MARYVILLE, Mo. — On a pleasant Thursday evening in 2002, more than 26,000 Northwest Missouri State and Pittsburg State fans entered Arrowhead Stadium for what they knew was going to be a celebration of NCAA Division II football at its finest.
Before the opening kickoff, the aroma of hot dogs, hamburgers and all the other delicious foods cooked at tailgates wafted over the parking lot.
One side of the parking was filled with people wearing green and white. The other side was red and yellow.
These two programs were accustomed to all the pomp and circumstance that comes with their games. After all, the Bearcats and Gorillas have played in national championship games and won them.
The atmosphere at the first Fall Classic at Arrowhead was special. The Chiefs organization quickly recognized it.
What was supposed to be a one-year deal turned into a yearly event that is the envy of most Division II programs.
“Our players are appreciative of the fact that not everybody gets this opportunity,” Northwest coach Adam Dorrel said. “We are grateful to the Hunt family and the Chiefs organization for allowing us to become part of a very special Saturday.”
Northwest wants to make Fall Classic at Arrowhead XII the best of them all. It might be the last one for a while or forever.
When the 2014 schedule first came out, Northwest and Pitt were not scheduled to face each other next season.
Last month, the MIAA altered its football schedule. Southwest Baptist and Lincoln are leaving in football, opening up for the 12 programs in football to face each other. It means Northwest and Pitt will play each other next season and beyond.
So far, both schools have said any talk about returning to Arrowhead won’t begin until after the season. The players are going into this game believing this will be the last one and they want to win it.
“Every spring we go over our goals for the fall,” Northwest senior defensive end Matt Meinert said. “That was one of the first things we said was win the last Fall Classic.”
No question, winning a MIAA Championship and then the NCAA Division national title means more. It is a lasting legacy.
At Northwest, the years the Bearcats win those titles, the numbers go up on the facing of the press box for all to see year after year.
Still, there is something unique about beating your rival at a NFL stadium. It sticks with these players for a lifetime.
Meinert said the players recognize how lucky they are to play in an NFL stadium.
“It is an opportunity not many in Division II get,” he said.
The main reason the game has such staying power is the strength of both programs. One or both make the Division II playoffs each season. On a couple occasions, the two teams faced each other in the playoffs and the winner went on to play in the national championship game.
This year is no different. Both teams are 6-0 and have the look of a team that could win it all.
“We have a big task ahead of us,” Dorrel said. “Pitt is the best football team we have played in all aspects, offense, defense and special teams. They are very well coached. We know we have a huge challenge ahead of us.
“The teams are just so evenly matched. It always has been that way. That’s what makes it a great game and a great atmosphere.”