Little Oregon college thrives on winning tradition
There’s a hand-painted sign above the entrance to the Linfield
Wildcats’ locker room at Maxwell Field that reads: “Are you a
better football player today than you were yesterday?”
It’s a reminder of a message players there have been taking to
heart for decades, since the Division III team embarked on its
streak of winning seasons in 1956.
That 54-season streak is the longest in the nation among NCAA
schools of all divisions – far surpassing Florida State’s current
run of 33 straight winning seasons. However, the Seminoles are
cutting it close at 6-6 this season, facing West Virginia in the
Gator Bowl on Jan. 1.
Linfield is a private university of some 2,100 students in the
heart of McMinnville, located about 35 miles southwest of Portland,
in Oregon’s Willamette Valley wine country. The town is known as
the birthplace of children’s author Beverly Cleary, and for a
famous UFO sighting in the 1950s that spawned a yearly festival
In many ways Linfield looks like a small East Coast college
plunked down in the West, complete with red-brick colonial
dormitories and a bell tower that chimes on the hour.
Football Saturdays during the fall are all about the Wildcats.
Purple-clad fans dot the town’s main streets before games and cars
proudly display their Wildcat flags. The atmosphere harkens back to
a simpler time.
“Linfield is Linfield, I think, because of that winning
tradition,” said former quarterback and current assistant coach
Brett Elliott. “Every year we continue that tradition, the streak
that we’re on, it fuels the fire, so to speak.”
The Wildcat mystique was born under Paul Durham, who coached the
team from 1948-67, and then continued by coach Ad Rutschman, head
coach from 1967-91.
Rutschman also served as the baseball coach for 13 seasons and
the school’s athletic director for 25 years, and currently works as
an assistant to coach Joseph Smith. Rutschman is the only college
coach at any level to have won national titles in both football and
He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in
“Much of the success I think stems from Ad Rutschman. Ad was a
great coach. I would liken him to a John Wooden-type of coach, he
was such a great teacher,” said Oregon State assistant coach Jay
Locey, who coached the Wildcats from 1996 to 2006 and led the team
to its last national championship in 2004.
“It is about the development of people first,” Locey said.
“The winning is the byproduct.”
This season the Wildcats are in the postseason for the 21st time
in school history. They won three NAIA Div. II national
championships, in 1982, 1984 and 1986, before joining Div. III 12
The current Wildcats were unranked going into the season, and
for the first time in nearly a decade, they weren’t even expected
to finish atop the Northwest Conference.
But Linfield, 6-3 last season, has kept winning all the way
through last weekend’s Div. III quarterfinals against St. Thomas of
The Wildcats (12-0) visit Wisconsin-Whitewater (13-0) in the
semifinals on Saturday. Wesley (13-0) is at Mount Union (13-0) in
the other semifinal.
The winners will go to the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl, the
division’s championship, in Salem, Va., the following weekend.
Elliott led the Wildcats to the championship in 2004. The Utah
transfer was known for throwing an NCAA all-division record 61 TD
passes his junior year.
“It sounds like a cliche, but this really is a family,”
Elliott said. “Every time I come back here, from the NFL, from the
Arena League, it feels like home. It feels comfortable. It feels
Locey said the streak has taken on a life of its own at
“The neat thing is that you do have a sense of duty,” Locey
said. “You didn’t want to be a player or coach on the team that
was there when the streak ended.”
This season’s quarterback, Aaron Boehme, said his team wanted to
put an individual stamp on the Wildcats’ legacy. So far they have,
surpassing expectations and going undefeated.
“Because we had those really good runs before my freshman year
… we tried to get away from that,” Boehme said. “Not get away
from the tradition, but to focus on ourselves and not rest on those