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Linfield has quite a mystique

Photo by Scott Chancey

Photo by Scott Chancey

McMINNVILLE, Ore. -- There's a hand-painted sign above the entrance to the Linfield Wildcats' locker room at Maxwell Field that reads: "Are you a better football player today than you were yesterday?"

It's a reminder of a message players there have been taking to heart for decades, since the Division III team embarked on its streak of winning seasons in 1956.

That 54-season streak is the longest in the nation among NCAA schools of all divisions -- far surpassing Florida State's current run of 33 straight winning seasons. However, the Seminoles are cutting it close at 6-6 this season, facing West Virginia in the Gator Bowl on Jan. 1.

Linfield is a private university of some 2,100 students in the heart of McMinnville, located about 35 miles southwest of Portland, in Oregon's Willamette Valley wine country. The town is known as the birthplace of children's author Beverly Cleary, and for a famous UFO sighting in the 1950s that spawned a yearly festival there.

In many ways Linfield looks like a small East Coast college plunked down in the West, complete with red-brick colonial dormitories and a bell tower that chimes on the hour.

Football Saturdays during the fall are all about the Wildcats. Purple-clad fans dot the town's main streets before games and cars proudly display their Wildcat flags. The atmosphere harkens back to a simpler time.

"Linfield is Linfield, I think, because of that winning tradition," said former quarterback and current assistant coach Brett Elliott. "Every year we continue that tradition, the streak that we're on, it fuels the fire, so to speak."

The Wildcat mystique was born under Paul Durham, who coached the team from 1948-67, and then continued by coach Ad Rutschman, head coach from 1967-91.

Rutschman also served as the baseball coach for 13 seasons and the school's athletic director for 25 years, and currently works as an assistant to coach Joseph Smith. Rutschman is the only college coach at any level to have won national titles in both football and baseball.

He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1998.

"Much of the success I think stems from Ad Rutschman. Ad was a great coach. I would liken him to a John Wooden-type of coach, he was such a great teacher," said Oregon State assistant coach Jay Locey, who coached the Wildcats from 1996 to 2006 and led the team to its last national championship in 2004.

"It is about the development of people first," Locey said. "The winning is the byproduct."

This season the Wildcats are in the postseason for the 21st time in school history. They won three NAIA Div. II national championships, in 1982, 1984 and 1986, before joining Div. III 12 years ago.

The current Wildcats were unranked going into the season, and for the first time in nearly a decade, they weren't even expected to finish atop the Northwest Conference.

But Linfield, 6-3 last season, has kept winning all the way through last weekend's Div. III quarterfinals against St. Thomas of Minnesota.

The Wildcats (12-0) visit Wisconsin-Whitewater (13-0) in the semifinals on Saturday. Wesley (13-0) is at Mount Union (13-0) in the other semifinal.

The winners will go to the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl, the division's championship, in Salem, Va., the following weekend.

Elliott led the Wildcats to the championship in 2004. The Utah transfer was known for throwing an NCAA all-division record 61 TD passes his junior year.

"It sounds like a cliche, but this really is a family," Elliott said. "Every time I come back here, from the NFL, from the Arena League, it feels like home. It feels comfortable. It feels right."

Locey said the streak has taken on a life of its own at Linfield.

"The neat thing is that you do have a sense of duty," Locey said. "You didn't want to be a player or coach on the team that was there when the streak ended."

This season's quarterback, Aaron Boehme, said his team wanted to put an individual stamp on the Wildcats' legacy. So far they have, surpassing expectations and going undefeated.

"Because we had those really good runs before my freshman year ... we tried to get away from that," Boehme said. "Not get away from the tradition, but to focus on ourselves and not rest on those laurels."