It was the spring of 2007, and Iowa Western Community College president Dan Kinney happened to be on the same flight back to Omaha from Washington D.C. as an old friend.
That the old friend was Tom Osborne, the legendary Nebraska football coach and then a U.S. Congressman, was especially fortuitous, considering how things turned out.
Kinney wanted to start a football program at Iowa Western. That he now had one of the greatest football minds to bounce ideas off of for several hours was something he would take full advantage of.
“It was a coincidence we were on the same plane, but I was able to bring him in as an adviser, and from that point on, when we had questions, we would meet with (Osborne),” said Kinney, who first met Osborne while he was president at Coffeyville Community College from 1985 to 1994. “And about one year later, on the day we decided to announce to the community we were going to have a team, he came and spoke at the chamber of commerce. That made a huge difference with the board of trustees, and they voted it in.”
The endgame for Iowa Western has been nothing short of a junior-college football phenomenon — in just their fourth year of competition, the top-ranked Reivers (11-0) will face No. 2 Butler (11-0) on Sunday in the Graphic Edge Bowl at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls, Iowa.
“I don’t know if we thought we could get here this quickly, playing for a national championship in football is a pretty remote thing,” Kinney said. “It doesn’t happen all the time … except at Butler.”
Osborne’s endorsement wasn’t the final piece in the puzzle for Iowa Western, which was required to raise the $660,000 in startup money from private donors, but Kinney and athletic director Brenda Hampton came up with the money and found a coach willing to just work on building a team during the 2008 season in North Iowa Area Community College’s Scott Strohmeier.
“Those Saturdays couldn’t have gone by fast enough,” Strohmeier said. “We got a jumpstart, but it was hard to be away from the games themselves.”
The Reivers went 5-4 in their first season, 2009, then were one game away from playing for the national title in 2010 when they went 9-2 and lost in the Midwest Football Conference championship game. They went 9-2 again in 2011 and posted their first bowl victory.
“That second year really opened our eyes,” Strohmeier said. “We realized we weren’t that far off.”
Iowa Western’s built-in advantage comes in the form of out-of-staters — the Reivers are allowed 20 to Butler’s 12 — and their ability to offer full scholarships.
To obtain depth, though, Strohmeier still has to recruit in-state — 6-foot-2, 215-pound quarterback Jake Waters, the MFC offensive player of the year, is from Council Bluffs, Iowa, where Iowa Western is located.
Waters has thrown for 3,194 yards, 39 touchdowns and three interceptions and has scholarship offers from Kansas State, Penn State and North Carolina State, among others.
“When we started our program, one of the schools I looked at was Butler, and how they owned in-state recruiting, how they always got the best players from their own state,” Strohmeier said. “I knew we needed to do that to be successful, and it’s with kids like Jake that we’ve done that. He’s a guy who only had Division II offers and lower coming out of high school, but he knew he wanted a chance to play Division I.”