Here’s what even the casual MIAA football fan knows: Northwest Missouri State and Pittsburg State dominate. Seems like every year.
A closer look shows something else, albeit in the same vein. Not only do the two national powers dominate, they hardly give the rest of the league room to breathe.
In 18 of the last 20 years, either Northwest Missouri or Pitt State has shared the title or won it outright, including last season’s co-championship. Once, in 2003, the two schools shared the title in bizarre, five-way split with Central Missouri, Emporia State and Missouri Western. Only Washburn in 2005 and Missouri Western in 2012 managed to break the stranglehold.
Since Pittsburg State coach Tim Beck took over in 2010, the Gorillas are a deceiving 6-4 against the three other Kansas schools in the MIAA. Deceiving because the Gorillas didn’t play any of the schools in 2012 or 2013 after the MIAA reshuffled its scheduling. Deceiving because the six wins came by more than two touchdowns each while the four losses all came within a touchdown or less, including three by a combined five points.
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Beck uses the losses, ancient memories and the upcoming season to make a case against what seem like hard facts.
“I don’t think the league has a lack of parity, I think more than ever it has parity right now,” said Beck, who was an assistant coach at Pittsburg State from 1987 to 2010. “It’s not like it was in the late ’80s or early ’90s, when I think it was really bad.
“Anyone that says there isn’t parity now, I just don’t agree with that. No one has any idea who is going to win the league this year.”
Emporia State and Washburn are both coming off surprisingly bad years after both went 4-7 – the type of seasons that can make the next year program-defining for two schools already facing a steep uphill battle when it comes to recruiting and resources.
The Hornets had the majority of their talent returning from back-to-back MIAA second-place finishes and were ranked in the Top 25 in the preseason before things fell apart. They lost 5 of 6 games to close out the season.
“Last year, we lost our second game to Central Missouri and I think we let that affect us mentally, which is unfortunate,” Emporia State coach Garin Higgins said. “We didn’t recover. Schools like Northwest Missouri and Pittsburg State lose a game like that, they don’t let it shake their foundation. They’re programs with tradition, and that leads to bringing in talent.
“You want to recruit a kid against Pittsburg, you’re probably going to have to offer them more money, and when everything is said and done, you probably aren’t going to get him. We have to find different intangibles in players.”
Washburn suffered through its first losing season since 2003 and the Ichabods face the same difficulties in gaining ground as Emporia State.
“It caught us all a little bit off guard last year, because we thought on paper we were pretty good,” said Washburn coach Craig Schurig, in his 14th season. “We didn’t really perform in games in the second half, even though we ended the season playing much better. We wanted to change the competitive spirit of the team in spring ball, and we didn’t have as many guys, but it worked well. It’s more energized, there’s more competition.”
Schurig has a unique perspective because he brought one of those two, other, outright titles back to Topeka in 2005.
“Northwest and Pittsburg, at those places the football team is the big focus, schoolwide,” Schurig said. “You see that in the bigger conferences, too, though. When everything revolves around the football program, when that type of focus is there, the school does what it needs to do to put them at that level.
“At other schools, the focus is more balanced within all the programs, and that reflects in the budgets.”
Fort Hays State was the latest team to make a move last season, going 7-4 for its best record since joining the MIAA in 2006. That still only put the Tigers in a three-way tie for fourth.
“I think the way we have to do it is to find the good high-school kids in Kansas first, the ones that fit our program,” Fort Hays State coach Chris Brown said. “You have to worry about those kids first, then worry about Colorado or Florida or junior colleges. We want to find the best players in the state, find the ones that are willing to work hard, have good character and are committed.
“Convince them that if we get a few more guys like you in here, it’s going to happen for us. And that will be special. That will be a great feeling.”