Football - UMD History
"Duluth State Teachers College had its first team in 1930, and 28 players responded to Coach Kovach's call..."
So records the 1930-31 yearbook, The Chronicle, depicting the origins of Bulldog football when the University of Minnesota Duluth wasn’t the University of Minnesota Duluth at all, but rather the Duluth State Teachers College (DSTC). “Coach Kovach,” a.k.a. Frank Kovach, an industrial arts specialist organized and coached the first team that would later evolve into one of the most successful college programs in the land. Appropriately enough, Kovach directed his troops to a winless season as the Bulldogs debuted in 1930 with two ties — a scoreless deadlock against Itasca Junior College, and a 6-6 verdict versus Duluth Junior College — and three losses in their only five outings.
Following Kovach’s baptismal year, he yielded the coaching gavel to
Lloyd Peterson in 1931, beginning an era that would continue through the 1957 season. Peterson’s (and DSTC’S) first victory ever came in the second tilt of the season against Winona State Teacher’s College, a 7-0 whitwash.
In 1932, the Bulldogs were jammed in a four-way tie for first place in the Northern Intercollegiate Conference, their initial taste of championship football, and in 1934 DSTC captured its first outright title. The latter part of the 1930s was one of the more fruitful periods in Bulldog history. From 1934 to 1939, DSTC constructed a 31-7-2 record with championships again in 1937 and 1938.
The pre-World War II days found the Bulldogs’ football program struggling and 1941 produced the worst campaign in the school’s history to that point with a 1-6 record. When world peace was restored, however, the Bulldogs made a quick comeback as they tied for the NIC crown in 1946 and again in 1948.
The Bulldogs played an independent schedule in 1949 and traded in their green and gold colors in 1950 to become the Maroon & Gold of the University of Minnesota Duluth.
The newly-named UMD the aligned with the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) in 1950. The 1951 season boiled down to a showdown between the Bulldogs and Gustavus Adolphus, and, in 17-degree wintry weather, the Gusties stopped the Bulldogs’ drive to bring home their first MIAC championship. The following season was the most disastrous year UMD has ever experienced as it suffered through an 0-7-1 record.
The mid-1950s were a period for slowly refueling the program with respectability. In 1957 Peterson stepped down after 24 years of skilling shepherding the Bulldogs. His replacement was a Crosby-Ironton native who had worked wonders at Morris and Morningside (Edina) High Schools — Jim Malosky — and within three years, the Bulldogs had earned a MIAC crown.
UMD successfully defended its title in 1961, but the program slumped again in the mid-1960s with three successive sub-.500 seasons. The Bulldogs were nosed out for the crown in 1967, despited cobbling together a nifty 7-1-1 record, but again fell below the .500 mark in 1968 and 1969.
After nearly a 30-year absence, UMD rejoined the Northern (Sun) Intercollegiate Conference in 1976. Over the next 28 years, the Bulldogs would suffer just one losing season in conference play while amassing a 196-95-5 record en route to capturing nine NSIC championships. The first of those crowns came in 1979 when UMD won its final five league matchups of the year (including a convincing 34-8 home win over Minnesota State University-Moorhead) to claim a share of the NSIC title with MSU-Moorhead. The following year, the Bulldogs did what no UMD outfif had ever done before — finished a season unbeaten and untied — as it posted a perfect 10-0-0 overall record while leading all NCAA II teams in both scoring offense (35.4 points per game) and scoring defense (7.6 ppg). By October 1981, UMD had strung together a 20-game winning streak, which at the time was the longest in all of college football. Then, on Halloween of that year, MSU-Moorhead knocked the Bulldogs from the ranks of the unbeatens, stunning the overflow record-crowd of 5,862 at Griggs Field with a 29-0 victory. UMD went on to finish the season sporting a 9-1-0 mark in all games and placed second to (who else?) MSU-Moorhead in the league standings.
The Bulldogs returned to the top of the NSIC heap in 1985 by reeling off seven straight wins to end the year, and also laid claim to conference crowns in 1990, 1995 and 1996.
The 1997 season marked the end of a truly golden era for Bulldog football. Due to health concerns, the legendary Jim Malosky was forced to retire following a memorable 40-year coaching run at UMD. The winningest coach in NCAA Division II football history at the time, Malosky just seemed to get better with age as his troops finished below the .500 mark on only two occasions during his final 28 seasons.
Upon Malosky’s departure, UMD floundered somewhat until the dawn of a new century. Bob Nielson’s arrival as head coach in 1999 signaled a resurgence and, in 2001, Nielson and the Bulldogs posted a 9-3-0 overall mark, the most victories in a season for UMD since 1990. The Bulldogs, who fell just short of an NSIC crown for the second straight season, made the school’s first-ever postseason appearance by taking part in the 37th Mineral Water Bowl in Excelsior Springs, Mo., against Central Missouri State University.
