CSU-Pueblo, Minnesota State-Mankato meet for title
There were no helmets, uniforms, players, practice field or even footballs when Colorado State-Pueblo coach John Wristen was brought on board in 2007.
He had a vision, though, and used to bring potential recruits to a plot of land featuring nothing more than a few cacti to simply say: This is where the stadium is going to be and this is where the winning will start. Wristen just wanted them to visualize his blueprint as he resurrected a program that had been disbanded for more than two decades.
Those past teams - through growing pains that first season in 2008 and postseason stumbles the last three years - set the foundation for helping the ThunderWolves advance to the Division II championship game Saturday against Minnesota State-Mankato in Kansas City, Kansas.
''It's been quite the ride,'' Wristen said in a phone interview as he prepared to face the undefeated Mavericks. ''It's been really special.''
Wristen was a former quarterback at the school in the early `80s, back when it was known as the University of Southern Colorado. He had a stellar career and graduated as the school's all-time leader in yards passing (3,283) and TD passes (26). He also guided the team to its only NAIA national playoff appearance in 1982.
But after the `84 season, the football program was shuttered in a cost-cutting move, along with several other sports programs.
''It was weird, because you couldn't even find you own school's score in a newspaper anymore,'' Wristen said.
He went into coaching and spent the next 17 years at Colorado, Northwestern and UCLA.
Then, the call arrived. The school was reviving the program and would he be interested?
The Pueblo community certainly stepped up, with business leaders and former players - like Dan DeRose, who's also the former athletic director - helping generate funds to build an on-campus stadium.
Wristen enticed players and assistant coaches to town who could envision what he saw - a program able to quickly rise from scratch. Defensive coordinator Hunter Hughes and D-line coach Craig Ward have been with Wristen since day one. Their running backs coach is Steve Sewell, who played for the Denver Broncos.
''There was always a winning tradition here and John just came in and frosted the cake,'' Ward said. ''The program took off.''
The stadium opened on Sept. 6, 2008, for the ThunderWolves' first season back on the field. They won, too, beating Oklahoma Panhandle State 24-13 in front of 10,000 fans. They finished 4-6 that year and rapidly got better.
Since 2011, the ThunderWolves are 47-4. But they've struggled in the playoffs, seeing three straight undefeated seasons come to an end early in the postseason.
Their motto for 2014 was ''Unfinished Business,'' a reference to all those seasons that didn't end the way they envisioned.
Finally, last weekend, CSU-Pueblo cleared a big hurdle, beating West Georgia 10-7 in the semifinals to advance to the title game.
The squad features one of the top defenses in the nation, led by senior defensive end Darius Allen, a two-time winner of the Gene Upshaw award as the Division II lineman of the year.
Allen grew up in Lexington, Kentucky, in the heart of hoops country, but football was his passion. More specifically, running back since he was so short.
He moved to Pueblo in high school - he needed a change of scenery - grew six inches to his current height of 6-foot-4 and was converted into a defensive end. He was recently named to The Associated Press Little All-America team (top players from Division II, III and NAIA) after a 14-sack season.
Who knows? He could be in line for an NFL career. After all, his former teammate, Mike Pennel, already plays for the Green Bay Packers. And offensive lineman Ryan Jensen was recently promoted to the active roster in Baltimore.
Not that Allen's mind is on anything but Saturday's title game.
''Huge,'' Allen said. ''It's all we've talked about since we were freshmen, where we wanted to be at the end of our careers. We got here because of our relentless spirit.''
That goes for their coach, who had early recruits looking at dirt and picturing national titles.
''I don't know if there's any magic, but that's really the part of it that's unique,'' Wristen said. ''We had a clear-cut vision of what we wanted. ... We were able to go find a bunch of guys that believed.
''We've validated who we said we were going to be.''