When I was looking for an angle about Pittsburg State's most recent NCAA Division II football championship, which the Gorillas won last weekend in Florence, Ala., by defeating Wayne State, I tried to avoid the obvious.
Pittsburg State, we all know, has been a football powerhouse for decades, but a program that had fallen on difficult times in 2009 and 2010, compiling an 11-12 record. It was the Gorillas' worst back-to-back seasons since 1976-77.
It was while looking up information on Pittsburg State coach Tim Beck, who played at Pitt State in 1985 and 1986 and has coached there ever since, starting as a student assistant under Dennis Franchione, that I started to notice a trend.
Pittsburg State, and the southeast Kansas town of Pittsburg with its nearly 20,000 residents, doesn't let go of its Gorillas.
Of the 10 coaches on the PSU staff, nine have direct ties to the school. So do the four graduate assistant coaches and the one volunteer assistant. And so do the coaches who are in charge of strength and conditioning.
All but two of the coaches have received a degree at Pittsburg State and most played for the Gorillas. Many are from the surrounding area.
"It is a hard place to leave,'' said Beck, who grew up in Ness City, in western Kansas, and played two seasons at Dodge City Community College before transferring to Pittsburg State to play defensive back. "The place just grabbed me.''
There is a special ambience to Pittsburg State, noticeable to anyone who has attended a football game there. Because of the program's success over so many years, the Gorillas have built a strong following throughout Kansas and into western Missouri and northern Oklahoma. That's what playing in eight national championship football games will do for you.
"It gets back to the people,'' said John Pierce, in his 24th season as a Pittsburg State assistant, in charge of recruiting. "I'm from back East, the New England area, and when I came here to go to school I didn't think I was going to be here long. That was 30 years ago.''
The community support for football is outweighed perhaps only by the university support. It's important to everyone at Pittsburg State, from the president on down, that the Gorillas put a winning team on the field.
It's why the school has attracted such quality up-and-comers as Franchione, Gary Patterson and Jerry Kill as coaches. Franchione later coached at TCU, Alabama and Texas A&M and is currently the head coach at Texas State. Patterson replaced Franchioine at TCU and has maintained and built upon one of the country's strongest programs. And Kill, after building a consistent winner at Northern Illinois, just completed his first season as coach at Minnesota.
All are natives of Kansas who will tell you unwaveringly how important and cherished their time was at Pittsburg State.
Chuck Broyles preceded Beck as PSU's coach and in 20 years had only one losing season, his last in 2009. His overall record was 198-47-2 and he led Pitt State to one NCAA Division II championship and three runner-up finishes.
Beck said he credits Broyles and Kill for much of what he has learned in coaching. He still stays in touch with both and also heard from Franchione and Patterson after the Gorillas' win last week.
"We had a staff meeting at 8 a.m. on the Monday after we won and Coach Broyles came by and said he would have been disappointed if we wouldn't have been having that meeting,'' Beck said. "He still comes around and comes to a few practices.''
Pittsburg State has always been able to recruit quality players and Beck says that's not just because of the football program's success. A lot of it, he said, has to do with the town and the people who live there.
"This is a great place to raise a family,'' Beck said. "We're fortunate to be around a lot of really good people here.''
Pittsburg State's recruiting reach is far and wide, but the emphasis is clearly on Kansas high school and community college players. Nearly 20 Gorillas spent time at jucos in the state.
"We try to create a family atmosphere,'' Beck said. "Different coaches will have different players over for dinner. We feel like we ask a lot of our players and demand a lot, but I think they also know we really care about them.''
Beck said he was almost as excited about some academic news he received about his team's collective performance for the semester as he was about the Division II championship.
"It's the best semester we've ever had as far as kids taking care of their business in the classroom,'' he said. "I was a little concerned because finals week was the same week as the championship game. So there are a few incompletes, but these are the best grades we've had in forever. It's just another layer of pride to the whole season.''
The only coach on Beck's staff without Pittsburg State ties is Steve Rampy, who led Blue Valley to four state high school championships during 25 seasons and is in his second year with the Gorillas.
Rampy played at Northeast Missouri State, now Truman State, which has long been a Pittsburg State opponent. But unlike the rest of the PSU coaches, he doesn't have a degree from Pitt State or wasn't a player or graduate assistant coach there.
"My friendship with Coach Beck is what led me to come here,'' Rampy said. "I met him during the recruiting process during the 1990s, when Pittsburg State was the king of Division II football. This is where I loved to send my kids.''
So Rampy has always known how important football was in Pittsburg. Living in the town, though, has made him even more aware.
"You see just how much Pittsburg State football means to the people who are touched by it,'' Rampy said. "It's such a genuine thing, not just something people toss around at a pep rally. There must have been 2,000 people on Broadway Street to welcome our team back after the national championship and that doesn't include all of the fans who went to Florence for the game. There was just such passion in their faces about what we had done. People here own this.''
Which is why, I suppose, Pittsburg State has such a special bond with the town. And why everywhere you go in Kansas, it isn't long until somebody comes along wearing a Pittsburg State hat or flying a crimson-and-gold Gorillas flag.
It took decades to build and win another national championship in the fold the Pitt State legacy has been reinforced.
"There was no panic here after back-to-back losing seasons,'' Pierce said. "The best move that was made was hiring Tim Beck. Obviously I'm biased but he was the logical choice. He's been the defensive coordinator here, the offensive coordinator. He played here. We all hoped they wouldn't get away from hiring someone who understands what the culture here is like.''
Nobody understands it more than Beck. He's stuck around for going on 30 years now, turning down opportunities to coach elsewhere. That's the pull of the school and the town. Once you're there, just try leaving.