Golden Scots: Oles of St. Olaf cause fits for Monmouth's Fighting Scots

By Barry McNamara
For The Register-Mail

In the past 100 years, only one full season of Monmouth College football has ended without a single blemish. The Fighting Scots were a perfect 9-0 in 1972, winning four blowouts before a series of five straight contested victories, capped by a triumph over arch-rival St. Olaf. That victory over the Oles gave Monmouth its first-ever outright Midwest Conference football championship. There would not be another one for 33 years. By then, undefeated regular seasons were rewarded with a trip to the NCAA playoffs, so that 2005 campaign – and three others since – ended with postseason defeats. That makes 1972 the last undefeated season for Fighting Scots football.

In this series, players from that historic team, now in their early 70s, look back on that memorable fall, and so does their head coach, the legendary Bill Reichow.

MONMOUTH — Ten games or so into every NFL season, a video of Larry Csonka and some of his old Miami Dolphins teammates makes the rounds. Members of the 1972 Dolphins can be seen lighting a cigar, sipping scotch and celebrating the fact that the last undefeated team has lost. That means Miami can still claim to be the only team in NFL history to go undefeated and win the Super Bowl.

Until their alma mater wins an NCAA Division III title in some future December, there are members from another 1972 football squad that can make a claim similar to Csonka’s Dolphins. The ’72 Monmouth College Fighting Scots didn’t lose or tie a single game. It was only the second time that Monmouth had an unblemished record in a full season – the first was in 1906 – and it was the Scots’ first-ever outright Midwest Conference title after sharing the crown five times, including the year before in 1971.

And that 1971 season is a good place to start when telling the story of the 1972 Scots.

Entering the next-to-last game in 1971, Bill Reichow had compiled a stellar record in six years leading the Scots, despite inheriting a program coming off 12 consecutive losing seasons. After a rough 2-6 start in 1966, the Scots had reeled off winning campaigns from 1967 on, going an impressive 34-4 against teams not named St. Olaf.

But the Oles had been a thorn in Reichow’s side since his very first game at Monmouth, a season-opening 55-14 loss to a St. Olaf squad that wound up sharing the 1966 Midwest Conference title. The next few meetings were all close, but going into the ’71 matchup, Reichow was 0-4-1 against the Oles, and it was about to get worse.

Fighting Scots started 7-0 in 1971

En route to a 7-0 start, the Scots had shut out their first three opponents and were yielding less than a touchdown per game. They would finish the ’71 season ranked in the Top 10 nationally in both scoring offense and scoring defense.

But Ole Gunderson – yes, the Norwegian star had the same first name as his school’s nickname – once again crushed Monmouth’s hopes. Gunderson, who was still St. Olaf’s all-time leading rusher at the time of his death in 2019, ran for 245 yards on 41 carries as the Oles prevailed 33-21. St. Olaf only attempted four passes in the sub-zero wind chill of Northfield, Minnesota.

“That was the coldest game I ever played,” said Rod Davies, now Monmouth’s mayor, who was an all-conference offensive lineman for the Scots.

Mistakes hurt the Scots, as well, as St. Olaf’s defense recorded two TDs and a safety. The Scots turned the ball over seven times.

“We screwed up the Olaf game with all those turnovers,” said lineman Tom Kratochvil. “We shot ourselves in the foot. The better team doesn’t always win.”

“The game was a great disappointment to us,” said Reichow at the time, a week after predicting a Monmouth victory. “I was confident we were the better ball club, but we had too many errors of our own and too many bad bounces,” including game-ending injuries to future M Club Hall of Famers Dennis Plummer and Charlie Goehl.

Fortunately for the Scots, it was Gunderson’s next-to-last game at St. Olaf. His three teams (freshmen were not eligible for the varsity his first year) were a combined 25-2, and he ran for 4,065 yards. Then, while Monmouth was busy preparing for the 1972 season, Gunderson tried out for the CFL’s Saskatchewan Roughriders.

“Ole was a little bit of Walter Payton and a little bit of Barry Sanders,” said Monmouth lineman Bill Honeycutt of Gunderson, who was second in the nation in scoring in 1971.

'Some boys can run, other boys can run with the football'

“Some boys can run, other boys can run with the football,” said St. Olaf coach Tom Porter before Gunderson’s junior season. “Ole is one of the latter.”

Contacted not long ago for a St. Olaf historical piece, Reichow called Gunderson a “one of a kind” player. The back’s 1971 game against Monmouth was strong, but his 1969 performance was even better – a 356-yard rushing day as the Oles won 38-31. Sandwiched in between was a 205-yard day against the Scots in 1970.

“He spoke Norwegian,” said Reichow, who sat down with a few of his former players the first week of 2022 to look back 50 years at Monmouth’s undefeated season. “He was a complete player as far as running the ball. Contact was not a problem for him, and we gave him a lot of contact. He was a goal for us to minimize his effectiveness.”

“St. Olaf for us was kind of like later when the Bulls played the Pistons before Michael Jordan had won a championship,” said Honeycutt. “They were the team we finally had to beat to get where we wanted to be.”

The piece “The Legend of Ole and the Oles” contained the following statement about playing Monmouth: “From the late 1960s through the early 1970s, there probably wasn’t a more intense small college rivalry in the country.”

The Oles now play in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, which they joined in 1975. Perhaps the rivals will meet again one autumn for old time’s sake.

Coming into the teams’ 1971 matchup, St. Olaf had actually lost a Midwest Conference game to Ripon, so Monmouth still managed to claim a share of the league title, despite falling to the Oles. The Scots had defeated Ripon 27-6, and they added five other wins that season by at least 20 points, racking up 63 points against Carleton, 47 against Knox and 57 against a Beloit team forced to play ineligible freshmen due to a lack of numbers.

Scots considered for Stagg Bowl

Despite the St. Olaf loss, Monmouth was still considered for that year’s Stagg Bowl, matching the top two teams in what was then called the NCAA’s College Division. However, Samford and Ohio Wesleyan were instead chosen as the combatants.

Among 30 letter winners from the 1971 squad who returned for the historic 1972 campaign were Plummer, Goehl and two other future Hall of Famers, John Carter and Al Shepherd. Steve Rueckert and Dave Brinker were also back and served as tri-captains, along with Goehl, who started on both sides of the ball. Other Hall of Famers on the ’72 squad were All-American wrestler Mike Castillo, who played defensive back, sophomore center Grant Minor and freshman Ron Baker, who was eligible for varsity action after an NCAA rule change.

To a man, Monmouth’s players resolved for a different outcome against St. Olaf in 1972.