One season later, in 2002, the Bulldogs enjoyed one of their most productive seasons in team history to that point, going a perfect 11-0 during the regular season (including a 9-0 mark in NSIC play when it averaged a league-record 47.9 points per outing) and earning their inaugural berth in the NCAA II playoffs. UMD, which set or equalled 59 team and individual records during the course of the year and were NSIC champs for the first time in a half dozen years, suffered a 45-41 last-second road setback to Northwest Missouri State University in its NCAA playoff debut.
UMD continued its victorious ways in 2003, posting an 8-3 overall mark. A Nov. 15 game against Winona State was to be the Bulldogs’ temporary farewell to the NSIC following 42 years of affiliation split by 26 seasons in the MIAC. After five years on the Bulldog sidelines, Nielson traded in his headset on December 1, 2003 to take over as UMD’s Director of Athletics. One of Nielson’s first major moves was to hire his successor. Looking west, he found his man in Kyle “Bubba” Schweigert, who had paid his dues the previous 15 years as highly-regarded assistant coach at the University of North Dakota. Schweigert piloted the Bulldogs through their inaugural go-around of North Central Conference activity five years ago, but it didn’t take long for his troops to settle into their new digs. UMD used a relentless and a record-breaking air attack to tie for the 2005 NCC crown and qualify for NCAA II postseason play for the second time in four years. Schweigert stepped down as head coach after the 2007 season (the final year of competition for the historic NCC) and his replacement was also his predecessor, Bob Nielson. In his first year back at the controls, Nielson proceeded to marshal the Bulldogs through a season for the ages, claiming the school’s first NCAA II title in any sport and going a perfect 15-0. UMD, which amassed a 10-0 record in NSIC play -- a league first , capped off the 2008 season with a 21-14 triumph over Northwest Missouri State in the NCAA II championship in Florence, Ala. Two weeks earlier, the Bulldogs posted what is arguably the most momentuous victory in UMD athletic history by derailing perennial NCAA II powerhouse Grand Valley State University 19-13 in overtime. That win came on the road over a team which had, at the time, gone 51-1 and won two NCAA II championships during the past four years. Although it wasn’t able to successfully defend their national title the following fall, UMD still managed to advance to the quarterfinal round of the NCAA II playoffs and walk off with its second straight outright NSIC crown.
But it didn’t take long for the Bulldogs to regain their national championship touch. In 2010, just 24 months removed from capturing the school’s first NCAA II crown in any sport, UMD cobbled together another remarkable 15-0 run. Despite being without the services of four key members of its opening day starting cast on offense -- including three-time All-American running back Isaac Odim, who suffered a season-ending knee injury six weeks in), UMD stll managed to walk out of Florence with another national title trophy in tow, thanks in part to a defense which allowed just 12.7 points per outing during the year -- a figure unmatched by any club in the nation. What’s more, UMD became the first team in NCAA II history to finish 15-0 in more than one season and just the eighth school to have been crowned champion more than once. Although the Bulldogs were unable to retain the NCAA II championship belt in 2011, they did manage to capture a share of their school-record fourth NSIC title in a row and rolled up 31 consecutive conference victories (four shy of the league record) before succumbing on the road to Wayne State College (Neb.) in week three of the season. UMD also secured its fourth NCAA II playoff berth in as many years and, and, in the second round, toppled No. 1-ranked and undefeated Colorado State University-Pueblo 24-21 on the road before falling 31-25 to visiting Wayne State University(Mich.) in the quarterfinals the ensuing week.
UMD has harvested several outstanding players throughout its rich 79-year history including halfbacks Ted McKnight (the 1976 NCAA II rushing leader), Dick Pesonen and Lou Barle, end Tom Adams, offensive tackle Vern Emerson, and defensive tackle Dave Viaene-- all of whom did time in the National Football League. Another Bulldog product, the late Dan Devine, gained national recognition as a respected collegiate and professional coach. Devine, who captained and quarterbacked UMD in 1947, went on to enjoy prosperous head coaching stays at the University of Missouri, the University of Notre Dame (where he won a national championship) and the Green Bay Packers. Most recently, UMD outside linebacker Russ Rabe, UMD’s all-time quarterback sack leader, joined the program’s legends by signing a free agent contract with the New Orleans Saints in April 2005 before going on to strut his stuff for the NFL Europe’s Hamburg Sea Devils the next summer. In addition, quarterback Ted Schlafke distinquished himself following a brilliant four-year playing career in 2008 by becoming the first Bulldog to land a spot on the American Football Coaches Association All-American team as well as the first to be a Harlon Hill Award (most outstanding player in NCAA II football) quarterfinalist. Odim repeated that Harlon Hill feat one year later while landing on a program-high five different All-American teams. The school’s only three-time football All-American (2008-10), Odim exited UMD owning no less than 17 team single-game, single-season and career records and, in the summer of 2011, strutted his stuff with the San Diego Chargers of the NFL during the preseason as a free agent.