Archdeacon: Wittenberg’s 1973 title team stepping back into spotlight

They played football against each other in high school — Mark LaForce was at Lorain; Tom Smigel was at Lorain Admiral King — and then ended up starting next to each other on the offensive line at Wittenberg University.

Smigel was the center and LaForce was the right guard on the Tigers’ unbeaten 1973 team that won the NCAA Division III national championship.

They were groomsmen in each other’s wedding, and both ended up living and raising their families in the Dayton area: Smigel off N. Main and then in Beavercreek; LaForce in West Carrollton and then Butler Township.

They’ve been friends for over 50 years and tonight they’ll do one more thing together.

They — along with their 1973 teammates, as well as the Tigers’ 1975 national championship team and several of Wittenberg’s individual standout athletic performers from the past — will be enshrined in the school’s Athletic Hall of Honor at a special dinner celebration at the restored 1929 Fieldhouse on campus.

It’s one of the highlights of Reunion Weekend that builds to Saturday’s 1 p.m. Homecoming football game against Hiram.

Tonight’s other inductees include: Sarah Fetters (2008), Brad Kassner (’05), Mary Pfeifer (’12), coach Jeff Roope, Ed Teague (’75), Boo Vernon (’11), Jackie Williams Heyka (’09), Jim Wymer (’77) and Lifetime Achievement Award winner Sandy Dukat (’94.)

LaForce and Smigel sat together at the kitchen table in Mark and his wife Linda’s home Tuesday afternoon and talked about the journey from “Cigar Butts,” as their Wittenberg coach Dave Maurer referred to the team’s undersized offensive line, to a “Team of Distinction” as they have been labeled for tonight’s Hall of Honor festivities.

In routing Juniata College, 41-0, in the title game to finish the season 12-0, the ‘73 Tigers became a cornerstone of football excellence at Wittenberg, a school that claims five national titles and lofty status among all divisions of NCAA football.

“Take a look at this,” LaForce said as he spread out some of his research on the table. “Here are the winningest college football teams of all time.”

The rankings he had from the NCAA — if updated by the results of the past two weekends — show Michigan as No. 1 all-time with 996 wins. Alabama is second with 955 and Ohio State is third with 954.

Wittenberg is tied with Auburn at No. 18, each having 793 victories.

When it comes to winning percentage, Wittenberg moves up to No. 13 among NCAA programs in all divisions.

An ESPN survey entitled “The 50 Best College Football Programs in 150 Years” ranked the Tigers No. 27, ahead of Power 5 schools like Michigan State, Washington, Pitt, and Texas A & M.

ESPN noted Wittenberg’s five national titles and the fact that the school has had three of his its head coaches — Bill Edwards, Ernie Godfrey, and Maurer — enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame.

Rounding out that Mount Rushmore tableau of coaching greatness at Wittenberg would be recently retired coach Joe Fincham, whose 224 victories in 275 games are tops among all Tigers’ coaches.

Quck, fast and well-coached

“I remember when I was a kid seeing a story on Wittenberg football in Sports Illustrated and thinking I want to check that school out some day,” LaForce said.

He was referring to the November 1964 article in SI that compared the Tigers to the Green Bay Packers and was headlined: “Some Little Men Who Think They Are Packers.”

The story described Bill Edwards, who previously had coached the Detroit Lions, as “a sort of hybrid Santa Claus and Genghis Khan.”

By the time LaForce got to Wittenberg — after an injury and plate in his ankle knocked him out of a chance to play at the Naval Academy — the Tigers were coached by Maurer, an Edwards’ disciple who also had been on Woody Hayes’ staff at Ohio State.

When we talked the other day, the 71-year-old LaForce and 70-year-old Smigel didn’t tell any Santa Claus stories about their late coach. They did note he was “smart and respected” and had a “fiery” nature.

LaForce, who sported something of a Prince Valiant haircut back then and had a big moustache, laughed as he recounted how one of his miscues got Maurer “coming up under my helmet and pulling on my moustache.

“He told me, ‘LaForce your moustache is growing up through your nose and affecting your brain!’”

Smigel nodded and smiled: “He didn’t play favorites. One week one guy might get it and the next week it would be you.”

He recalled a Sunday film session where Maurer singled out one of his miscues and rolled the reel-to-reel film “back and forth at least 10 times,” stopping each time to highlight his infraction.

Both he and LaForce said those tough love lessons served them well later in their lives, whether it was with their jobs, their families, or in just their everyday interactions.

They both said Maurer’s leadership especially paid off for the Tigers on the field in that 1973 season.

“We were never the biggest team,” said LaForce, who was one of the team’s largest offensive linemen at just 215 pounds. “But we were quick and fast and always well coached.”

The team’s most celebrated player was tackle Steve Drongowski, one of the Tigers’ tri-captains and a Little All American at season’s end. The team had several players from northeast Ohio — Drongowski was from Kent — and many others from the Miami Valley, including Alter and the Dayton Public Schools.

The key player, both LaForce and Smigel agreed, was Lloyd Ball, the senior quarterback who was voted the Most Valuable Player of the team.

That season the Tigers outscored their opponents 394-93.

Semifinal challenge

The one tough game they had was in the Division III semifinal against San Diego, which they held off for a 21-14 victory in front of a celebrating throng at their home field.

The Tigers jumped to a 21-0 halftime lead, thanks in a big way to two blocked punts by freshman defender Dean Caven, who would go on to be one of the prominent figures of Wittenberg’s famed “Check Mate” defenses in the 1970s. He played on both the ‘73 and ‘75 national title teams and won Kodak All-America honors in 1976.

“Both of his blocks led to scores,” Smigel remembered.

San Diego became a Division III program in 1973 and that season, Smigel said, its roster was stocked with former Division I players and junior college transfers.

The Toreros charged back in the second half and were trailing 21-14 and had the ball on the Wittenberg 6-yard line when the clock ran out.

LaForce showed a copy of a black and white photo of the overpacked stands that day.

“It almost looks like one of those pictures you saw from an old 1920 Notre Dame game,” he said.

“The fans stormed the field afterward,” Smigel remembered,

“Someone stole my chin strap,” LaForce grinned.

“Yeah, and my fraternity brothers knocked me down, spraying me with tequila,” Smigel laughed.

The Stagg Bowl title game was played in Phenix City, Alabama, just across the Chattahoochee River from Columbus, Ga.

The team took its first-ever charter flight to the game.

“It was one of those old Republic Airways planes that had a blue goose on the tail,” LaForce remembered.

Another first for the Tigers was that the game would be televised regionally by ABC.

“My parents used to go to all the games, but they stayed in Ohio for that one,” LaForce said. “They wanted to watch me and the guys on television.”

As it turned out the Tigers real challenge for the title happened the week before against San Diego. Juniata was no match, even when Wittenberg played backups in the second half.

Back home, a local sports club got the Tigers their red stone championship rings, Smigel said.

Years later, some players upgraded them for a larger model, but regardless of the size of the adornment, it is the sense of growth and accomplishment that the players wear proudest today.

Smigel summed it up: “There was this saying at Wittenberg: ‘Davey brought you in as a boy and sent you out as a man.’”

Tonight, that motto gets a slight remake for the undefeated 1973 national championship team.

Now they are “Hall of Honor” men.

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