For 12 years, a mid-October trip to Kansas City was the most important event on a calendar for Bearcats football fans. Arrowhead Stadium gave fans of two Division II powerhouse programs a chance to feel like a part of the big leagues.
The venue has not changed; the opponent has. Saturday, fans will know how the significance has changed. Sub-40 degree temperatures, possible snow and a Washburn team boasting a 4-6 record could show just how much Pitt State meant to the Fall Classic.
Gary Bradley became a follower of the Bearcats when he came to Northwest in the early ‘90s until his graduation in 1996. Between storming the field at Nebraska-Omaha in 1997 and making the trip to Florence, Alabama for championship games, some of his fondest memories lie in Arrowhead Stadium against the Pitt State. While Bradley is sad to see them go, he thinks Northwest fans should bring the same enthusiasm they have for the past 12 years.
“It’s new for their program, so I’d hope they (Washburn) would bring a lot of fans,” Bradley said. “As Pitt showed in years past, when you have little to play for, it can be hard for struggling programs to draw the kind of fan support that a venue like Arrowhead merits. (Northwest is) in a ‘win and we’re in’ situation with the playoffs, so our fans need to support the team … “
Just how many fans will show up in support of the Bearcats and Ichabods remains in question until the gates of Arrowhead Stadium open Saturday. As of Tuesday, Northwest sold 3,620 tickets.
Those numbers alone show that the tradition has changed.
In the five years leading up to 2002, Mel Tjeerdsma had his way with Pitt State. As the head coach of the Northwest Bearcats football team, he won five consecutive games against the Gorillas, including three wins in rival territory 200 miles south of Maryville.
Then-Athletic Director Dr. Bob Boerigter, now commissioner of the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletic Association, approached Tjeerdsma in the spring about the possibility of playing Pitt State off-campus, as renovations to Bearcat Stadium were not expected to be finished for the mid-October game.
That fall, Northwest and Pitt State traveled to as close to a neutral site as possible. Pitt State had to travel 19 miles further than Northwest, but those 19 miles transformed the Northwest football program. The original matchup took place on a Thursday night and set a Division II attendance record of 26,695. Beginning in 2003, the matchup was moved to Saturdays and draws an average of more than 20,000 fans.
“It was so successful that next year, Pitt decided to do the same thing with the game, and it was very successful again,” Tjeerdsma said. “From that point on, we did everything together – split all the expenses, split all the profits – and it was a great deal for both of us.”
After the 2013 affair, the two ends failed to meet eye-to-eye and Pitt State would not sign a contract to continue the Fall Classic. A $5 million contribution by the city of Pittsburg to build a new indoor facility caused hesitation from the community to continue the game in Arrowhead.
“I certainly understood … it took us a long time before they finally made the decision that ‘No, we’re not gonna do it anymore.’ Now that they beat us here on homecoming, they’ll never do it again,” Tjeerdsma chuckled.
Out went Pitt State, leaving Northwest with the hope of finding a potential opponent to continue the annual game loved so much by the Bearcat faithful. Tjeerdsma knew how much it meant to the players and coaches to walk through the home of the Kansas City Chiefs, so he began to play interest from possible schools in the area.
According to Tjeerdsma, Northwest presented the idea to Central Missouri, “but they just don’t want to do it.” Then, the Bearcats struck gold and found new life at Arrowhead Stadium when they found interest from Washburn. Northwest officially announced the matchup Aug. 2, and moved the event from it’s usual mid-October date to the last game of the regular season.
Northwest and Washburn agreed to a two-year contract, with the option of a two-year renewal. Despite the Ichabods’ underwhelming 4-6 record and possibility of rough weather, Tjeerdsma believes Washburn, located one hour west of Kansas City, will travel well for its first Fall Classic.
“I think they have got some anxiety, just because of their record, but I think their fans will really turn out,” Tjeerdsma said. “Going into it out of spring, we said there was two risks. Number one is the date … you always have a risk with weather. The second risk is, that late in the year, one of the two teams could have not a real good record. We’re looking at that a little bit.”
Despite Washburn’s mediocre record, it brings in a two-game winning streak against Northwest, who has an opportunity to all but clinch a playoff spot. The Bearcats can also clinch at least a share of the MIAA title while going 20-1 against one of the top conferences in Division II over the past two years.
“It’s very exciting. I know how blessed I am to be sitting here and to be the head coach here,” Head Coach Adam Dorrel said. “ … the buzz that’s in there (the locker room), I felt it Sunday and I felt it again (Tuesday). Our kids are very excited … Saturday is a huge football game for our program, for our kids and for our fans.”
Promoting the Fall Classic against an opponent of Pitt State’s caliber has been easy for Assistant Athletic Director for Marketing, Promotions and Licensing Nate Davis. With a switch in opponent, Davis says the athletic department has not changed promotion tactics and is relying on the tradition of Bearcats football.
“The team itself is always kind of a big draw so we haven’t had to change our methods because it’s been such a success,” Davis said. “There was some initial disappointment because Pitt State was such a good rivalry … Our fans are as loyal as any in the country at showing up on Saturday and supporting the team.”
The fans have played a big role in the success of Northwest at Arrowhead Stadium over the years. Over the 12 years, the average attendance is slightly more than 20,000 fans, and the revenue shows it. After splitting all expenses, Tjeerdsma says the athletic department banks between three and four times more than a Saturday at Bearcat Stadium.
With Northwest’s joint athletic department, the revenue benefits all sports and is a significant reason for the annual return for the Bearcats. Another reason, according to Tjeerdsma, is the appeal it brings to recruiting.
“Arrowhead is a big deal. The Chiefs are a big deal …” Tjeerdsma said. “To be able to walk into the house of a high school senior and say ‘You know what, for the next five years, you’re gonna be making a trip to Arrowhead Stadium and playing in that stadium,’ that’s a big thing.”
As the home team in 2014, Northwest is able to bring recruits to the Fall Classic as a visit, something that Washburn’s Sports Information Director Gene Cassell is looking forward to in 2015. With the attention it brings to the University and the football program, Cassell said the Ichabods were quick to jump on board.
“It was something that people on campus were on board with in the higher-ups in the administration, and figured it would be a good opportunity for us,” Cassell said. “ … We thought it would be good for our program to get some exposure … I think the opportunities are going to be better for us to be able to bring potential recruits through Arrowhead, take them through the locker rooms and out on the field and everything else … It’s a little different than playing in a six or 7,000 seat stadium.”
This game is unlike any game Washburn has played; not so much for Northwest. Tjeerdsma, along with the athletic department, knew the risks that came with a mid-November game against a new opponent. The success of the change may not need to wait until after the 2015 matchup and could be seen come 2 p.m. Saturday.
“It will be different. Pitt State-Northwest has been a huge rivalry. Just from a tradition standpoint, since 2002, eight of those 12 years, one of the two teams has been to the national championship game,” Tjeerdsma said. “That doesn’t happen very often in any kind of rivalry, so that has a look to do with it.
“We’re looking to a new beginning with Washburn.”