By Zach Helfand, Daily Sports Editor
Published October 11, 2012
SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — The man with the name you would only find at Slippery Rock University has told the story so many times that it has its own rhythm. Al Colledge — the former Slippery Rock star running back from the class of 1962, the former steel worker, the progenitor of three generations of Slippery Rock kids and grandkids — tells it like this:
“I was in Narita Airport in Tokyo sitting on a plane, big 747, you know? Sitting up there in first class, Slippery Rock shirt on, and I was sitting there reading a book. And they weren’t taking off, they weren’t taking off. And everyone was saying, ‘Hey what’s going on? What’s going on.’ Everyone’s getting edgy. It’s a long flight back to the States from Tokyo, you know?
“All of a sudden I feel this hand on my shoulder. And I started to turn around and I hear, ‘Slippery Rock! You guys play some pretty tough football down there, don’t you?’
“I looked up and I said, ‘Yes we do, Mr. President.’
“It was Richard Nixon.”
About four hours east on Interstate 80 and a world away from Ann Arbor, down an old country road past farms and rolling hills and through a town with old-fashioned gas lamps, sits that school with a funny name: Slippery Rock.
It was an afterthought the first time it happened in 1959, but it has become a Michigan Stadium tradition. Each game, the public address announcer reveals the score of the Slippery Rock game as he announces scores from around the country. And most times, it draws the biggest reaction of all.
Slippery Rock and Michigan share time and space briefly at Michigan Stadium every week, but they share almost nothing else. Slippery Rock has none of the frills, none of the profits, none of the scandal of modern college football.
It’s as if someone picked up Slippery Rock from the Ivy League, dropped it in western Pennsylvania and forgot about it for a century. The Rock has played in the Rose Bowl, where down the road, Southern California is just now recovering from a round of NCAA sanctions over impermissible player benefits. It has played in what was then Pro Player Stadium in Miami, where a billionaire booster claims he gave Miami players money for things such as yacht parties and prostitutes and abortions. And, of course, Slippery Rock has played in Michigan Stadium, where the salary of either coordinator dwarfs the sum allotted for scholarships at The Rock.
If all goes as planned for Slippery Rock, it will play again at Michigan Stadium as early as next year, though nothing yet has been finalized. The finished product on the field will probably surprise many Michigan fans. Brandon Fusco, for example, graduated from Slippery Rock two years ago and now starts at guard for the Minnesota Vikings.
But the way Slippery Rock arrives at that finished product couldn’t differ more from the larger Division-I schools. Before the game in Miami, before his Florida Atlantic team played Slippery Rock, former Miami coach Howard Schnellenberger said of The Rock, “I experienced the very essence of college sports: seeing people who have no good reason to get together, who have no excuse to be so excited except for the thrill of their alma mater and love for the game of football.”
The coach here has a doctorate. Slippery Rock is like that.
Dr. George Mihalik has a Doctorate of Education and has remained a full-time professor for all 26 years he’s been the head coach.
One hour before a game against Kutzdown one recent late September day, he chatted and joked with two reporters visiting from Michigan about the power of the Slippery Rock name.
Legend has it that the borough of Slippery Rock got its name from a group of colonial soldiers who were being pursued by Seneca Native Americans. The soldiers came upon a creek and were able to cross because they wore heavy boots. The Native Americans, wearing moccasins, slipped on the rocks in the creek bed. They called the place Wechachochapohka — literally a ‘slippery rock.’
The power of that name has taken Slippery Rock around the nation. Most recently, Michigan Athletic Director Dave Brandon invited Mihalik and other Slippery Rock ambassadors to Michigan Stadium to be recognized during a game. Mihalik posed for pictures, was invited to parties and hounded for autographs.
“We walked up through the student section,” Mihalik said. “I know what a rock star feels like. I know what a celebrity feels like.
“Too often, the big guy is too enthralled with just who they are and what they are, who cares about any little person. And Michigan is not that way. They’ve embraced Slippery Rock University and we really appreciate the fact that they announce our scores, and we just wish every score could be a winning score.”
