The format for each Northwest Athletics weekly media luncheon is cut and dry. Coaches are supposed to stand up when called upon by Assistant Athletic Director of Media Relations Colin McDonough and give a synopsis of what their team did last weekend and a preview of what is to come.
They talk about what went wrong and what went right. They introduce the student-athletes they brought with them to the sectioned off room at Pizza Ranch, the host site for the weekly luncheons. Some continue on for a few minutes; some talk for less than 30 seconds.
Northwest football coach Rich Wright is the only one that deviates from the standard format. His weekly tradition is different, and it might’ve started by accident. On Sep. 3, when Rich Wright brought senior defensive lineman Spencer Phillips with him ahead of Northwest’s Week 1 matchup with Missouri Western, the coach introduced the player by thrusting him into the spotlight, requiring Phillips to give the week’s recap and weekend’s preview for him, hanging the lineman out to dry.
Then, of course, the Bearcats won over Western Sep. 5, so Rich Wright did the same thing the next week with sophomore quarterback Braden Wright. The Bearcats won again and the pattern continued.
Every week at the weekly press gathering for the last 12, except for the luncheon that followed Northwest’s Oct. 19 loss to Nebraska-Kearney, Rich Wright has sat in the same seat in the middle of the sectioned-off room and given an opening statement simply introducing the latest player to fall victim to the coach’s unique habit.
This week was no different. Phillips, the senior captain and newly-minted MIAA Player of the Year, was the coach’s guest-athlete for the second time this season Nov. 19. The last time he gave an introduction, ahead of Week 1, there was no game to recap. The Bearcats were 0-0.
So when Rich Wright introduced Phillips Nov. 19, perhaps it wasn’t surprising that the lineman forgot to talk about Northwest’s 45-23 Week 11 win over Central Missouri. He wasn’t used to giving a recap. As he finished his verbal preview of the Bearcats’ Nov. 23 playoff matchup with Harding and sat back down across from Rich Wright, the coach reminded Phillips to talk about the contest with Central.
“Oh, yeah,” Phillips said, without leaving his seat again. “We beat Central last week. We’re on to Harding.”
The moment and the weekly tradition epitomized the mentality of both Rich Wright and his team this season. Rich Wright is superstitious — he said that’s the reason he has kept making his players stammer through the weekly introductions that no one warned them about. The Bearcats (10-1) have tunnel vision — after the biggest win of their season, they continue to look forward.
Northwest will host Harding in the Week 12 matchup the Bearcats fought for 11 weeks to earn. With the win over Central, Northwest clinched its 30th MIAA Championship, its 16th consecutive postseason berth and 24th in history along with the first home playoff game in the Rich Wright era, one that spans his three-year tenure as head coach.
The Bearcats, though, aren’t unfamiliar with navigating the unforgiving nature of the postseason. Rich Wright arrived in Maryville as a defensive line coach in 2004. His tenure with the program aligns directly with the 16-year postseason streak, though he said he’s not arrogant enough to believe his arrival brought with it any form of causation.
Harding, a team that has run the triple-option offense to perfection this season, poses a daunting threat to the Bearcats. But it’s possible Northwest’s own accolades pose more formidably. Northwest has won 22 straight playoff games at Bearcat Stadium. The team is 29-3 all-time playing postseason contests in Maryville.
At first, Phillips said, the challenge Harding presents with its option offense seemed intimidating. Then the MIAA’s best defensive player and his teammates gave it more thought.
“The more we kind of sat there and thought about it, it’s like: If you’re Harding, who’s the last team you want to play?” Phillips said. “Like, when’s the last time they came in here and matched up against us? That should give us the upper hand. We have everything that we need to be successful against them.”
Northwest’s winning tradition, particularly in the postseason, is well-documented. It is on display in trophy cases and in offices in Lamkin Activity Center. It is a part of the reason Maryville is nicknamed “Title Town.” It is plastered to the press box at Bearcat Arena, acting as a bell to answer and a goal to reach for the players who spend their Saturdays on Mel Tjeerdsma Field.
Rich Wright is more than acutely aware of the standard. He has lived through it for the last 16 years. Facing reporters Nov. 19, he touched on the “crazy” expectations that face his program. The coach and Philips both reflected on the tradition that has defined the program for more than two decades, a tradition that Rich Wright said does nothing for the Bearcats now.
“What we did in 2012 and 2016 has absolutely nothing (to do) with what we have to do this time around,” Rich Wright said. “Tradition doesn’t mean a whole heck-of-a-lot because there’s gonna be 58 guys in green and 58 guys in white out on the field on Saturday, and that’s where it’s gonna get decided.”
In Harding, Rich Wright said, the Bearcats expect to have their hands full. They’ve found mixed results against option offenses so far this season, handling Pittsburg State 38-17 at Arrowhead Stadium Oct. 12 and falling 24-17 to Kearney Oct. 19.
Harding’s option style, though, is different. Rich Wright said it doesn’t compare to anything Northwest has matched up against this season.
The Bison tout the No. 1 rushing offense in the country and rank No. 2 in time of possession. They sit among Division II’s top five in fourth-down conversion rate, Rich Wright said. They run the triple-option offense to perfection.
“They’re 10-1 for a reason,” Rich Wright said.
“Our confidence is there, but it’s one of those things, like: you can’t take anything for granted now,” Phillips said. “All your energy, all your focus needs to be put into what we have in front of us because there’s nothing — nothing’s guaranteed. We have to earn whatever we’re gonna get.”
The extreme focus on Harding seems to be more than a talking point.
Just over a month ago, Northwest lost in Kearney and put its own path to the postseason in jeopardy. After a 79-0 win over Northeastern State Nov. 2, the team was ranked No. 7 in Super Region 3 and sat on the brink of elimination. The Bearcats trailed Fort Hays 17-0 in the first quarter of their Week 10 matchup before storming back.
Rich Wright said he hasn’t considered how close the Bearcats were to missing the postseason. He hasn’t had time to reflect. Possessing the No. 3 seed in the NCAA’s Super Region 3 and hosting a playoff game, his focus remains on what Northwest still has left to accomplish.
The coach has also done the math and weighed the expectations that inherently come with a winning tradition. He’s crunched the numbers and relayed the results to his team. Over the last 20 years, Rich Wright told his team and told reporters, the average record of a Northwest football team is 12-2. Just to be average here, the Bearcats still have work to do.
“I mean, that’s average,” Rich Wright said. “And so, the thing I challenged the kids with is: Is this our ceiling? Or does our ceiling continue?”