Pittsburgh Sports Report
August 2007

Movin' On Up
Duquesne Football Climbing The Ladder
By Robert Edward Healy, III

Quick. Name the defending NCAA Division I Football champions.


Although the 2006 season gave the University of Florida a crystal football and lots of magazine covers, only one football team got an NCAA Division I championship plaque in '06, and they weren't called the Gators.

The answer: the Appalachian State Mountaineers.

The NCAA conducts no football championship for teams like Florida, Pitt, Penn State or West Virginia. Clubs in the association's top level?now called the Division I Bowl Championship Subdivision?can win many things every year, but they can't take home that piece of wood and metal that is college sports' Holy Grail.

That's not to say that a plaque like that might still not end up on Forbes Avenue sometime very soon.

Duquesne University joins the Northeast Conference in 2008 as an associate member in football and will offer the equivalent of 18 scholarships in the sport that year. The number will increase by two annually for the ensuing three years, and will coincide with announced construction of permanent seating around Duquesne's varsity field and major improvements to the team's locker room and offices.

What it all means is this: If the NEC can convince the NCAA to grant its champion an automatic invitation to the NCAA Division I Football Championship?something that it is currently attempting?Duquesne would have a very legitimate chance to reach the tournament of tournaments in college football, especially given its record against future NEC opponents?35-14.

For sure, though, this won't be the first time that elite college football will be played on the Bluff.

Pro Football Hall of Famer Art Rooney?yes, that Art Rooney?starred for the Dukes in the early 1920s. Between 1933-1941, Duquesne had three Associated Press top 15 rankings, two undefeated seasons and won two major bowl games: the 1934 Festival of Palms Bowl and the 1937 Orange Bowl.

From 1969-1978, Duquesne fielded a club (non-varsity) team that was ranked as one of the top 15 club teams in the country seven times and played in the National Club Football Association Championship twice?winning the 1973 title game at Three Rivers Stadium.

This success as a club team persuaded Duquesne to re-sponsor the sport on the varsity level and move back to the NCAA in 1979.

"Winning that national championship and playing at Three Rivers Stadium gave us a lot of exposure," says Dan McCann, head coach for the Dukes from 1970-1983 and again from 1989-1992.

"When people first thought about club football, they thought you were playing 'touch-tab' or something. I battled the university for years about endorsing our team, and eventually, we went to [NCAA] Division III where we stayed non-scholarship."

In 1993, the NCAA passed bylaws that forced Division I schools with lower-level football programs, like Duquesne, to move their football teams to Division I with the rest of its sports or drop the program. The formation of Division I-AA Football (now known as the Football Championship Subdivision) in 1978 allowed the Dukes to join Division I at this I-AA status in 1993. To stay away from scholarships, Duquesne became a I-AA non-scholarship, or "mid-major," team like many former Division III programs.

Football moved back to campus for home games late in 1993?the year that Greg Gattuso became head coach?and soon thereafter joined the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. During Gattuso's tenure, the Dukes won two bowl games and eight MAAC championships.

"The 1995 ECAC Bowl [against Wagner College] was a big turning point for us," says Gattuso. "People don't realize that, just because someone didn't call us [I-AA mid-major] 'national champions,' that really WAS the national championship game at our level.

"Winning that game made us all feel that we had arrived. Wagner was the best at our level at that time."

Josh Rue and Leigh Bodden, two of Gattuso's Dukes, even dress on gamedays for NFL franchises during the 2003 season, and Bodden is currently a full-time starter with the Cleveland Browns.

In 2003, Duquesne formally placed itself atop the country's I-AA mid-major programs. The Sports Network honored Duquesne that year with its Sports Network Cup on the eve of the Division I-AA championship game after the Dukes finished the season ranked No. 1 by the network's I-AA Mid-Major Poll.

Jerry Schmitt, who took over as head coach at Duquesne in 2005 after Gattuso left for a position at Pittsburgh, kept the championships coming, taking MAAC titles that year and again in 2006.

"It's really an honor to be at Duquesne in this next stage [moving to the NEC]," says Schmitt. "But we're not going into the NEC just to go into the conference. We're going to compete for the conference championship every year."

The move comes with plenty of excitement.

"It's something that we've always worked for and strived for, but to be quite honest, I never thought that we'd be where we're at right now," says John Rosato, Duquesne Football's Recruiting Coordinator and Director of Football Operations.

"When recruits see what we're doing now, with the new facilities and the addition of scholarships and everything, we have been put on a totally different level. This is a totally new life for the program."

Not too many schools can claim membership in four different levels of college football, let alone top-10 rankings in three and national championships in two.

If the NEC gets it automatic qualifier, only time will tell if the Dukes can make it one more… the biggest one of all, officially.

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