As game time approached, he got up to leave, but not without saying something that likely has never been said in a big-time football stadium before.
“Here’s the thing,” Mihalik said with a laugh. “You guys have any play suggestions, I don’t have a problem with it. Just give them to me before the game and not after. Alright?”
The unlikely marriage between Slippery Rock and Michigan began in 1959 when Steve Filipiak, Michigan’s public address announcer, saw the funny name on the wire service ticker. Wanting to inject life into a boring game, Filipiak read the score. The fans loved it.
“It got a humorous reaction from people because a lot of people didn’t even believe there was such a place,” said Art Parker, who worked in the control room that day, as he has for 425 consecutive Michigan games.
The scores became a regular occurrence. The wire ticker eventually was replaced by the telephone, and that required Parker to call each day to people like John Carpenter, Slippery Rock’s sports information director, for scores. On his first day, Carpenter had never heard of the tradition, and puzzled, he asked the inquisitor from Michigan why he wanted the score.
As Carpenter related to the Chicago Tribune in 1985, “I said, ‘Why do you people want to know what the Slippery Rock score is?’ And he said, ‘If you hold on a minute, I’ll tell you.’ The guy held the phone near the public address announcer, and then I heard, ‘Here’s the score you’ve all been waiting for: Slippery Rock 27, Waynesburg 7.’ And the place went berserk.”
In 1979, Michigan Athletic Director Don Canham invited The Rock to play a game in Michigan Stadium, something Slippery Rock officials are hopeful will happen again.
Slippery Rock optimistically expected 15,000 people to show up for its game against Shippensburg. Instead, four times that number, 61,143, attended, a Division-II record. Canham gave the team sneakers and cleats. Bo Schembechler addressed the team, according to Mihalik. They played in the Big House again in 1981.
Bob McComas, Slippery Rock’s current sports information director, remembers being unimpressed with Michigan Stadium’s sunken design. That is, until he walked down the tunnel.
“We see this light toward the end,” McComas said. “The whole group stopped breathing. You look up and go, ‘Wow.’
“You would’ve thought we were big-time dignitaries. We’re just some Division II school from Pennsylvania.”
Yet for a few years, Slippery Rock grew evasive, and Parker struggled to get the scores relayed during games. He theorized that Slippery Rock felt like it was being mocked. But that feeling soon passed.
Nowadays, the Slippery Rock scores appear around the nation, from Michigan to Texas. When McComas fails to text the score in, Michigan fans grow irate. McComcas recalls one instance when the Michigan radio station called him, saying its callers were demanding the score of the Slippery Rock game.
“They think it’s a joke that Michigan and Texas announce the scores,” McComas said. “But it’s amazing. They want to know. The people want to know.”
The locker room here is cramped, with lockers in the middle of the room to maximize space. Before the game against Kutztown, the members of the Slippery Rock football stepped away from their rickety stools and small lockers. They gathered in the middle of the locker room and said the Lord’s Prayer.
Most here don’t have a scholarship. Slippery Rock only awards 18, half as many as the teams in its conference.
“If you want to play football, they’re going to come here,” said Ronald Steele, the equipment manager who also serves on the town council and works for the fire department. “We’ve got kids on our team now that aren’t getting a dime to play football. They love to play football, and they love to play for Slippery Rock.”
Mihalik stood in front of these football players, these students.
“I haven’t seen that look in a while, fellas,” he said. “We’re ready to play tonight. You know what’s on the line tonight. You know what we can do tonight.
“The Rock’s ready.”
And with that, they streamed out the locker room, through a small concrete corridor that serves as their tunnel, through a gate in the chainlink fence in front of the bleachers — where there was no banner to touch — and onto the field.
