Davidson football comfortable in its Pioneer home
by Staff Writer
DAVIDSON – Football at Davidson College is on the upswing.
Not too long ago, it was teetering on becoming an afterthought.
The Wildcats in the past decade have become a solid member of the Pioneer Football League, a conference of small, private, liberal arts schools across the country. It is the nation’s only non-scholarship, football-only NCAA Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) conference.
They don’t fill 80,000-seat stadiums, but that’s not the goal.
“We have young men playing for the love of the game,” Tripp Merritt, who is beginning his eighth season as Davidson’s head coach, said. “The growth of play and the players have gone up across the board. Not only us, but the whole league.”
The Pioneer League’s 10 members stretch from the University of San Diego to Marist College (in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.), with other eastern and midwestern schools sprinkled in.
In the late 1990s Davidson didn’t have a conference, and the schedule included NCAA Division III opponents. Merritt was there as an assistant from 1993-99. He credited former Davidson coach Dave Fagg for keeping the football program afloat in the early 1990s.
“If he hadn’t come back to coach (1990-92), I’m not sure what would have happened to Davidson football,” Merritt said. There were good seasons and not-so-good seasons for a few years afterward.
The Wildcats won eight games for the first time in 1998, did it again in 1999 and went 10-0 in 2000.
“Ultimately, that jump-started the alumni base,” Merritt said. “They said ‘Let’s take this to the next level.’”
Davidson joined the quirky Pioneer League in 2001, and brought back Merritt, a Shelby, N.C. native, to coach in 2005.
While the Pioneer League isn’t bulging with NFL prospects, Merritt said that five or six Pioneer graduates will land in NFL camps this summer.
“I enjoy the purity of the game, but also the academic component of the league,” Merritt said. “The true student-athlete is given a chance to make his mark.”
Merritt said he’s “99 percent sure” that the conference will be awarded an automatic qualification to the NCAA’s FCS playoff system when it expands from 20 to 24 teams in the next couple of years. That could mean a playoff game against perhaps Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina or Georgia Southern.
For now, Merritt is concerned with the upcoming season. Last year, the Wildcats won two of the first three games. Injuries to key players sidetracked things (resulting in a six-game losing streak). But Davidson rallied to win its final two games.
Merritt’s new “Air Raid” offense rolled up healthy statistics and created exciting offensive plays. Quarterback Jonathan Carkhuff (3,326 passing yards and 18 touchdowns) returns for his junior season, which should make the Wildcats potent.
Merritt said he has a “good nucleus” on defense, but must replace some departed starters. He’s looking for improvement on special teams and said the 31 incoming freshman are the best new group he’s had.
The Wildcats play at Richardson Stadium (capacity 4,500) on campus, far from the national spotlight. Seating isn’t cramped, and a family atmosphere permeates the stadium.
That’s fine with Merritt, who sees it as a positive.
“It is a very intimate, personal setting,” he said. “In the heat of battle, I can look over and see my daughter playing in the grass and running around with another kid. That doesn’t happen at too many places. That’s really something.”