To appreciate where Davidson’s football team finds itself today — about to play its first postseason game since 1969 after winning a conference championship — it’s important to understand where the team has been.
Simply put, Davidson football has been an afterthought for years.
I’d say “joke,” but “joke” isn’t really the right word. There hasn’t been much funny about it. The Wildcats were just bad, year after year, decade after decade. Forgettably, unremarkably bad.
From 2013-17, for instance, these were Davidson’s year-by-year records in the Pioneer Football League: 0-8, 0-8, 1-7, 0-8 and 0-8.
On campus, where the Davidson men’s basketball team led by Bob McKillop and once starring Steph Curry has cast such a long and successful shadow, the football team wasn’t made fun of that much by students. It was just ignored.
Quarterback Tyler Phelps, now a senior, remembers his time as a freshman in 2017 and what the bleachers looked like.
“We’ve had a pretty good amount of students in the stands watching our home games this year, even with the COVID-19 limits,” Phelps said. “In my freshman year, honestly, you would have been hard-pressed to find five students in there.”
In a strange, COVID-centric sports year, though, here’s another oddity: Davidson football is winning big, in a shortened 2021 spring football season.
In 123 years of Davidson football, this will be only the second time Davidson is playing football after the regular season ends. The Wildcats (4-2 overall, 4-1 in the PFL) have won the PFL conference championship for the first time ever and are about to play in the postseason for the first time since they lost to Toledo in the 1969 Tangerine Bowl.
“There’s excitement,” junior linebacker Jalen Jefferson said. “There’s buzz. There are actually people wanting to talk about Davidson football.”
On Sunday, Davidson will be announced as one of 16 teams earning a spot in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs. The Wildcats will almost certainly be the only non-scholarship football program among the 16 and will have to go on the road to play an FCS powerhouse in the first round, but they’re OK with all that. They’re still in.
“We’re talking about some uncharted territory here,” Davidson football coach Scott Abell said.
No scholarships, unfamiliar conference
Davidson’s football team not only doesn’t have a long winning tradition, but it’s also an oddity on its own campus. Almost all of Davidson’s athletic teams compete in the Atlantic 10, but the A-10 doesn’t sponsor a conference championship for football since many of its schools don’t play the sport. Those that do are left to their own devices, so Davidson is a member of the Pioneer Football League.
Given that it’s in a conference unfamiliar to most and also doesn’t give scholarships, unlike almost every other sport on campus, the Davidson football program has had a tough time finding its niche.
Abell and his staff were hired in 2018, after previous coach Paul Nichols didn’t get his contract renewed. Nichols’ teams at Davidson went 7-49 overall, and 1-39 in the PFL, in a difficult five-year span.
“When we got here, just listening to our players, I think they felt a little bit of being kind of the red-headed stepchild,” Abell said.
The coach added that he thought Davidson’s administration had shown its support for the program for years, wanting the program to be better, but hadn’t seen the results.
They’ve gotten them over the past three years, though, as Abell has installed a spread-option attack that has a heavy emphasis on running the ball and making last-second decisions at the line of scrimmage based on the defensive alignment.
“I have to make some sort of decision every single play,” said Phelps, Davidson’s starting quarterback for almost all of the past four years. “So that’s taken some getting used to.”
The offense has been a great fit for a team that combines intellectual and athletic prowess, and Davidson has led all FCS schools in rushing offense for much of Abell’s tenure. In an ideal game, Abell said, his quarterback throws the ball about 15 times.
“We’re such a strong academic school,” said Abell, who added his staff’s primary competition for players usually comes from Ivy League schools like Dartmouth, Yale and Cornell. “In theory, if you take every high school football player in the country, we can recruit maybe 3% of them academically. ... So some years you are going to land guys that are really good and could run a lot of different offenses. ... Some years maybe you can’t. But collectively, each and every year, we can be really good at this offense in our recruiting world.”
A liberal arts school with approximately 1,900 enrolled undergraduates, Davidson does provide need-based financial aid to students and athletes. So football players usually aren’t paying the “cost of attendance” sticker price of approximately $70,000 a year. Still, it’s understandably a difficult choice for many.
“It was definitely a conversation I had to have with my parents,” Phelps said. “But I thought a degree from a place like Davidson — that was really the seller for me.”
The quarterback will graduate with a history degree in May and said he already has a job lined up in investment banking with Bank of America.
Similarity with Davidson baseball
Davidson’s run to the FCS playoffs reminds me of the Davidson baseball team’s stunning push through the NCAA baseball tournament in 2017, when the Wildcats took out No. 2 national seed North Carolina and advanced to the final 16 of the Division I-A baseball tournament before losing.
The football team isn’t playing anybody quite like UNC. But it did have a huge win over San Diego in April, dethroning the perennial PFL champion, 31-25. San Diego had won 39 straight conference games until that one.
“That was the biggest win in the history of our program,” Abell said.
Davidson was supposed to need to win one final game over Stetson on Saturday at home to clinch the PFL, but Stetson had to cancel the game due to COVID-related issues. That meant Davidson was declared the PFL’s winner off the field Thursday night, because the Wildcats owned the head-to-head tiebreaker over San Diego.
Now it’s time for the FCS playoffs. Realistically, Davidson probably won’t win its first game. It’s hard to overcome the difference between a team with 63 guys on athletic scholarships and zero guys on athletic scholarships.
But still, even if the road ends in the FCS first round, what a journey 2021 has already been for Davidson football — from afterthought to champion.