This Saturday one of the biggest regular season games in recent history is happening as most, if not all of you know. This game comes on the heels of one the biggest collapses in recent history that sent the Lions tumbling from # 7 to # 21 in the AFCA Coaches Poll. However, there was a game that was played almost exactly 30 year ago to this day that will live forever in Lion football lore. It was when a good Lion football team, in fact, one of the greatest ever, took down the number 1 team in the country led by a Harlon Hill Award winner and a team that would go on to win a National Championship that year. A team that dominated Division II football for the better part of 30 years, the Pittsburg State Gorillas.
If you have never been to a Pittsburg State game, you should go. The atmosphere is amazing. There is no talk of going DI, they love their spot in the MIAA and in Division II. The streets of Pittsburg, Kansas are littered with Crimson and Gold and Gorillas mascots from Downtown Pittsburg all the way to the stadium. The tailgating is great, the student section is VERY loud and passionate, the entire 13,000 person community are all Gorillas on Saturdays. The PA blasts “Welcome to the Jungle” as loud as it can go during warmups, there is a GIANT inflatable Gorilla that stands in a menacing way in the outside of the playing field, and Carnie-Smith Stadium is one of the best facilities in all of Division II and puts quite a few Division I-FCS stadiums to shame. I went there in 2007 and it was a great day experience, and yes, their fans were still big jerks looking to pick fights and rub it in when they beat you. They make Tarleton fans look classy.
Back in 1990, the Lions had made their first NCAA Division II playoff run, but it came to a halt at Carnie-Smith Stadium with a 60-28 shellacking at the hands of the Gorillas in the National quarterfinals. Over the next season, Eddie Vowell decided to schedule a home and home series with Pitt State. The Gorillas would leave the Kansas Plains and come down to the Texas Blackland Prairies for a tilt with the Lions. The Gorillas were ranked 1 in the Division II Poll and 2 in the AP poll, and had Ronnie West, Ronald Moore, and Brian Hutchins leading them. They had won 56 straight regular season games and had almost won the National title the year before. This team was every bit as good as advertised.
In Front of just under 9,000 fans, near the capacity for the entire stadium, the Lions struck hard and fast on their opening drive. Though it was called back due to a penalty, Lion Wideout Billy Minor tells the story of catching a sideline route on a rope pass thrown by Bob Bounds and as the PSU defender tried to hit him, bouncing off the PSU defender and racing to the end zone. Minor told us that even though he was on the far side which did not have stands at the time, it was the loudest he had EVER heard Memorial Stadium. Despite the setback on that play, Gary Perry would help the Lions draw first blood with a 4 yard run to put the Lions up 7-0. Things would get tougher when Curtis Buckley gave a not so warm welcome to Gorilla QB Brian Hutchins. Hutchins ran an option play and Buckley smashed him in the Memorial Stadium grass, breaking his collar bone leaving PSU with a Freshman to play the rest of the way.
Moreland showed himself capable of leading the Gorillas as he led PSU on a 75 yard TD drive to knot things up at 7. On the next drive, Bob Bounds, who had been battling the flu that entire week, hit Anthony Brooks on a huge 40 yard gain to get a first down and then David Chapman took it from 25 yards out to get back into the lead. Billy Watkins hit a 45 yard field goal to widen the lead, but then the Gorillas struck back on a 44 yard touchdown pass to Moreland, but they missed the PAT. The final score of the game was another Billy Watkins field goal, this one from 45 yards to make it 20-13. With time winding down, the Gorillas marched all the way down to the Lion 1 yard line. On 4th down the Lions made a goal line stop that will always be talked about in Lion football lore. The Lions had defeated the # 1 team in the country. Pitt State fans tried to get some parting shots in, but started a fight between Lion and Pitt fans in the upper left stands. Suffice it to say it was a long bus ride back for The Gorillas and their fans.
However, 8 weeks later, the Lions would face off again with PSU but do so on the road. Carnie-Smith was rocking and the Gorillas jumped out to a 31-7 lead. The Lions would charge back and score 21 unanswered points to bring the score within 3, but the Gorillas put one more touchdown on the board to seal the victory and end the Lions season. Two weeks later, the Gorillas won the National Championship. Tim Wheeler, who played for the Gorillas his first two college seasons before transferring to ET in the mid 90’s says there was no doubt that the Lions were the best team Pitt played that year, furthering the idea that had the Lions taken down the Gorillas in round 2, we would have 3 national titles on the outside mural of Ernest Hawkins Field at Memorial Stadium.
The reason I decided to write this was two fold. One, it has been 30 years since that great day when one of the biggest victories in program history happened. You don’t beat number 1 every day, especially a team that was the caliber of Pitt State. Heading into that game, nobody was giving the Lions a chance. Their starting QB was getting over the flu and not even fully ready to go, but played through it. They had been beaten badly in their last matchup. However, a heart and desire to win that game and make the plays to do it is what can be gleamed from here.
This Saturday, NOBODY in the media is giving the Lions a chance to take down West Florida. They are in a situation they were in almost 30 years ago to the day. However they can learn from both Pitt and ET. Play like ET in the first game, and work like crazy to put away the loss and win it all like PSU did in 1991. They lost to the Lions, but it didn’t ruin their season. It was one loss. They worked hard and played like they wanted to win it all and they did. Lessons to be learned from both, but in this story, the Lion slayed King Kong and won the day.