL Houston Texans.

With another unbeaten season this year, Mount Union would break its own record for the longest winning streak in college football history. Kehres normally hates to talk about such statistics, but he says this one might have motivational value.

Mount Union's seniors have never lost a game. Another perfect season means they would finish their careers 56-0.

Though Division III programs are not supposed to be part of college football's pressure cooker, Mount Union is the exception. The downside of this, say friends and colleagues of Kehres, is that winning has become more a relief to him than a joy.

"He's had so much success," Borchert said, "that even one loss can seem so much more important than all those victories."


Milan Simonich can be reached at msimonich@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1956.

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