In honor of the upcoming Concordia Football Reunion (Sept. 16-17), throughout the summer Concordia athletics will be releasing select excerpts of the book Cultivating Men of Faith and Character: The History of Concordia Nebraska Football, written by Director of Athletic Communications Jake Knabel. The following passage details the buildup to and the success experienced by the 2001 Bulldogs. Coached by Courtney Meyer, Concordia shared the Great Plains Athletic Conference title in the second year of the league's existence.
Registration for the reunion weekend is open until Aug. 1. To register and/or purchase the DVD and book, click HERE.
A series of changes were initiated prior to the 1998 season, Meyer’s ninth as head coach. First, the institution of the “top 10 program” meant that the coaching staff could give more money to 10 athletes it identified as difference makers, while still maintaining a specified scholarship average. Second, Bill McAllister was hired as offensive coordinator. He went to work on implementing a new offense – the Wing T – that could mask some of the size disadvantages the Bulldogs had at the time. Some other GPAC coaches even poked fun at McAllister’s offense. But the 1985 Midland Lutheran College graduate compiled a record of 54-29 during nine seasons as a Nebraska high school football head coach, proving his system worked. One GPAC coach prodded, “When are you going to quit running that high school offense?” McAllister’s response: “When you can stop it.”
The changes didn’t produce championships immediately, but Concordia went from 1-9 in 1997 to 4-5 in 1998 to 5-4 in 1999. Then came a breakthrough 7-4 campaign in 2000. Meyer, McAllister and defensive coordinator Tim Preuss were steadily stockpiling talent. They found a quarterback in Jarrod Pimentel of Merced, California. Somehow Pimentel had gone mostly unnoticed in the recruiting process. They discovered Ross Wurdeman who had perhaps been miscast as a quarterback at Columbus High School. They also went to Texas and landed safety Sean Stewart of Beaumont and picked up linebacker Erik DeHaven of Mesa, Arizona. Also from California, Alex Alvarez (Denair), a high school teammate of Pimentel, became a standout at running back. They didn’t have to go far to recruit defensive back Troy Schlueter (York, Nebraska), another integral part of a sturdy defensive unit. The pieces were beginning to come together and a different vibe would soon spread throughout 800 North Columbia Avenue. McAllister could see something special developing as the first group of recruits he had helped bring in transitioned from freshmen to sophomores.
“I had always been part of winning programs,” said Pimentel recalling his first season as a Bulldog. “This was the first time I was on a team that struggled. We started out really bad (in 1998). I remember calling my mom and dad and saying, ‘Hey I’m not used to losing.’ There was about 15 to 20 of us that made a pact that we were going to stay together and work our butts off to try to win a championship.” Winning really was all Pimentel knew. He lost just once his entire high school career. The coaches appreciated Pimentel’s trust in the program. Said Preuss, “I have really fond memories of the players. We had guys like Pimentel who were so committed. That’s what helped us turn things around.”
A program that struggled to win a conference game in the early Meyer years seemed to turn the corner on September 16, 2000, when 25th-ranked Concordia upset No. 7 University of Sioux Falls, 43-24, in Seward behind 456 total yards of offense, including 285 through the air from Pimentel. The Bulldogs began that season with a win over Lindenwood University in the Wheat Bowl and finished it with momentum by blowing away Concordia Wisconsin, 40-6. In between, the Bulldogs learned how to win by staging a series of fourth-quarter comebacks. The swagger carried by the likes of Pimentel and Wurdeman was transforming the program. Said Meyer, “I sensed it was coming. We were just good. We had a good defense that could run and hit. It was the complete package.” Said then offensive lineman Corby Osten, “Going into my senior season all our offseason meetings were like, ‘We’re winning this thing. There’s no reason it shouldn’t have happened already.’ There was a change in mindset.”
McAllister predicted the success. He admitted that his confidence came mostly as a product of his own ego and naivety. Soon after beginning at Concordia, he told a booster club gathering that within four years the program would claim a conference championship. At the time of McAllister’s hiring, Concordia had won a combined 10 games over the previous five years. Told by Meyer to “take the offense and go,” McAllister went to work. He loved wrapping himself up in the X’s and O’s while dreaming up ways to attack opposing defenses. It wasn’t uncommon for the former University of Nebraska-Omaha quarterbacks coach to stay up until 2 or 3 a.m. on Sunday nights as he devised that week’s game plan.
But McAllister may have made his biggest impact in the area of recruiting. Meyer and Preuss taught classes and had less freedom of movement. No problem. McAllister made trips to see the likes of Pimentel and Stewart. The veteran coach knew what he had to look for while working on a tight budget. (If families offered him a meal, he never refused). Explained McAllister, “I knew coming in that we were not going to get the best quarterback in the state. We weren’t going to get the top running back in the state. We weren’t going to get the top linemen in the state. We had to go to a scheme that allowed us to recruit under-sized linemen and be successful. We could make a living on recruiting ‘tweeners. They maybe weren’t big enough or fast enough to play an I-formation pro scheme or spread offense, but they fit our scheme. We got a lot of them that were great ballplayers and great kids.” Preuss noticed the difference in the skill level of incoming players. Concordia clearly had better positioned itself with a staff more equipped to handle the incredible demands of managing a college football program. “Bill joining the staff was a real shot in the arm,” Preuss said. “We were stretched so thin. He was really able to ramp up our recruiting in Texas and California. It paid off really well. Bill and I are great friends to this day.”
