NAPERVILLE, Ill. — For the players and the students at the school, seeing the football team have success is something they’ve come to expect year in and year out.
Conference championships and deep playoff runs have been the norm since the mid-2000s at North Central College, as the program has developed into a power at the NCAA Division III level.
The Cardinals added to that legacy in 2022 with a perfect 15-0 season, including a 28-21 national championship-clinching victory over Mount Union in the Stagg Bowl on Dec. 16.
It’s the second title for the program in three seasons and the third-straight appearance in the championship game since the 2020 season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. After a loss to Mary Hardin-Baylor in the Stagg Bowl last year, they took care of business in 2022 in Annapolis as North Central continues to build a football dynasty in Naperville.
“I’m just really proud of our men, our coaches, just all the work that they put in,” said Cardinals head coach Brad Spencer. “They deserve this.”
At the same time, the first-year head coach has a unique perspective of the North Central program, one many who only know the recent success don’t. He was around the school as a kid since his father worked in administration and then attended the school starting in 2000, playing football for the Cardinals.
North Central was 2-7 the year before he arrived, then went 5-5 in 2000 and 3-7 in 2001, a far cry from the success that many around North Central have gotten to know recently. That’s why Spencer had a message for his team after he took over as head coach in January, succeeding Jeff Thorne.
“Something that I would tell our guys weekly is don’t take this for granted,” said Spencer, who would become a coach starting in 2004 under head coach John Thorne, who helped build the program into a winner. “Don’t take this group for granted, don’t take CCIW (Conference) championships for granted, don’t take being in the playoffs and having another week together for granted.”
It’s a philosophy that he preached as an assistant with the program from 2004 through 2021, serving as the wide receivers coach through 2019 while also having the offensive coordinator duties starting in 2015.
The veteran 2022 team took that to heart in what could easily be argued as the greatest season in the history of Cardinals football. It’s the first undefeated, untied campaign when they’ve played multiple games (North Central won the only game they played in 1898) and won every contest — except for the national championship game — by 13 or more points.
Led by running back Ethan Greenfield, who won the 2022 Gagliardi Trophy for Division III MVP with 1,997 yards rushing and 26 touchdowns, the offense scored at least 48 points in 11 of their 15 games. Meanwhile, the defense kept opposing offenses under double-digits 11 times, including five shutouts.
“I think we did a great job of going week-by-week and appreciating week-by-week, on the ‘one-week contract’ as the guys kinda said. You never want to get too far ahead and just assume things or take for granted those conference titles and being able to have home games in the playoffs,” said Spencer. “There were a lot of us that were here when that wasn’t the case.
“I remember our first playoff game in 2005, I remember our first conference title in ’06 just as well as you remember those days you were 3-7.”
Those are in the past now as the program has risen to the elite in Division III football, a rise that can be shared by everyone on the Naperville campus.
“It takes everyone to do this,” said Spencer, who saluted members of the administration and faculty for their support of the program. “We get to be the ones who show up on the field. I get to be the one who gets interviewed. It’s taken all of North Central to get here and I’m just proud that we can put our student-athletes and put North Central in a positive light so people can look at it and go, ‘Hey, that place is different.'”
Larry Hawley has more on North Central Football from WGN News Now in the video above.