Sick of football's excesses? Head to Western Maryland

October 22, 1995|By JOHN STEADMAN

Far from the triple-tiered stadiums with highly acclaimed players recruited for the principal reason of packing the place, overbearing alumni demanding a national championship and ego-driven coaches trying to amass Social Security numbers on the scoreboard is a far more refreshing college football scene.

What unfolds merits a pilgrimage to Westminster on a Saturday afternoon in fall, a trip into the true essence of the game. Western Maryland College offers all of that.

There's the natural beauty of an outdoor amphitheater, with cars parked on the hillside, children racing on the grass as parents try to control their exuberance, the scenic Catoctin Mountains in the distance and, oh, yes, a passing interest in what's happening between the sidelines.

Once upon a time, Western Maryland was something of a football power, led by Hall of Fame coach Dick Harlow and a running back, Bill Shepherd, who ran with power, speed and skill and led the nation in scoring. That was in 1934 when its unbeaten team was ranked sixth in the East, one behind then traditionally strong Princeton, and 17th nationally, a notch ahead of Texas and four places behind Notre Dame.

Now, Western Maryland plays, quite contentedly, at the NCAA Division III level. It doesn't award athletic scholarships, and all of its tuition awards are predicated on financial need.

This was homecoming weekend, a time for old grads to meet and greet, to check on each other's receding hairlines and expanding waistlines, and, yes, to occasionally comment on how the home team is moving the football.

A win over Franklin and Marshall wouldn't lead to massive celebration, nor would the 24-7 loss induce widespread dismay. Western Maryland, which has played the game for more than a century, manages to keep things in perspective. It's an admirable no-pressure approach to football, pure as the Carroll County air.

Shepherd, beyond any doubt, was a tremendous performer, as his achievements at Western Maryland and later in the National Football League attest. Remember, too, that Grantland Rice, dean of sportswriters, apologized in print, following the East-West all-star game, for picking Buzz Boories of Navy ahead of Shepherd on his All-American team.

The Shepherd era is long gone. Western Maryland, once known as the Green Terrors but now simply the Green Terror, has a roster dominated by players, 30 in all (almost half the team total), from its home state. The head coach, Jim Keating, doesn't make bonus money from sporting goods firms or big fees from a television show.

He, too, is interested in being a part of football for the modest but respectful way Western Maryland and its president, Dr. Robert Chambers, hold to the school's basic values.

Western Maryland takes pride in the fact that its name is derived from a railroad, maybe the only college that can make such a claim.

John Smith, first head of the school's board of trustees, also was president of the Western Maryland Railroad and, in 1867, as an inducement to students, offered free train passage if they enrolled. The railroad, now out of business because of a Chessie System merger, in 1983 presented the senior class a railroad car, 1923 caboose, to mark the relationship with the school.

Scott Deitch, the college's sports information director; Joyce Muller, director of public information, and Don Schumaker, associate director, are particularly proud of the Western Maryland history that's all around them. They say they encounter it every day.

Walk-in attendance at home games is free. Those coming by car pay $5 per vehicle. What a bargain. "I guess we average between 2,000 and 3,000 a game, and for homecoming day we're usually close to 5,000," said Deitch.

Western Maryland plays at what was known as Hoffa Field from 1922 until 1981. The facility is now called Scott S. Bair Stadium. It's where the spectators, if they don't take seats in the compact grandstand, gather on the green slope, transforming a game into a picturesque tableau.

The approach to football is modest. There's no resemblance to a football factory except for the rah-rah spirit. Steve Dearing, a 1985 graduate of Ohio State, married a Western Maryland grad, Nancy Ellen Fones, and is a frequent game-day visitor. He's an ideal individual to offer a contrast.

"Ohio State realizes huge financial benefits from football," he said. "Capacity of Ohio Stadium, what we call 'The Horseshoe,' is 95,537. It's awesome. Football is so important it almost takes the sport out of it. At Western Maryland, I think the word is authentic.

"You almost expect the team to come out wearing leather helmets and without facemasks. I believe the genesis of football is truly represented at Western Maryland. When I say this I don't mean to criticize Ohio State or other schools. It's just a different fit all around."

Indeed. Western Maryland makes you feel this is what was intended when football was invented. Not the sham and shame of a school where being No. 1 is a continuing crusade.

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