ROCK ISLAND, Ill. — In the shadow of an abandoned International Harvester plant, tiny Augustana College's 115 football players scramble to maintain the nation's longest collegiate winning streak.
The NCAA Division III Vikings get no athletic scholarships. They dress in a stark concrete locker room and--with no practice field--tear up their stadium turf each week during workouts.
But Augustana has won 28 consecutive games over three seasons and is shooting for a third straight national title, a feat never achieved by an NCAA football team.
"We are the only team in America with that opportunity. It's a realistic goal, a legitimate goal," said Coach Bob Reade, who has an 88% win record since taking over in 1979. His 60-8 record includes 44 straight regular-season wins.
"The streak really began in 1980, when we had our last regular-season loss," he said.
Before Reade, the private Lutheran school of 2,200 was noted more for academics than its football program. The school takes only students who are academically ranked in the top half of their high school class. Last year, 27 pre-med students were accepted into medical schools and 25 students into law schools from a graduating class of 400.
Students pay $8,800 a year for tuition, food and housing.
"The football team is symbolic of the college. Both are over-achievers," said Dr. Thomas Tredway, the school's president.
Augustana's last regular-season loss, five years ago, was to North Central in suburban Chicago. The Vikings haven't lost a game since falling to West Georgia 14-0 in the 1982 Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl for the championship of the NCAA's largest division, with 197 teams.
"The streak gets a lot of publicity. But we're mainly concerned about how we do this year," said Reade, 53, who posted a 146-21-4 record at nearby Geneseo High School over 17 years, before making the move to Augustana.
The high school team once had a consecutive six-year winning streak, a total of 52 games, he recalled.
Reade, in his 24th season of coaching with a total of 29 losses, says he wouldn't characterize himself as a highly motivational coach.
"We motivate by a concept of teamwork," said Reade, who has 11 children. "Our players understand football is not God. Practice and games are the only time we see them. There are no Sunday meetings, no night meetings, no film sessions." Players are not isolated from other students in special dorms.
In an era where most teams pass 30-40 times a game, Augustana has thrown a total of 31 passes this season, completing 13, to beat all four opponents.
The Vikings have whipped their College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin foes by combined scores of 127-28, averaging 350 yards per game on the ground.
Augie also has one of the nation's best defenses, allowing a net total of 35 opponent rushing yards in four games.
Its success, however, is not big box office. The Vikings only draw about 1,500 fans a game. Many football buffs in the two-state Quad Cities are busy Saturdays following Illinois or Iowa.
And individual players are unlikely to rack up gaudy stats. There have been 19 ball carriers this season, and Reade regularly uses 100 players in each game.
"We're not a football factory. Young men like to play," said Reade, whose .882 winning percentage is the highest for any coach with at least five seasons.
Running a wing-T offense, with three running backs and a quarterback, the Vikings backfield swings into motion at each snap like a Swiss watch. Defenses are confused by a series of fake handoffs or bootlegs before a small but speedy back rushes towards the line.
Leading rusher Brad Price, 5-foot-5 and 165 pounds, has 477 yards, while the team totals 1,402 through four games. Shane McCormick, Bob Guerrieri and Dennis Fraikes also have more than 100 yards.
"We feel we know how to run the football better than we know how to pass it," said Reade. "But we feel very comfortable throwing the football."
With starter Kirk Bednar out for the season with a knee injury, Reade is likely to lean even more on running. Backup quarterbacks Troy Bex and Greg Wallace have seen little action.
Despite its winning streak and the national titles, Augustana had only one Associated Press All-American last year, center Greg King. He was their first All-American since quarterback Ken Anderson was cited in 1969 and 1970. Anderson, who played for the Cincinnati Bengals, is the only Augustana product to go on to the National Football League.
All but seven of Augustana's players come from Illinois, many directly recruited by Reade, who spends the winter quarter on the road. He draws heavily from the Chicago suburbs and central Illinois and looks mainly for speed, a hallmark of his teams.
Sitting in his office--surrounded by photos of players, teams and his family--Reade, whose role model is former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, says the winning streak is more important to others than to him.
"It's got to end sometime . . . but we're not going to jump off a bridge," he said.
And Reade's in no hurry to see it end.
"Everybody we play would like to see us lose," he said. "There are 200 teams in Division III, and all are equal to start with.
"We don't apologize for winning."