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
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
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.