The Colgate Scene
March 2004

Our team

The Raider defense celebrates after linebacker Ryan Miller '05 (27) sacked UMass quarterback Jeff Krohn during the fourth quarter of Colgate's 19-7 win over the Minutemen in the opening round of the Division I-AA playoffs.

It seems that one could almost exhaust superlatives in describing the 2003 Colgate Raiders football team.

Here is a team that won 21 consecutive games during two seasons, went undefeated during the regular season, completed the finest playoff performance in the university's history, and finished the season ranked second in the nation in Division I-AA, Colgate's highest ranking ever. It is a team that produced the Patriot League's offensive and defensive players of the year in tailback Jamaal Branch '05 and linebacker Tem Lukabu '04, respectively; the program's first academic All-American in 14 years, tight end John Frieser '04, who also received the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame's prestigious National Scholar-Athlete Postgraduate Scholarship Award; and had several players named to various all-American, all-Patriot League, and all-ECAC teams.

It is a team whose chief architect, head coach Dick Biddle, was named Division I-AA National Coach of the Year by the American Football Coaches Association for leading the Raiders to a 15-1 record, the Patriot League title, and a berth in the NCAA Division I-AA championship game. Biddle is the first Colgate coach to post eight straight winning seasons since the legendary Andy Kerr accomplished the feat between 1929 and 1936. He is also the first Colgate coach to record seven consecutive seasons with seven or more victories.

It is a team that was described by its fans as "amazing," "courageous," and "the epitome of pure, small-town-America football." Perhaps the most accurate description of the 2003 Raiders was also the most succinct. Florida Atlantic University head coach Howard Schnellenberger called them "a very sound and wonderful team" after losing to Colgate 36-24 in a national semifinal game.

That the Raiders had a successful season in 2003 was no surprise. Since taking the helm in 1996, Biddle has compiled a record of 69-27, and his winning percentage of .719 is the highest of any coach who has coached seven or more seasons in the Patriot League. The team returned 36 players from the 2002 team that went 9-3 and captured a share of the Patriot League title, and were preseason favorites to repeat as champions.

Students first, athletes second
The measure of any successful season is determined not only by a team's wins and losses, but also by the character displayed in achieving that record. Name a virtue that best defines Colgate's athletic traditions, and the 2003 Raiders amply demonstrated it.

Courage? Wide receiver Luke Graham '05 separated his right shoulder when he was slammed to the ground after snaring a 24-yard strike from quarterback Chris Brown '05 to set up the winning touchdown against Western Illinois University in the Division I-AA quarterfinals. One week later, Graham grabbed six passes for 77 yards and two touchdowns against Florida Atlantic, despite not being able to raise his arm past his shoulder.

Selflessness? Nate Thomas '04 made the all-Patriot League team as a tailback in 2001, but broke his ankle early in the 2002 season. Although he was granted an extra year of athletic eligibility because of his injury, Thomas did not regain his starting position. Rather than pout, Thomas became a valuable contributor on the Raiders' special teams. Thomas made one of the key plays in the first half of the semifinal against Florida Atlantic when he recovered a short kickoff to set up the touchdown that expanded the Raiders' lead to 23-7.

Sportsmanship? The last player on the field after Colgate's 45-38 win in the regular season finale at Holy Cross was Branch, who had run for a team-record 280 yards, including an 87-yard romp to score the winning touchdown. The winner of the 2003 Walter Payton Award took time to talk with Crusaders head coach Dan Allen, who had just coached his last game at Holy Cross from a wheelchair. During the season, Branch ran for a Patriot League and Division I-AA record 2,326 yards.

Academics? On December 18, the Los Angeles Times ran a full-length feature on the front page of the sports section that focused on the fact that Colgate athletes are students first, athletes second.

"Athletics overlapped with academics to an unusual degree this week at Colgate, where final exams were held as the 15-0 football team practiced for [the] championship game against Delaware in Chattanooga, Tenn.," wrote reporter Steve Springer. "No one interviewed on campus -- players, professors, or administrators -- expressed any doubt that team members could successfully juggle finals and the finale of a 16-game football season."

Not to be outdone, New York Times reporter Pete Thamel wrote in a December 19 article, "Detractors of a Division I-A playoff system may take notice that Colgate's players have balanced finals week with their preparations for a title game. Already, the university has shown that an academic-oriented, non-scholarship team can compete in Division I-AA."

Colgate Head Coach Dick Biddle (right) gives a few words and a pat on the back to Florida Atlantic coach Howard Schnellenberger after the Raiders defeated the Owls 36-24 in the NCAA Division I-AA semifinal game in Fort Lauderdale. Biddle was named Division I-AA Coach of the Year by the American Football Coaches Association. He is the first Colgate coach ever to record seven consecutive seasons with seven or more victories.

Family ties
The Raiders' playoff run began the Saturday after Thanksgiving against the University of Massachusetts at Andy Kerr Stadium in a driving snowstorm. Led by a stout defensive effort (including 10 tackles by strong safety Sean McCune '04), the Raiders kept the UMass offense out of the end zone (the Minutemen scored a touchdown on a blocked punt). Brown (a Florida native) shook off the wintry conditions to pass for 207 yards, and the Raiders prevailed, 19-7.

Colgate's athletic squads aren't the only teams on campus with all-American-caliber contributors. The university's grounds crew performed a near-miracle in preparing the field at Andy Kerr Stadium for the quarterfinal showdown with Western Illinois. While the wind didn't blow as hard as it did during the UMass game, several inches of snow fell in Hamilton the night before, and more fell throughout the game. After losing an eight-point lead, the Raiders capitalized on the field position given them by a 28-yard punt return by J.B. Gerald '04 to regain the lead, 28-27.

The Western Illinois offense had twice driven nearly the length of the field to score touchdowns in the fourth quarter. With less than two minutes left in the game and a semifinal berth at stake, the Colgate defense took control of the outcome. Under pressure from a charge led by defensive tackle Josh Sabo '04, Western Illinois quarterback Russ Michna threw an ill-advised pass on third down that was intercepted by linebacker Ryan Miller '05. Bring on Florida Atlantic!

Despite the fact that Colgate had defeated two teams from large universities that offer football scholarships, there was a negative undercurrent in the media buildup to the semifinal tilt on December 13. Surely, went the conventional wisdom, when the Raiders played a fast team like Florida Atlantic on its home field in Fort Lauderdale instead of the frozen tundra in Hamil-ton, the story would be different.

The story was different, but only in that Branch ran for 145 yards after being held far below his usual output during the first two playoff games. The result was the same. Colgate 36, Florida Atlantic 24.

The Raiders' opponent in the national championship game in Chattanooga was a football program that had broken Colgate hearts before -- the University of Delaware Blue Hens -- and did it again.

"That loss pales in significance when pitted against what preceded it during this wonderful season. When the season finally ended, I came to a few brief conclusions," wrote freelance journalist Rick Marsi '69. "I concluded I'm lucky to have attended a school whose alumni can watch high-quality athletics on a campus most agree can't be matched for its beauty. I am lucky I went to a college whose student-athletes truly are students. And I'm fortunate I went to a small school, an intimate place, where, after a football game, you can wait on the grass in the cold outside the locker room until the players begin filing out. You can congratulate those players. You can talk with their parents. You can see how college athletics should work everywhere.

"Those post-game moments proved among my most meaningful in a truly miraculous season. All for one, one for all -- mothers hugging their mud-coated sons. And those sons simply smiling, kissing their girlfriends, posing for mom-and-dad photos, and signing pee wee footballs for 10-year-old fans. Colgate family ties in the making."

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