NAIA powerhouse Sioux Falls moving up

NAIA powerhouse Sioux Falls moving up

Published Oct. 14, 2009 8:42 p.m. ET

It's not what you think: The Cougars, the No. 1 team in NAIA and in the process of making the move to NCAA Division II, win and win big - admittedly almost to the point of embarrassment.

Imagine how these mashed-up opponents from Nebraska feel: Dana College, beaten 76-3; Concordia College, beaten 80-0; Doane College, beaten 64-0.

The Cougars have outscored their six opponents by a combined 347-33. Their closest game was 41-8 over Briar Cliff, when Sioux Falls was held 20 points under its nation-leading scoring average.

The Baptist-affiliated, 1,600-student South Dakota school is bidding for its third NAIA championship in four years. They should be playing a full Division II schedule by 2011.


No one among the Great Plains Athletic Conference football coaching fraternity will be sorry to see the Cougars go.

"We're all trying to beat them," Dana coach Bill Danenhauer said. "Then we go out there on the field, and we don't have the same Jimmys and Joes that they have."

The Cougars are preparing for someone a bit bigger this weekend: They play Division I newcomer North Dakota on Saturday for a $60,000 guarantee and a shot at greater glory.

"The percentages are against us to win the game, but I think we can compete," 34-year-old Sioux Falls coach Kalen DeBoer said. "My goal isn't to walk out of there with our heads between our legs having embarrassed ourselves."

Sioux Falls, which has a 17-sport athletic program, clearly has outgrown NAIA football. The Cougars have won 47 of 48 games the past four seasons and 79 of 80 conference games since 2001.

In the past 20 games, only four teams have managed to score 10 points against the Cougars and just one running back has mustered 50 yards. This season, their defense is allowing an average of 144 yards, 31 rushing, and has given up a total of three touchdowns in 24 quarters.

DeBoer has rarely played his starters in the second half and he worries that they won't be conditioned to go the distance, either against North Dakota or in playoff games that begin next month.

Athletic director Willie Sanchez said he has cautioned DeBoer about running up the score on overmatched opponents. DeBoer considered, but decided against, having his team line up in victory formation with more than 3 minutes left in one game.

"If you take a knee with 3 minutes," Sanchez said, "are you rubbing it in more rather than letting our second- and third-teams play?"

Predictably, angry e-mail from fans of opposing teams ask DeBoer and Sanchez why the Cougars allow things get out of control.

"My biggest critic is my wife," Sanchez said. "She doesn't even want to go to the game when it's like that, and I don't blame her. The other teams are out there battling as well. We just happen to be a little bit stronger this year, and we were strong last year."

Of the 91 NAIA football programs, only a handful appear capable of competing with Sioux Falls. Among them are Carroll College of Montana, a traditional power that has won five of the last seven national titles and was runner-up to Sioux Falls last year.

Sioux Falls' star is junior-college transfer quarterback Lorenzo Brown of Bristol, Conn., who is completing 71 percent of his passes for 240 yards a game. He's thrown 18 touchdown passes and has been intercepted once.

Most of the 115-man roster is made up of players from within 200 miles of Sioux Falls.

DeBoer, in his fifth season as head coach and 10th on the staff, was a receiver on the 1996 Sioux Falls team that won the first of the school's three NAIA titles. The '96 title brought positive exposure and a bump in enrollment, and Sanchez said the administration pours resources into the program because it believes a strong football team enhances the university's image.

The athletics budget of $4.4 million is robust by NAIA standards, and two to three times larger than most of the other teams in the Cougars' conference.

If there's jealousy of the Cougars, it's hushed. After all, Sioux Falls will have moved on from the league in a couple years.

"They've taken it to the next level, so more power to them," said Vance Winter, coach of the Concordia team that was humiliated 80-0. "They've committed to being as good as they can be."