High up above the field, on a hill above the visiting team’s bleachers, Slippery Rock President Cheryl Norton watched the game from the Gail Rose Stadium Lodge with donors and other administrators. It’s the Slippery Rock version of a luxury box, more homey and with fewer corporate frills. Norton watched from the inside of the wooden structure through big windows. Then she moved to the patio outside, where on a nearby picnic table sat the quarterback of the Slippery Rock High School team, which had won the night before.
The president here likes football. She likes it just as much as she likes women’s soccer — she took in that team’s game against Shippensburg before she went to the football game. She likes football, it seems, as much as anything else at the university. Football is nice, but football isn’t king.
Three fumbles and abysmal special teams play had given Kutztown a 41-21 lead. In the Lodge, Norton cheered and grew quiet like the rest of the crowd. But she kept perspective.
“It’s not a live-or-die sport, people can actually play football for the love of the game,” Norton said. “And not because they think they’re going to go pro, not because they think they’re the best thing next to sliced bread, but because they really love the game. And that’s wonderful.”
Back down in the locker room at halftime, there was little of that perspective.
“I’ve never been a bitch in my life,” Jeff Thompson, a fifth-year senior defensive end and one of the team’s leaders, told his teammates. “That’s how we’re being treated every play.”
Mihalik, frustrated, began a rant.
“You can’t beat an opponent and also try to beat ourselves,” Mihalik said. “And we’re just knocking the shit out of ourselves. Special teams, you’re killing us tonight.”
And he was right. The Rock had lost a fumble, punted for just 20 yards, missed a field goal, allowed a 51-yard kickoff return, lost two more fumbles and allowed a 53-yard kickoff return just in the first half.
Mihalik promised his team one of the biggest comebacks in Slippery Rock history. But for a room full of players paying their own way through school, playing in front of a few thousand fans, Thompson said it best.
“Act like you love it!”
And Slippery Rock ran back out onto the field.
The quarterback here is recognized by some on campus, but no one takes pictures with him. No one asks for an autograph. Nigel Barksdale is the backup, actually, filling in for the starter who sustained a head injury the previous week.
But Nigel Barksdale can play. After the game, after Barksdale had rushed for 169 yards, thrown for 261 more and combined for five touchdowns with no interceptions, Mihalik would make a comparison.
“He reminds me of someone you watch, doesn’t he?” Mihalik asked. That someone is Denard Robinson.
On the field, Barksdale is quick and creative, capable of outrunning any defender. He’s also reckless and had to leave the game with a knee injury at multiple badly timed junctures. But his explosiveness can change games.
After a Thompson sack started the half, Barksdale seized control. He rushed for a touchdown, then threw for another. After one touchdown, a teammate lifted Barksdale into the air, much like Taylor Lewan does with Robinson.
A third touchdown in the half, a run by Akeem Satterfield, evened the score, and then another Barksdale touchdown suddenly gave Slippery Rock the lead.
For the moment, Barksdale was the hero. And yet he’d still probably go largely unrecognized around campus.
“Being a student football player at Slippery Rock … you have your people,” Barksdale said. “You see them in the stands — there’s a lot of people at our games. We have them when you’re walking through campus. Good game here, good game there, you guys could’ve done better here, you guys could’ve been better there. It’s nothing like rah-rah-rah walking through the halls (like) you’re the big man on campus.”
But right now, Barksdale was the big man on campus. With 10:35 remaining in the game, Slippery Rock led 49-42.
There is no instant replay here. No coach’s challenges.
When the referees say the ball is fumbled, the ball is fumbled and that’s that. It doesn’t matter that Slippery Rock had clawed back from three scores down and let the lead slip away on two straight Kutztown touchdowns. It doesn’t matter that the Slippery Rock receiver’s knee had likely been down.
After it was over, Mihalik discussed the game with Steele, the equipment manager. Mihalik was upset, but calm. He looked at the box score, saw the five turnovers, the large total yards differential that favored Slippery Rock and gave an aw-shucks shrug.
He glanced over.
“I told the team, ‘We have to win for the Michigan guys,’ ” Mihalik said.
And after that, a smile.