Eastern’s 1997 Football Team to Be Inducted This Fall
Former Eagles to be honored on Oct. 6 on 15th anniversary of 12-2 finish and “Final Four” appearance in the FCS Playoffs
The 2010 team finished what the 1997 team started.
Eastern Washington University’s 1997 football team will be inducted into the Eastern Athletics Hall of Fame on Oct. 6, 2012, to help celebrate the team’s 12-2 finish and appearance in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision (formerly I-AA) “Final Four. The team will be honored at a breakfast and ceremony in conjunction with Eastern’s home football game that day versus North Dakota.
After winning the Big Sky Conference title, the ’97 squad advanced in the FCS Playoffs by defeating Northwestern State (40-10) and Western Kentucky (38-21), then fell to Youngstown State 25-14 in the semifinals. All three playoff games were played at Albi Stadium in Spokane, Wash., as the Eagles captivated Eastern fans and alums throughout the Northwest.
The Eagles also won the outright Big Sky Conference title, and remain the only Big Sky Conference team other than national powerhouse Montana to win an outright title from 1995-2011. Eastern finished 12-2, rivaling only the 1967 Eastern team (11-1 and runner-up in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics Playoffs) as the most successful in school history.
Fast forward 13 years and the Eagles went on the same sort of run in the 2010 season, winning their final 11 games en route to the 2010 NCAA Division I title. That Eagle team finished 13-2 and also hosted three home games, this time on the red Fieldturf surface at Roos Field (formerly Woodward Field) in Cheney Wash.
“What made this team great were its dedication to itself, its dedication to success, and its dedication to creating a legacy,” said the ’97 team’s head coach Mike Kramer, who is now head coach at Idaho State. “We were ably led, possessed experienced talent and leaned on each other for big plays and big moments.”
Members of the ’97 team were riveted in 2010 during EWU’s march to the national title, turning the opportunity into a reunion. A large group of players from the ’97 team even made the trip to Frisco, Texas, for the championship game, won by the Eagles 20-19 over Delaware with three touchdowns in the final 16:48.
“It’s very apparent that the 1997 team was just that – a great team,” said Eastern athletic director Bill Chaves. “They have continued to stay connected and close to our football program, and it’s no coincidence that we’ve been very successful ever since. We are thrilled that we can honor a team that has done so much to contribute to the continued legacy we have here at Eastern.”
Both Eastern and Delaware lost in the semifinals in 1997, and Youngstown State – coached by Jim Tressel – beat McNeese State 10-9 in the championship game that season. Helping keep the Eagles from the title game was a controversial fumble by EWU and subsequent 73-yard return for a touchdown by Youngstown State, a play which turned the tide in the third quarter with EWU behind just 7-0.
“It’s ironic that our 2010 national championship was aided by a fumble we recovered on the final play of the game that was upheld by video review,” added Chaves of EWU’s 38-31 overtime victory against North Dakota State. “But if review had existed in 1997, from what I understand, that fumble may have been overturned. And who knows what that team might have accomplished after that.”
The 1997 team may not have had the opportunity to advance to the title game (then held in Chattanooga, Tenn.), but the Eagle Football success they started is indisputable.
The groundwork was established in 1996 when the Eagles were 6-5 after a 3-8 finish the previous year. In the past 16 years (1996-2011), the Eagles have won 61 percent (116-73) of their games overall and 63 percent (78-45) in Big Sky Conference play. Included are four Big Sky titles and four runner-up finishes, as well as 14 winning seasons, six NCAA Championship Subdivision Playoff berths and the 2010 FCS title.
Eastern has also won two FCS total offense championships (1997, 2001), as well as one passing offense title (2011) and one for scoring offense (2001). The 1997 team, featuring a pair of 1,000-yard rushers and a 3,000-yard quarterback, averaged 481.1 yards of offense per game and had 6,735 yards total to set a school record which still stands.
The 1997 team had an incredible 14 players who at one time in their careers would win All-America honors for the Eagles, plus two others who redshirted that season. All 16 of those players would go on to be selected to EWU’s “100-for-100” All-Time team in 2008, commemorating the first 100 years of football at Eastern.
Two of the 1997 All-Americans were quarterback Harry Leons and defensive tackle Chris Scott, who won Big Sky Conference Player of the Year honors on their respective sides of the ball.
