November, 13 2023
The University of Mount Union Purple Raiders had an incredible run of success from 1993-2017, winning 13 NCAA Division III Championships. The years 1996-2002 were their apex, winning championships in 1996, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2001, and 2002. Notably absent from this run is 1999, a year in which they ran their NCAA record winning streak to 54 consecutive games. Their quest for a 55th straight victory and fourth straight title came to an end in the national semi-finals thanks to a small school from Glassboro, New Jersey better known for being the alma mater of punk rocker Patti Smith. On this day, the “Profs” went beyond the call and shocked the gridiron establishment.
Rowan University, formerly known as Glassboro State, was a regular participant in the Division III Playoffs in the 1990s. The team nicknamed “The Profs” won the New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) 11 times and made four appearances in the Division III Championship Game, known as the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl. The Profs lost all four, including three times to Mount Union in 1993, 1996, and 1998.
Little was expected of Rowan heading into the 1999 Division III Playoff. The Profs failed to win the NJAC after losing a heartbreaker to Montclair State in the season finale. Given an at-large bid, fifth-seed Rowan made the most of it by defeating Rensselaer Polytechnic and Ursinus in the first two rounds. Those victories provided the Profs with a chance to avenge their loss in the finale as Montclair State awaited them in the third round.
Prof safety Clinton Tabb single-handedly matched Montclair touchdown for touchdown in Rowan’s 42-13 dismantling of the Red Hawks. Tabb scored on a 95-yard fumble return and a 43-yard interception return. This set up another rematch with Rowan’s greatest tormentor: Mount Union.
Rowan coach K.C. Keeler had seen Mount Union end his dreams of a title on three separate occasions, each time by double-digits: 34-24, 56-23, and 44-24. He knew the frustration of losing but understood his team was facing an opponent during an unprecedented run. “If you’re going to lose, lose to the best,” Keeler told the Camden Courier-Post. “If you’re going to win, beat the best. Right now, they’re considered the best. We want to be considered the best.”
In addition to the 54-game winning streak, most at any level of college football, the Purple Raiders posted an offensive attack that averaged almost a point a minute, 53 points per game. Led by Hall of Fame coach Larry Kehres, Mount Union was the odds-on favorite to sweep Rowan aside and head to Salem, Virginia, home of the Stagg Bowl. But Keeler and the coaches detected a flaw in Mount Union’s game: Purple Raider QB Gary Smeck did not consistently secure the ball when forced to move in the pocket. If the Profs could get good pressure on Smeck, they may have a chance.
Defensive tackles Tim Watson and Cornelius White led a charge which sacked Smeck five times, pressured him countless others, and turned in the play of the game. Trailing 7-6 in the second quarter, the Profs rush forced Smeck to roll out and the ball was stripped away and recovered by Watson. The big tackle rumbled 33 yards for a touchdown to put Rowan up 12-7. A successful two-point conversion gave them a shocking 14-7 lead at halftime. “We watched Smeck on film all week,” Watson explained. “A lot of times when he runs, he holds the ball out. We thought we were going to capitalize on it all week.”
Smeck and the Mount Union offense continued to make big plays but had difficulty cashing in against Rowan’s “bend-but-don’t-break” style. Despite not scoring an offensive touchdown in regulation, the Profs and Purple Raiders were tied at 17 apiece when 60 minutes had expired.
Mount Union elected to play defense first in overtime and for the first time this day Rowan scored an offensive touchdown. Running back Jason Frabasile scored on a seven-yard burst to put Rowan up, 24-17. The Profs had held Mount Union to an amazing 36 points below its average output. Now they had to hold them out of the end zone one more time.
They held on the first three, forcing Mount Union to go for it on fourth down. Again, Smeck was pressured but he found wide receiver Jason Richards coming open inside the five-yard line and let a pass away. Just as Richards got his hands on the ball, Clinton Tabb, the hero of the previous week’s game, collided with the receiver and forced him to drop it. “I saw the ball coming and I didn’t know if I was going to get there in time,” Tabb said. “Obviously I did.”
The Rowan bench emptied onto the field and celebrated in full view of a stunned crowd at Alliance’s Mount Union Stadium. The weight on their shoulders was finally lifted, Mount Union was finally defeated. “We could not be happier,” an elated Keeler told the media. “I told the kids they had fulfilled a fantasy of mine, to beat Mount Union at their place.”
After back-to-back defeats of their greatest tormentors, the Profs sadly ran of out gas in the Stagg Bowl. For the fifth time in seven years, they fell short, this time to Pacific Lutheran by a final score of 42-13. This marked the last time Rowan made the finals as Keeler departed for Delaware in 2001, finishing his tenure in Glassboro with an 88-21-1 record. He is currently head coach at Sam Houston and has compiled a 259-100-1 record as of this posting.
Mount Union recovered to win the next three Division III titles, but as the sun set on Alliance, they could only sit back and watch Rowan celebrate on their field. In the words of Patti Smith, Rowan alum and punk rock legend, “Because the Night” belonged to Rowan.