By Zach Helfand, Daily Sports Editor
Published October 11, 2012
SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — The man with the name you would only find at Slippery Rock University has told the story so many times that it has its own rhythm. Al Colledge — the former Slippery Rock star running back from the class of 1962, the former steel worker, the progenitor of three generations of Slippery Rock kids and grandkids — tells it like this:
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“I was in Narita Airport in Tokyo sitting on a plane, big 747, you know? Sitting up there in first class, Slippery Rock shirt on, and I was sitting there reading a book. And they weren’t taking off, they weren’t taking off. And everyone was saying, ‘Hey what’s going on? What’s going on.’ Everyone’s getting edgy. It’s a long flight back to the States from Tokyo, you know?
“All of a sudden I feel this hand on my shoulder. And I started to turn around and I hear, ‘Slippery Rock! You guys play some pretty tough football down there, don’t you?’
“I looked up and I said, ‘Yes we do, Mr. President.’
“It was Richard Nixon.”
About four hours east on Interstate 80 and a world away from Ann Arbor, down an old country road past farms and rolling hills and through a town with old-fashioned gas lamps, sits that school with a funny name: Slippery Rock.
It was an afterthought the first time it happened in 1959, but it has become a Michigan Stadium tradition. Each game, the public address announcer reveals the score of the Slippery Rock game as he announces scores from around the country. And most times, it draws the biggest reaction of all.
Slippery Rock and Michigan share time and space briefly at Michigan Stadium every week, but they share almost nothing else. Slippery Rock has none of the frills, none of the profits, none of the scandal of modern college football.
It’s as if someone picked up Slippery Rock from the Ivy League, dropped it in western Pennsylvania and forgot about it for a century. The Rock has played in the Rose Bowl, where down the road, Southern California is just now recovering from a round of NCAA sanctions over impermissible player benefits. It has played in what was then Pro Player Stadium in Miami, where a billionaire booster claims he gave Miami players money for things such as yacht parties and prostitutes and abortions. And, of course, Slippery Rock has played in Michigan Stadium, where the salary of either coordinator dwarfs the sum allotted for scholarships at The Rock.
If all goes as planned for Slippery Rock, it will play again at Michigan Stadium as early as next year, though nothing yet has been finalized. The finished product on the field will probably surprise many Michigan fans. Brandon Fusco, for example, graduated from Slippery Rock two years ago and now starts at guard for the Minnesota Vikings.
But the way Slippery Rock arrives at that finished product couldn’t differ more from the larger Division-I schools. Before the game in Miami, before his Florida Atlantic team played Slippery Rock, former Miami coach Howard Schnellenberger said of The Rock, “I experienced the very essence of college sports: seeing people who have no good reason to get together, who have no excuse to be so excited except for the thrill of their alma mater and love for the game of football.”
The coach here has a doctorate. Slippery Rock is like that.
Dr. George Mihalik has a Doctorate of Education and has remained a full-time professor for all 26 years he’s been the head coach.
One hour before a game against Kutzdown one recent late September day, he chatted and joked with two reporters visiting from Michigan about the power of the Slippery Rock name.
Legend has it that the borough of Slippery Rock got its name from a group of colonial soldiers who were being pursued by Seneca Native Americans. The soldiers came upon a creek and were able to cross because they wore heavy boots. The Native Americans, wearing moccasins, slipped on the rocks in the creek bed. They called the place Wechachochapohka — literally a ‘slippery rock.’
The power of that name has taken Slippery Rock around the nation. Most recently, Michigan Athletic Director Dave Brandon invited Mihalik and other Slippery Rock ambassadors to Michigan Stadium to be recognized during a game. Mihalik posed for pictures, was invited to parties and hounded for autographs.
“We walked up through the student section,” Mihalik said.