PINEVILLE-- How do you judge a football program when thereâ€™s no frame of reference?
Louisiana College is the stateâ€™s only NCAA Division III gridiron program. In fact, the Wildcats are the only team below the Division I level in Louisiana â€“ a state which has simultaneously more D-I football teams per capita and fewer D-II and D-III squads than any state in the country.
LC has virtually no interaction with any other state team, and draws little notoriety â€“ and even less respect â€“ outside of a core audience in the Alexandria-Pineville area. Few even know that the small Baptist college, one thatâ€™s closer to the stateâ€™s geographic center than any other school, actually fields a football team.
How do you cope with that? How do you muddle through, knowing that dyed-in-the-wool football fans across the state know little and care less about your team?
Ben McLaughlin doesnâ€™t have time to worry about that. Heâ€™s too busy being the kind of person that most schools crave, one that brings honor and respect to everything he does, one who actually cares about the people he deals with, and one who is serious about being successful. And he doesnâ€™t define success by his rate at completing passes, which happens to be something he does with mind-boggling efficiency.
The Wildcatsâ€™ senior quarterback â€“ senior being athletically only, since he already holds his undergraduate degree â€“ is far and away the nationâ€™s most prolific Division III quarterback. He tops the country in total offense (385.9 yards per game), passing yards and yards per game (3,068 and 383.5) and is second in completions per game (29.0).
He has accounted for 234 points in eight games this year, more than any other collegian in the country regardless of division. As a point of reference, Auburn quarterback and Heisman Trophy front-runner Cam Newton leads Division Iâ€™s FBS rankings with 180 points in nine games.
â€œHe is just a dream to coach,â€ said Louisiana College coach Dennis Dunn. â€œHeâ€™s a coach on the field. That sounds like a clichÃ©, but in his case itâ€™s not.â€
And what does McLaughlin get out of this? Very little, except the opportunity to play football. To him, thatâ€™s priceless.
â€œIâ€™m 24 years old,â€ he said. â€œIâ€™m just trying to stretch my football career a little bit longer. All of us are here because we love to play football. Division III isnâ€™t the glamour level. Nobodyâ€™s getting any money and there are no agents. Weâ€™re not doing this for the stats or to get on TV.â€
Instead, McLaughlin and his Wildcat teammates are getting the student-athlete experience in its purest form, and getting the opportunity to do something that is indeed a piece of Americana.
â€œThe guys here have a unique perspective,â€ Dunn said. â€œOur job is educating young men, while they play the game that they love. Thatâ€™s whatâ€™s great about football â€¦ itâ€™s a great game for America. It represents everything America is.â€
The words would sound hokey coming out of most coachesâ€™ mouths, but not here â€¦ not where a roster of nearly 150 players entering fall drills are really, truly there for the love of the game.
â€œWeâ€™re out here having fun,â€ McLaughlin said.
Winning is always more fun, and Louisiana College is doing that. The Wildcats have won four in a row and stand at 5-3 on the season. One of those early losses, and their only loss in American Southwest Conference play, came by a 42-38 count to a Mary Hardin-Baylor team thatâ€™s ranked fifth nationally in Division III.
LC improved to 5-1 in ASC play last weekend with a 38-21 victory over Texas Lutheran at brand-new Wildcat Stadium, a 5,500-seat structure just off the Pineville Expressway. The artificial-turf field is the centerpiece of what will eventually be a solid and functional football complex.
The Wildcats have a couple of difficult tasks left on the schedule, traveling to meet McMurry this Saturday and hosting Hardin-Simmons in the regular-season finale on Nov. 13. Two wins could get LC into the discussion for a Division III postseason berth, and maybe that would finally draw some attention.
Making the playoffs would be nice, and playing in a good facility makes things easier. More important, though, is the fact that more than 80 young men who played high school football in Louisiana are getting the opportunity to continue playing the game.
â€œThatâ€™s what makes this fun,â€ Dunn said. â€œIâ€™m having a ball. Coachingâ€™s coaching no matter where you are. When the whistle blows, itâ€™s a 100-yard field and the gameâ€™s the game. And itâ€™s as competitive here as on any Division I field. I didnâ€™t know what to expect, but when I got here I was shocked with the level of competition and the level of athleticism that was here.â€
Only one or two will ever don football pads again after they graduate â€“ which happens to be something that most of the Wildcats will do.
There are notable exceptions. Lafayette native Matt Miller spent time on the rosters of the Kansas City Chiefs and Seattle Seahawks as well as the New Orleans VooDoo after his LC career. Darnell Williams of Gulfport, Miss., a rangy 6-foot-2 wide receiver who is averaging 119 receiving yards per game and has scored 10 touchdowns -- not including an 84-yard kickoff return for a score last Saturday -- came to LC out of junior college and was one of those â€œmissedâ€ by Division I schools.
The rest will, as the NCAA promos say, will turn professional in something other than sports. McLaughlin, for example, is already on the faculty at nearby Bolton High, teaching Algebra I to his students.
â€œI come out here and hear the freshmen complaining about having to go to practice,â€ he laughed. â€œIâ€™m coming from work. It makes you enjoy playing that much more.â€
McLaughlin came out of tiny Dierks, Ark. (â€œwe donâ€™t have any stoplights there,â€ he said, â€œbut there are three gas stationsâ€) to play college football with no strings attached.
â€œItâ€™s definitely been worth it,â€ McLaughlin said Saturday while LC and Texas Lutheran players milled around the field with families and friends postgame. â€œIn 30 years I may run into one of these guys, and weâ€™ll talk about when we played football. Itâ€™s the ultimate fraternity.â€
Until that time, McLaughlin will be content to play a couple more games and then teach and coach the next generation.
â€œSuch a gentleman, such a competitor,â€ Dunn said. â€œHeâ€™s going to be a great coach. Iâ€™ll probably turn this program over to him in a few years.â€
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