My college alma mater has a HUGE game this Saturday. Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania will be holding their homecoming Saturday afternoon and hosting rivals Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
On the line is a national ranking of which the Rock is currently No. 9 nationwide. But, the visiting IUP Crimson Hawks are ranked in the top five at No. 3. Both teams trail the top-ranked and defending NCAA Division II champion—the Northwest Missouri State Bearcats and the Rams from Shepherd University.
All four teams have been to the NCAA Division II playoffs the last two seasons with the exception of Slippery Rock, who missed out in 2016 but went deep into the tournament two seasons ago.
The four teams above are all undefeated heading into this weekend. All have six victories except Shepherd, who sit at 5-0. The Rock has never won the national title either. But when they used to crown state champions in Pennsylvania, Slippery Rock has taken that title numerous times.
Slippery Rock’s home stadium is named Mihalik-Thompson Stadium, taking the names of two legendary coaches. N. Kerr Thompson led the team from 1920-1942 and then for one more season in 1945. During his reign, the Rock’s football team won games at a clip of 67 percent and took their division 12 times. This stretch also included eight state titles. Slippery Rock has finished a season undefeated in their history five times. Four of those belong to Thompson.
The other half of the stadium name belongs to George Mihalik, who coached from 1988 until he resigned in 2015. Mihalik led his team to 185 wins while losing 109 and tying another four. His winning percentage is the highest among Slippery Rock head coaches. His record at the Rock includes 12 straight winning seasons. Mihalik is also one of a very few select college football head coaches who has earned a doctorate’s degree. He also played quarterback for Slippery Rock from 1971-1973.
Another legendary coach at Slippery Rock was Bob Dispirito, who coached from 1967-1980 and one season more in 1987—leading the green and white to three straight Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference championships. The first came in 1972.
Dispirito was also coach when the Rock played in the “big house” in Ann Arbor, Michigan inside the University of Michigan’s 100,000-plus seated stadium.
As far as the talent pool goes, Slippery Rock has turned out players that went pro. My college classmate and old friend, Ricky Porter—who was one of the finest running backs in the school’s history—played briefly for the Detroit Lions as a 12th-round draft pick in 1982. Chuck Sanders, a member of the San Diego Chargers, is an alumnus of the Rock. Two more players made it to the bigs after playing for SRU as well—Greg Paterra and Mike Butterworth—both of the Atlanta Falcons.
The announcing of the Slippery Rock score is a tradition that was shared by several major universities at their home games that began in 1959. And it was made most popular by Michigan Stadium public address announcer Steve Filipiak. Perhaps these announcers were humored by a school that is named “Slippery Rock”. Perhaps it was for some other reason.
But back when I was a student in 1977, the school had not yet reached university status. There, there name was Slippery Rock State College. Other schools such as the University of Texas, North Carolina, Stanford, and California also let their fans know how the Rock was doing each Saturday during their home games. However, the University of Michigan is the only NCAA school still making those calls on Saturday afternoons.
The practice of announcing Slippery Rock scores at Michigan became so trendy that the university in Ann Arbor decided to invite the small school to play in their big house. The first game played in Michigan by the Rock came in 1979, taking on rival state college Shippensburg. I was there. We had an attendance of 61,143 fans that day in a stadium that in 1979 sat a little over 100,000.
The figure also set the record at the time for most fans to witness a Division II football game. So I guess I’m part of history.
Today the capacity in the Big House is 109,901. The event for Slippery Rock to play there was called “Band Day” as the Rock has always had a superb marching band. Twice more SRU would visit the Big House, though. First in 1981 when they lost to Wayne State University, 14-13. Then in 2014 when Mercyhurst put a thumping on them, 45-23.
That first game I witnessed was won by Shippensburg, 45-14. For the record, the town of Slippery Rock when I was there had a population of around 2,000. But the students numbered around 6,000. Today that enrollment is a bit over 7,000. Moreover, the population has grown to 3,583 as reported in 2016.
In 1981, I was the Sports Director at Slippery Rock University and got to make the call on that 14-13 loss using the stadium’s facilities. It was very cool as they handed me a set of headphones that all during the game fed me updated statistics as they happened. The most vivid memory I have from the Big House, though, is entering that stadium. With most stadiums, you enter the front gates and ether walk up the stairs. Or you take an escalator to your seat if you are in peanut heaven.
But with Michigan, you enter the front gate and you are already at the top of the stadium. It’s like a big hole in the ground and it’s an amazing site to see.
So, this Saturday, the Rock will have its hands full with IUP. But if they can knock off the Crimson Hawks, they can inch closer to the No. 1 spot in the country. Last season, Rock missed the postseason party. Instead, IUP got there and clobbered Fairmont State in the first round of the Super Regional One only to get thumped in the next round by another Pennsylvania state university school, California (PA).
California would lose to Shepherd, who is the team that knocked Slippery Rock out of contention in 2015 when the Rock made it all the way to the quarterfinals. In the finals that year, Northwest Missouri State defeated Shepherd in the national title game. They then repeated last season with a victory over North Alabama university.