The Stagg Bowl will be played on Dec. 21 in a 7,000-seat stadium in Salem, Va., between two teams whose combined football budgets of less than $600,000 add up to about half of University of Notre Dame head coach Tyrone Willingham's salary. On one side will be either mighty Saint John's of Minnesota (enrollment 1,853) or powerful Linfield of Oregon (1,571). At the other end either the Mount Union College of Ohio juggernaut (2,060) or sturdy Bridgewater College of Virginia (1,240).
We're talking NCAA Division III ball here -- the bottom of the talent barrel but, ideally, the top of the values hill. "D3" schools provide no athletic scholarships -- no free tuition for running fast or crunching hard. This is the home of the "scholar-athlete," where biology comes before blitzes.
NO POSING. There's something almost lyrical about crisp fall days on tiny tree-lined campuses and low-slung bleachers with no luxury suites. Something authentic about players who have no reason to pose in the end zone for Heisman Trophy campaign ads.
Still, this is college sports, and no division is an island. Despite fervent hopes that fullbacks and Fulbrights can co-exist, some critics claim that the worst of Division I -- the emphasis on winning, the extended seasons, the isolation of athletes from the rest of the student body -- is trickling down to football's eggheads.
D3, with 228 schools, is diverse. It ranges in size and mission from Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., with its No. 2 ranking among liberal arts colleges and tuition of $27,000, to the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse, with 9,000 undergrads and in-state tuition of $4,000.
TIME FOR D4? "In our case, one size doesn't fit all," says Ed DeGeorge, head coach at Wisconsin's Beloit College. Last summer, he hosted a meeting of elite Midwestern colleges that examined how to maintain competitive programs without fiddling with academic standards. Some whispering emerged about dividing Division III, with an eye toward a Division IV.
Presumably, this new purity division would clamp down on the admission policies of some schools, which seem tilted toward athletes. Even at tony Williams, officials acknowledge that about 16% of its freshman class received special consideration for sports skills. Suspicion is widespread that financial-aid offices throughout D3 are giving more need-based aid to jocks than to average students. An NCAA-sponsored audit of D3 financial-aid policies is in the works.
And it's possible that a Stagg Bowl team could play as many as five playoff games on top of 10 regular-season contests -- only one less than the NFL's regular season. That's why Stephen Lewis, former president of Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., has been campaigning to reduce the season's length and limit D3 playoffs.
WATCH AND ENJOY. "The preoccupation with success and failure in the postseason has added to the pressure on athletes," Lewis says, taking them away from classes for distant contests and further separating them from nonathlete classmates and campus life. "The question is: Are students there to be students or athletes?"
For plenty of young men, the answer is both. So if you can find the Stagg Bowl on your cable system, take a moment to root for the little guys. They're still as close to real amateurs as it gets in college football. Weiner follows sports from St. Paul, Minn.