It was a cold Saturday in December as the Wildcats played Elon College in Shreveport, LA. On the ACC sideline was head coach Wally Bullington, and in the backfield was future NFL Pro-Bowler Wilbert Montgomery. In the game, Montgomery ran for 159 yards and caught four passes for 79 yards, scoring two touchdowns as ACC routed Elon 42-14. That win clinched the NAIA Division I National Championship for the Wildcats, who would go on to win another in 1977.
That 1973 team had something figured out that this current Wildcat team is still working on: a national championship. For years, the ‘Cats have seemed to have the right pieces in place. Since Chris Thomsen took over as the head coach in 2005, current NFL players, Danieal Manning, Bernard Scott, Johnny Knox, Clyde Gates, Raymond Radway and Trevis Turner have all suited up for the purple and white.
Yet, with all those record-breaking players, the Wildcats’ latest NCAA national championship trophy still reads 1977.
“It’s hard to win a national championship at any level,” director of athletics Jared Mosley said. “You have to have things fall into place. You have to have a few balls go your way. It’s a process.”
Mosley did say, however, that the Wildcats are headed in the right direction. It’s hard to disagree. In the last five seasons ACU has an overall record of 39-12, and that isn’t including the 10 wins vacated in 2007 due to NCAA violations. They have made the playoffs in each of those years, but they have only won a combined three playoff games, and they haven’t had two in the same season since 1977.
“When you look at the program, and while it’s disappointing that we don’t have a national championship, you have to realize it’s extremely hard.” Mosley said. “Unfortunately some of things that it takes to win a national championship aren’t in your control.”
There wasn’t much outside of the Wildcats’ control in 1973. After an opening game loss, the Wildcats rattled off 11 straight victories behind Montgomery’s 31 touchdowns that year, which is still an ACU record. In 2007, Scott broke the record with 35 touchdowns, but NCAA sanctions wiped that record away.
“It’s very unusual at any level for one person to score that much in a season,” Bullington said referring to Montgomery. “He was a special player. Those don’t come around very often.”
Both Bullington and Mosley think that the current ‘Cats team has what it takes to hoist the coveted national championship trophy again. It will just take the right circumstances to win it.
“I definitely think it can happen this season,” Mosley said. “We have the pieces. A team can start off the season rocky, but if it peaks at the right time, it can win the entire thing. I think Coach Thomsen is happy with the progression of the team so far.”
Bullington says the secret is recruiting the right players and that Coach Thomsen is doing just that.
“In recent years, the program has continued to rise,” Bullington said. “Coach Thomsen and his staff are real good recruiters. It’s well established, and this team will do well.”
While the 2011 version of the Wildcats might not have a future Pro-Bowl running back like Wilbert Montgomery on the roster, hopes are high that this could be the year that ACU gets over the hump and adds some hardware to an already stuffed trophy case.