How North Central College became the dominant team in Division III

For more than a decade, the most successful college program in the country has been Alabama.

Since 2011, the Crimson Tide have won five national championships and posted an overall record of 163-17.

It make shock some to hear this, but there is actually a school in Illinois that has almost reached that level of dominance.

It’s true — just not at the Division I level.

That school is Division III North Central College, which will attempt to defend its national title Friday against Cortland State University (New York) in Salem, Virginia. The Stagg Bowl starts at 6 p.m. and can be seen on ESPNU.

Not only have the Cardinals won 29 straight games, but they have done so in mostly dominating fashion. Last season, they outscored opponents 409-6 during one seven-game stretch. This season, they’ve won by scores of 75-3, 49-3, 56-0, 83-26, 61-17, 65-0 and 71-28.

This is the third straight title-game appearance for the Cardinals, who are 87-7 since 2016.

Asked what it would mean to repeat, second-year head coach Brad Spencer said: “Everything. Once you get there, it gets harder every single time. I was told that by someone who has been there many, many times — and he was right. ...

“The challenges never stop. You never arrive. You’re always being chased, so you’ve always got to keep improving and finding new ways to do things.”

Much of North Central’s success seems to come from continuity. First off, not many kids transfer. So that builds a brotherhood and family-like atmosphere that goes a long way.

“I loved how right when I got here, everyone welcomed me with open arms,” said WR DeAngelo Hardy, a graduate of Lakes High School. “Everyone knew my name.”

Coaches are often alumni, as well. After playing WR for the Cardinals, Spencer joined the staff in 2004 and was promoted to assistant head coach and offensive coordinator in 2015. He was tabbed head coach in 2022.

Just like Hardy, running backs coach Ethan Greenfield is a Lakes HS graduate and was the starting tailback on last year’s team.

“It’s not something that just happened randomly,” Greenfield said. “This championship culture has been in the works since John Thorn started taking over back in the 2000s. ...

“In the last few years, we’ve been able to drink from the well that was built from past players and coaches. The drive and work ethic is from all the generations who have been Cardinals before.”

RB Joe Sacco is Exhibit A in that regard. Sacco, a graduate of St. Edward High School in Elgin, racked up 1,661 yards on 172 attempts for a mind-boggling average of 9.7 yards per carry. He scored 19 of the Cardinals’ 63 TDs on the ground.

Sacco said North Central was “always on his radar” and when the school won the 2019 title, his mind was all but made up.

Teammates raved about Sacco’s leadership skills, something he developed from watching how his dad coached youth teams.

“I’m an only child,” Sacco said. “I kind of always had to follow in my mom and dad’s footsteps. It was also probably just growing up I’ve always kind of been the more gifted kid on the team. So I was able to fill that roll in high school, Pee Wee and all throughout my life.”

Although not very talkative, Sacco makes sure teammates see him doing homework and getting good grades. He said he’ll take an extra lap at practice as well, and is always fighting for the extra yard during games.

“I love Joe.,” said defensive back Julian Bell, who hails from Oswego. “He’s taken the younger guy under his wing, even though he’s only a junior. ... He watches extra film with guys, makes guys feel comfortable in the dorm or in the dining halls.

“I could go on and on. I’m so proud of him — not only as a football player but more as a man.”

North Central’s other offensive stars include QB Luke Lehnen (3,228 passing yards, 735 rushing yards and 57 total touchdowns), and WRs Hardy (70 catches, 1,207 yards, 19 TDs) and Joey Lombardi (36-938-11).

No matter what happens Friday, it seems like North Central will continue dominating Midwest schools and competing for national titles on a yearly basis.

“The program pulls the best out of people,” Greenfield said. “If you come in and buy into the culture, you’re going to become the best version of yourself.

“You’re going to be better here than at most other places. The expectation is that you give your best with everything you do every day.”

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