From worst to champs: Upper Peninsula Sports Hall of Famer Jack Hirn recalls Northern Michigan University’s magical ‘75 football season

Northern Michigan University quarterback Steve Mariucci, right, looks to pass as his line of Roy Brown, 66, Ken Rusielewicz, 63, and Randy Awrey, 35, block during an NCAA DIvision II quarterfinal playoff game on Nov. 29, 1975, at Boise State in Boise, Idaho. The Wildcats won that game 24-21 and played for the national championship about two weeks later on Dec. 13, 1975, in Sacramento, Calif., during the Camellia Bowl. NMU also won that contest 16-14 over Western Kentucky. (Photo courtesy of NMU Archives)

“Simply put, (Coach Carl “Buck“ Nystrom) made it his mission for us to own the final quarter of the game.” — Jack Hirn

, player, 1975 national championship NMU football team


ESCANABA — Going from worst to first in any sport at any level doesn’t happen very often. It requires a lot of hard work, dedication, timing, and sometimes, a little bit of luck.

The 1975 Northern Michigan University football team didn’t have a collection of all-star players when it did the unthinkable and went from 0-10 in ’74 to bouncing back and winning the NCAA Division II national championship the following year.

Sure, the Wildcats had talent. But a team that had just went 0-10 the previous season wasn’t exactly going to walk out on the field and run teams over. The Wildcats weren’t as bad as their record indicated in ’74, they just simply didn’t know how to win, letting numerous games slip away.

From left, Northern Michigan University football players Randy Awrey, Jack Hirn and Steve Mariucci receive their equipment prior to training camp for the 1975 season. Hirn is a native of Escanaba while Awrey and Mariucci both grew up in Iron Mountain. (Photo courtesy Jack Hirn)

The addition of assistant coach Carl “Buck” Nystrom and his “fourth quarter” program made all the difference in the world for the ’75 season, according to Jack Hirn, who was a member of that team.

Nystrom is a 1975 inductee into the Upper Peninsula Sports Hall of Fame.

“Simply put, (Coach Nystrom) made it his mission for us to own the final quarter of the game,” Hirn said. “We would raise four fingers at the start of the fourth quarter, which represented discipline, conditioning, motivation and effort.

“We trained and conditioned past the normal time of a game to create endurance in us. It drew out the toughness of many of the stronger guys, but also exposed those that didn’t have it in them.

“Many were shown the door and had scholarships revoked. The players that endured this brutal spring training session would become the essential nucleus of the championship team.”

Steve Mariucci points out something while on the sideline of the Northern Michigan University football team at the Superior Dome in Marquette during a September 2011 game. (Journal file photo)

That championship team did something no other team has done in the history of NCAA sports — follow a winless season with a national title.

Led by second-year coach Gil Krueger, the Wildcats started the season 5-0.

Arguably their biggest win in that stretch was a 17-16 road win over Central Michigan University. The Chippewas had just pounded the Wildcats 20-0 the season before and were defending national champs. Back then, small college and university were the only two divisions, making competition extra tough.

Feeling good after their win over CMU and 5-0 start, the Wildcats were brought back to earth in a 30-13 home loss to Akron three weeks later.

“The bitter taste of that loss made us more focused on each practice, taking it one game at a time,” Hirn acknowledged.

At a team reunion in Marquette in July 2005, then-Detroit Lions head football coach Steve Mariucci, left, jokes with his friend, Michigan State University head basketball coach Tom Izzo, who is dressed as Northern Michigan University mascot Wildcat Willy. Mariucci set several NMU records as quarterback of the team. Izzo was known as the mascot for the 1975 Wildcat football team, but also played basketball at NMU. Both men are originally from Iron Mountain. (Journal file photo)

The Wildcats then went back to the drawing board, ending each practice with fourth quarter drills for the rest of the season. It paid dividends, as they finished the regular season with five straight victories to make the playoffs as the No. 8 seed.

Entering the playoffs, however, the Wildcats faced adversity due to the NCAA rule book. Transfer rules made four of their defensive starters ineligible, forcing four true freshmen with little experience into action.

Offensively, NMU was led by sophomore quarterback Steve Mariucci, who started in place of a pair of senior quarterbacks who were victimized by injury throughout the season. Of course, Mariucci went on to become an NFL head coach and NFL Network analyst.

The Wildcats began the playoffs by visiting top-ranked Boise State, a current NCAA Division I FBS team. NMU won that game on an icy field with defense, forcing the Broncos into six turnovers for a hard-fought 24-21 win.

NMU’s next playoff game against Livingston University (Ala.) wasn’t any easier. Livingston boasted a no-huddle offense, rotating quarterbacks in on every play. By the end of the game, they had run 80 offensive plays before the Wildcats forced a crucial turnover at the end to come away with a 28-26 win and a berth in the national championship game against Western Kentucky.

Then-Detroit Lions head coach Steve Mariucci talks to Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre after a Packers-Lions game played at Lambeau Field during Mariucci's tenure in Detroit from 2002-06. (Escanaba Daily Press photo by Dennis Grall)

“Those days of autumn 1975 were strange times,” Hirn said. “An actor ran for president, another survived an assassination attempt, an heiress was kidnapped, and locally, in nearby Lake Superior, the Edmund Fitzgerald sank with its crew of 29. Across the world, Vietnam celebrated the Year of the Cat and our Northern team hoped it would bring our own ‘Cats better luck.”

The Wildcats needed it against a Western Kentucky team led by its winningest coach in school history, Jimmy Feix. The Hilltoppers had bigger, stronger and faster players. NMU’s limited defense and inexperienced quarterback had its work cut out for it in the title game, the Camellia Bowl, played in Sacramento, California, on a windy Dec. 13.

The first half was a back-and-forth struggle, with the Hilltoppers leading 14-10 at halftime after NMU scored a late second-quarter touchdown.

In the second half, sophomore running back Randy Awrey broke a couple tackles and busted forward for a go-ahead TD run to put NMU up 16-14 following the missed point-after attempt.

Then in the final quarter, the Wildcats’ fourth quarter training came through one last time on the biggest stage of all, as they held the Hilltoppers off the scoreboard.

WKU had one last chance at a last-second field goal, but the kick was missed as the Wildcats completed the remarkable 180-degree turnaround and earned their only football national title in school history. They finished 13-1.

“Individually, we were a bunch of misfits,” Hirn said. “We had great influence from our coaches, we had a common belief in our fourth quarter conditioning, and we had each other’s backs.”

A documentary in which Hirn executive produced about the Wildcats’ championship team, titled “Put Your Hand on the Line,” came out in 2018. The film is tentatively scheduled to be shown at 10 a.m. on Sept. 26 at Bay de Noc Community College in Escanaba.

“The 2018 documentary, ‘Put Your Hand on the Line’ says it best,” Hirn said. “We weren’t the biggest or the fastest or the strongest, but as a whole, we were.

“When you put us all together in a room, that was a heck of a room. The dedication, conditioning, effort and motivation we brought to the field in 1975 made it ‘The Year of the Cat.'”


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