Other first team All-Big Sky Conference selections included offensive tackle Jim Buzzard, wide receiver Jeff Ogden, free safety Maurice Perigo, center Kevin Peterson, running back Rex Prescott and linebacker Derek Strey. In addition, defensive end Steve Mattson won first team All-Big Sky honors and joined Ogden as a first team Academic All-American.
Interestingly, all nine of those mentioned players were seniors in 1997. Kramer, who would leave Eastern after the 1999 season for Montana State, was the Big Sky Conference Coach of the Year. A backup center on that team was Aaron Best, who is EWU’s current offensive coordinator and offensive line coach. The 2011 season was his 15th as either a player (1996-99) or coach (2000-2006, 2008-11). His offensive line coach was Paul Wulff, who would become EWU’s head coach for eight seasons (2000-2007) and at Washington State for four more (2008-11).
The stories of Leons and Ogden – both originally walk-ons – were particularly extraordinary.
Leons had a school-record five interceptions in his starting debut against Idaho State on Oct. 7, 1995, versus Idaho State. But he eventually set school records for single season (169.5 in 1997) and career (140.8) passing efficiency rating. He passed for 3,189 yards and 24 touchdowns in 1997, and had 4,964 yards and 36 TDs in his career after his inauspicious beginning.
Ogden was born with foot problems that led doctors to believe he might forever walk with a limp, but he eventually became a top-ranked youth gymnast. In high school, he bounced from receiver to running back to quarterback, as well as defense, while battling a back injury. After one year as a junior college pole vaulter, he came to Eastern after his brother and former Eagle football player Pat Ogden (1986-89) convinced the coaching staff to allow him to walk on. After his All-America season at Eastern, he was an undrafted free agent but went on to play five seasons in the NFL for the Dallas Cowboys, Miami Dolphins and Baltimore Ravens, particularly as a kickoff and punt returner.
The hard work and development of Leons, Ogden and others on the 1997 team were what led to incredible success in 1997 for the Eagles. It’s a legacy that has continued ever since.
EASTERN ATHLETICS “100 FOR 100” ALL-TIME TEAM
To commemorate the 100th year of football at Eastern Washington University, the athletic department named 100 of the top players in school history to the “100 for 100” All-Time Football Team. Players on the squad were honored on Eastern Athletics Hall of Fame Day on Sept. 27, 2008, in conjunction with EWU’s Big Sky Conference football game with Idaho State. Here are the members of that team who played for the Eagles in 1997, plus two who redshirted that season:
Name - Hometown (Previous Schools) - Years Lettered at
T.J. Ackerman – Nooksack, Wash. (Nooksack Valley HS ’94) – 1995-96-97-98
Jeff Allen – Spokane, Wash. (Central Valley HS ’96) – 1997-98-99-00
Greg Belzer – Chewelah, Wash. (Jenkins HS ’96) – 1997-98-99-00
%Lamont Brightful – Everett, Wash. (Mariner HS ’97) – 1998-99-00-01
Jim Buzzard – Centralia, Wash. (Centralia HS ’93) – 1995-96-97
Luke Fritz – Osoyoos, B.C. (Oroville ’96) – 1997-98-99-00
Lance Knaevelsrud – Bellevue, Wash. (Sammamish HS ’95) – 1996-97-98-99
Harry Leons – Olympia, Wash. (Olympia HS ’93) – 1995-96-97
&Jeff Ogden – Snohomish, Wash. (Snohomish HS ‘93) – 1995-96-97
Maurice Perigo – Oak Harbor, Wash. (O. Harbor HS ’94) – 1994-95-96-97
Kevin Peterson – Port Orchard, Wash. (South Kitsap HS ‘93) – 1994-95-96-97
%Chris Polinder – Lynden, Wash. (Lynden HS ’97) – 1998-99-00-01
Rex Prescott – Seattle, Wash. (Kennedy HS ’93) – 1994-95-96-97
Dario Romero – Spokane, Wash. (Lewis & Clark HS ’96) – 1997-98-99-00
&Chris Scott – Wenatchee, Wash. (Wenatchee HS ‘93) – 1994-95-96-97
Derek Strey – Port Orchard, Wash. (South Kitsap HS ‘93) – 1993-95-96-97
&Winner of position award in fan voting.
%Redshirts in ’97.