College Football: Cobbers face another big game against St. John's
MOORHEAD—In 1964, Concordia earned a 20-0 home victory against football rival St. John's. In 1978, the Cobbers scored a 17-0 road victory against the Johnnies. In 1981, Concordia won 17-7 at St. John's.
Former Cobbers longtime head coach Jim Christopherson was a Concordia assistant coach in 1964, and the head coach for the latter two victories. For Christopherson, the Johnnies game was critical in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference and national landscape.
The common thread for all those aforementioned victories: Concordia went on to win the program's three national championships in those seasons.
"Whenever we won a championship, we probably had to beat St. John's," said Christopherson, who was Cobbers head coach from 1969-2000. "That was the standard."
In their 100th season of football, the No. 18-ranked Cobbers have another big showdown against the No. 7-ranked Johnnies at 1 p.m. Saturday at St. John's Clemens Stadium.
There's a local flavor to the matchup, as well. Concordia head coach Terry Horan is a Willmar alum and 15 former Tribune-area prep athletes are on the teams' rosters.
The teams are tied for second place in the MIAC with identical 6-1 conference records and both are 8-1 overall. The winner likely earns an at-large bid to the NCAA Division III playoffs, while the loser is done for the season.
"They are just fun games to play in and to coach in, too," said Horan, who played wide receiver for the Cobbers from 1985-88. "We're in control of getting into the playoffs in this very last game and that's a good position to be in."
St. John's has a 44-33-6 edge in a series that started in 1923. The visiting team has won the past four meetings. The Johnnies earned a 31-7 victory last season and a 24-16 win in 2015, both at Jake Christiansen Stadium. The Cobbers had a 23-14 victory in 2014 and a 24-14 win in 2013, both at Clemens Stadium. Concordia is the last home team to win in the series, earning a 31-21 victory in 2012 at Jake Christiansen.
"We always wanted to beat St. John's," said Dwight Hintermeister, a starting defensive lineman for Concordia on the 1978 and 1981 NAIA Division II national championship teams. "It always meant something and usually later in the year it seemed like we always met. ... It seemed to always be one of the hardest hitting games of the year."
The Cobbers won the program's lone outright national championship in 1978. One of the key victories was the 17-0 win at St. John's, which had won a national title two years earlier. Running back Bob Beliveau and fullback Ron Kangas rushed for touchdowns in that victory and the Cobber defense shut down a St. John's offense that was averaging 438 yards per game in conference play. The Johnnies gained less than 200 yards in that shutout loss.
"Our defense played really well that game," Hintermeister said. "We had probably one of the best defenses I've ever seen (that season). We had a lot of shutouts."
The Cobbers posted an 11-1 record in 1978 with six shutouts, defeating Findlay (Ohio) 7-0 in the national championship game.
"That was a powerful football team," Christopherson said.
Minnesota State Moorhead men's basketball coach Chad Walthall was the starting quarterback for the Cobbers in 1989 and 1990. The Cobbers tied the Johnnies 27-27 in 1989, after Walthall threw a 56-yard touchdown pass to Mark Lundstrom with nine seconds remaining at Jake Christiansen.
"The whole place went nuts," Walthall said. "That was a heck of a deal."
In 1990, the Cobbers earned a 30-28 victory against the Johnnies in the Metrodome. Walthall passed for 148 yards and two touchdowns in that game. Walthall said the Cobbers faced a fourth down in the final seconds of the fourth quarter. Instead of punting, Walthall took the snap and ran out the clock before sliding down near the St. John's sideline. He ended up near former St. John's coach legend John Gagliardi as time expired.
"My final memory was Gagliardi throwing his clipboard down on the sideline as we won," Walthall said. "You forget a lot of things about what happened here or there, but that is a memory that will stick."
Gagliardi ended his career as the winningest coach in college football history with a 489-138-11 record. He posted a 465-132-10 mark in 60 seasons at St. John's before retiring in 2012. Christopherson posted a 218-101-7 record in his 32 seasons with the Cobbers. Christopherson was preceded by Jake Christiansen, who posted a 143-68-10 mark in 28 seasons at Concordia.
"During my coaching tenure that was the big game because of their unbelievable record," Christopherson said of the Johnnies.
"When I played we knew the team that won that game was probably going to win the conference," added Horan, who has a 119-54 record as Cobbers head coach.
Walthall said having coaches like Gagliardi and Christopherson roam the sidelines during his playing days added to the rivalry's mystique.
"You talk about two of the all-time winningest coaches, there was a just a lot of respect, a lot of history and a lot of great names," Walthall said.
When Hintermeister played, he said St. John's and MSUM were the Concordia's two biggest rivals. That also held true around a decade later when Walthall was in the program.
The Johnnies have always been the Cobbers biggest conference rival, even if St. Thomas has filled that role for St. John's. But for many years, until St. Thomas emerged as a conference and national power over the past decade, it was the Cobbers-Johnnies game that had the biggest impact on the MIAC race.
"I know a lot of people talk about the Johnnies-Tommies rivalry, and it's a great rivalry, but back in those days it was always Concordia and St. John's," Walthall said. "It was a lot of respect, just a lot of respect for them."