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

there.

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

baseball.

He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in

1998.

“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

years ago.

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

Minnesota.

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

right.”

Locey said the streak has taken on a life of its own at

Linfield.

“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

laurels.”