After the gradual build, Concordia broke through in 2001 with a co-GPAC championship season. Concordia Hall of Famer Ross Wurdeman (or “Ross the Hoss” as Meyer liked to say), named to the NAIA all-decade team of the 2000s, was the team’s biggest offensive star after beginning his collegiate career as a defensive end. The two-time first team NAIA All-American caught 48 passes for 647 yards and seven touchdowns during the campaign that ended the program’s 20-year conference title drought. Known for catching anything thrown in his vicinity, Ross became best friends with Pimentel. They even gave each other the business sometimes during postgame interviews. A humble guy who “just got it done” as Meyer would say, Wurdeman did things the right way. So of course he batted an eye as Pimentel once told a reporter, “Ross likes to showboat during practice.”
That comment came in the wake of arguably the most significant win in the history of the program. The 2001 team finished the regular season with a record of 9-1, its only loss coming at the hands of No. 20 Hastings in a 20-16 upset defeat on November 3. McAllister shouldered blame for calling a play in the wrong direction. The result was a dropped ball from wide open receiver Regan Else, who had to stare directly into the sun. “If I don’t blow that call we’re probably undefeated,” McAllister said. “Those are the things you tend to remember more than anything else.” Concordia shook off the loss and, two weeks later, hosted 13th-ranked St. Ambrose University (Iowa) in the first round of the NAIA playoffs. The Concordia athletic department put up $16,000 by raising funds for the right to stage the game at Bulldog Stadium. On paper it looked like a potential low-scoring, grind-it-out battle with two teams that featured defenses ranked in the top 10 nationally. McAllister told his fellow coaches that they would have to win this game in a slugfest with a final score of something like 10-7.
From the outset, some may have wondered if the moment was too big for a program that had not been used to playing underneath a spotlight. A defense that had not allowed more than 20 points in a single game all year surrendered 20 in the first quarter alone (the first touchdown came on the opening kickoff) to the visiting Bees. But Wurdeman, who caught nine passes for 138 yards and two touchdowns that day, came to the rescue. In the signature play of his career, Wurdeman caught a 32-yard touchdown pass from Pimentel on a third-and-16 play. The Columbus, Nebraska, native faked a pitch on a designed hook-and-ladder, then spun around and raced to the end zone, putting Concordia up 21-20 early in the second quarter.
Piggybacking on that momentum, the defense tightened and the Bulldogs built a 31-20 lead into the fourth quarter before St. Ambrose struck with an Andre Banks touchdown catch. The defense buckled down the rest of the way and the Bulldogs sewed up a memorable 31-26 victory in front of a huge Bulldog Stadium crowd. Concordia had overcome an early deficit and injuries to the top two running backs on its depth chart in the first playoff game in school history.
There were many other memorable moments along the way in 2001. In the second game of the season, unranked Concordia went on the road and upset GPAC favorite and eighth-ranked Sioux Falls, 17-14, in a win crucial to the Bulldogs’ chances of staying in the hunt for a conference championship. On a rain-soaked field in a contest that came four days after the 9/11 tragedy, the Bulldogs got out to a 17-7 advantage and held on for a tone-setting victory. The Bulldog offense got rolling with 200 yards of offense in the fourth quarter. Seventy-three of them came on an Alvarez touchdown run. As Wurdeman said, “Once we got past Sioux Falls we thought now it’s our table to run.” Concordia started out 8-0 before the program’s nine-game winning streak was halted by Hastings. The Bulldogs clinched at least a share of the GPAC title on October 27 when it won at Doane, 14-3, in one of their eight wins by double-digit margins that season. Afterwards, as Osten recalled, Meyer danced along with his players inside a celebratory visiting locker room.
The season culminated with a 34-0 loss at Sioux Falls in a revenge game as part of the NAIA playoff quarterfinals. The contest was severely affected by a howling wind that resulted in sideways rain and a mud pit between the hashes. The weather grounded Pimentel and the passing attack, even causing hypothermia for at least two Bulldog players while bringing an end to a historic season. “I think the whole circumstances negated our ability to do what we normally did,” Meyer said. Even worse than dealing with the weather, Concordia played with heavy hearts after the tragic death of wide receiver J.T. Thomas five days prior to the game. Thomas had been involved in a car accident. Said Meyer, “It probably wasn’t until Wednesday or Thursday that week that we had any semblance of a practice. It just impacted all of us.” Sioux Falls ended up losing in the national title game.
The playoff loss aside, Concordia had returned to the glorious levels reached by the previous 12 Bulldog conference championship teams. And they did it by working their way up from the bottom. “The biggest thing I take away is an appreciation of building a championship caliber program,” Pimentel said. “That was a lot of fun. When you come into a winning program and keep winning, you don’t know what it’s like from the other side of it. People ask me if I could change anything about going to Nebraska. It was a good ride.” Pimentel was an outspoken leader for a team that McAllister termed a “band of brothers” that hung together in the face of every challenge that came their way. It also was a bunch that believed in a program that had suffered through some ugly win-loss records.