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This is what a JUCO football powerhouse looks like

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Did you know the country's No. 2 team blew out No. 4 this weekend? At Iowa Western, just down the road from the Cornhuskers, that's according to plan.

Kevin Trahan

Jake Waters will never have to pay for a beer in Council Bluffs, Iowa. At least not in the northeast part of this city of 60,000 people, where the sounds of his Manziel-like highlights play every Saturday, booming into the Loess Hills.

At Iowa Western Community College, Waters is an icon. The current star quarterback for No. 11 Kansas State and town native won the Reivers* their first national championship in 2012, their mere fourth year of existence, and if you make it out to a game, you'll surely hear about that a couple of times.

But there are no video highlights of Waters' magical 2012 season at Reivers games, because Titan Stadium doesn't have a video board. That's because Titan Stadium is actually a high school stadium, where Lewis Central plays its home games on Friday nights.

* Nickname explained by the school: 19th-century Missouri River pirates.

A Reivers home Saturday offers a high school-college mix. The high school parking lot hosts some tailgating, and this past Saturday was the chili cookoff. There is a marching band, but it's miniature compared to its Division I counterparts. The press box was packed with the three media members that showed up, and when I got there an hour and a half early, athletic media relations coordinator Jake Ryan insisted I make myself at home and take a bottle of water, since he paid for them.

"This isn't NCAA," he said.

It was still a big game in the world of JUCO football, as second-ranked Iowa Western was taking on fourth-ranked Hutchinson (Kansas) Community College. The winner of this game would have realistic aspirations to go to the national championship.

The tailgate scene. IWCC.

★★★

Few levels of football have higher disparities in talent level than junior college football. And that's not just between teams, but within teams. Hutchinson defensive tackle Jeremiah Ledbetter, who forced a strip sack in the first quarter, is a three-star prospect committed to play at Arkansas next year, and he plays on the same defensive line as Rutgers and South Carolina commits. That line went up against an Iowa Western offense with guys who will play anywhere from Division I to NAIA.

In its five full seasons, Iowa Western has sent 115 players to various levels of four-year college football, with 51 percent of them going to the highest level.

Year FBS FCS D II D III NAIA Total
2009 4 4 3 1 3 15
2010 8 8 0 0 2 18
2011 12 5 2 0 2 21
2012 21 2 2 5 3 33
2013 14 4 8 1 1 28
Total 59 23 15 7 11 115

However, that means half of their opponents play with much less talent.

The disparity is due to how recruiting is set up. While Division I coaches like to talk about getting "their type of guys," Reivers coach Scott Strohmeier has a different rhetoric. He wants assistants who "understand community college football." That means recruiting three types of players.

  1. Academic non-qualifiers who could be playing at the highest level were it not for their grades.
  2. Recruits who have the academics to go elsewhere, but want to bump FCS offers up to FBS by spending time at a JUCO.
  3. Recruits who are on-field projects and could use two years of development to get bigger offers.

Getting the players from the second and third groups is the most important. By rule, Iowa Western is only allowed to play 20 out-of-state players each year, and if any of those guys get hurt, the school is only allowed to play two more. So even if you get some of the best non-qualifiers from the rest of the country, you could struggle if you don't recruit your state well.

That's where Strohmeier thinks Iowa Western has an advantage. Iowa is not a heavily recruited Division I state, which means some players who have Division I potential don't get the scholarship offers they deserve. Waters is a good example. He was a three-sport athlete in high school, and according to Strohmeier, didn't have the time or focus on football to be going to camps year-round as a high schooler. So he used Iowa Western as a stepping stone.

NCAA members would be horrified to hear their universities called stepping stones, but that's the whole point in junior college. It's to focus on football, then use that to get your education elsewhere. Education is still valued at Iowa Western, but they'll help you finish it at a bigger school.

And where did the school learn that? From none other than its lead advisor, ex-Nebraska coach Tom Osborne.

"One thing Coach Osborne said in our meeting was, ‘You're going to be surprised how many young men come to your college, who are not going anywhere to college, just so they can play football,'" Iowa Western president Dan Kinney said. "And the thing that will happen is, they'll end up with a college degree.'"

2012 National Junior College Athletic Association Offensive Player of the Year and NJCAA national champion Jake Waters, now the starter at 6-1 Kansas State. After that title run, the Reivers finished No. 2 in the country in 2013. IWCC.

★★★

Tom Osborne doesn't swear. Kinney made that clear. But he came close when he gave Kinney his biggest piece of advice when Iowa Western started its program.

"Coach Osborne is a very soft-spoken guy," Kinney said. "He doesn't raise his voice, and he absolutely does not swear. One time in a meeting, he said, ‘Dan, you have to hire the head coach a year before you start the program.'"

Kinney protested, as that sounded like an expensive proposition. Osborne responded even more firmly.

"He didn't raise his voice, but the tone of voice changed, and he said, ‘You need to hire the coach a year before you start the program.'

"Okay, I just got cussed out by Coach Osborne."

So in 2008, Iowa Western hired Scott Strohmeier, who was fresh off a turnaround of North Iowa Area Community College. With the head start in recruiting, Strohmeier and his assistants were able to put a winning program on the field in the Reivers' first season.

The rest of the process was easy. Kinney said that the school needed $670,000 in starting costs to be raised privately, and that was done in 10 days. The great fan support came as a surprise, but it makes sense in the middle of the Iowa, Iowa State, and Nebraska fan bases, two of which are among the 20 largest fan bases in the country.

"That's just it," Kinney said. "They love football."

That was evident in the stands, filled with Reiver blue with spots of Iowa yellow and Nebraska red mixed in. Nebraska had a home game, but when the Huskers aren't in Lincoln, Kinney said there are red buses parked outside the stadium to tailgate. Football, more than anything, is what has grown Iowa Western's prominence in the region.

"That's big, because before (football), they didn't even know Iowa Western existed," Kinney said. "The people that live in Omaha, Nebraska, are all Husker fans, but believe me, they're paying attention to Iowa Western football."

When the Huskers (or Cyclones or Hawkeyes) are out of town, their fans have a championship-level alternative nearby. Google Maps.

★★★

The entire city of Omaha wasn't at Titan Stadium on Saturday for the biggest JUCO game of the week. Still, the Hutchinson News' reporter called the crowd "pretty good." The stands were nearly full.

And those fans got to witness a damn fun game. Council Bluffs sits firmly in Big Ten country, but this game was anything but B1G. It had so many moments that would've made good GIFs.

The first 16 minutes had 37 points. The second score of the game came on a safety off a bad snap. Drops and blown coverages abounded. A wide receiver tore off his helmet, threw it on the ground in front of an official, screamed at said ref, and didn't get ejected. The lone field goal attempt came in the final two minutes, but was negated by a penalty in favor of the kicking team, Iowa Western, who used the opportunity to tack on yet another touchdown. That sealed a 58-34 victory for the Reivers.

When the game was over, the fans didn't rush the field over the biggest win of the season. But everyone did kind of wander onto the turf, mingling with players and coaches. You would think you were at a high school game, until you heard the question to Strohmeier from a local reporter.

"Is it time to start thinking about the national championship?"

It's a fair question, one that has become commonplace at Iowa Western, one of the best representations of the strange confluence of small-time and big-time that is JUCO football.