Bob Berezowitz harbored no illusions of beating St. John's and Mount Union when he scheduled games against those football giants in 2002 and 2003. As strange as it may sound, that wasn't the point.
The University of Wisconsin-Whitewater coach had presided for 22 years over a program that was very good, but not at the level of the teams competing for the NCAA Division III championship. To get there, he needed a clear understanding of what separated the Warhawks from the Johnnies and the Purple Raiders -- and nothing could provide a better comparison than a couple of games.
"We didn't think we were that far away," Berezowitz said. "If we were, we would have never taken them on."
The Warhawks were beaten soundly in all three games. Two years later, they got a rematch against Mount Union in the Division III championship game. As confident as Berezowitz was in the program's potential, he never envisioned it would go on to play for the national title in six consecutive years, winning three championships and riding a 43-game winning streak heading into Saturday's NCAA semifinal against St. Thomas.
Berezowitz set things in motion by pushing for facility upgrades that helped attract top recruits. Lance Leipold, who played for Berezowitz in the 1980s and succeeded him as coach in 2007, further raised the bar with a detail-oriented style that has produced a 70-3 record and NCAA titles in 2007, 2009 and 2010.
An administration willing to invest in football -- and an athletic director who models his department after Division I institutions -- provided resources and support. Together, they have made top-ranked Whitewater the program others aspire to emulate, including St. Thomas.
"Whitewater and Mount Union are the standard-bearers in Division III football right now," said Glenn Caruso, coach of the No. 3 Tommies. "We're working hard to be in the position they're in. They're dominant."
UW-Whitewater athletic director Paul Plinske said the Warhawks' success has pushed their regular-season attendance to 8,040 per game, the highest in D-III. Corporate sponsorships have tripled, alumni donations have increased and football has gained national publicity for a growing campus of 11,600 students.
That's just what Leipold had in mind when he returned to his alma mater, but he's still humbled by what the Warhawks have achieved.
"Getting to the top is one thing, but maintaining it is more difficult," he said. "We've had great senior leadership, and our coaches have done a remarkable job. To give back to a university that has given me and my family so much, to see the pride people have in our success, it's very rewarding."
The Warhawks' winning streak is the longest in all of college football and the fifth longest of all time, four shy of Oklahoma's 47-game run in the 1950s. It has been built in classic style: through teams that are bruising and relentless on both sides of the ball, who prefer to run behind a stout offensive line but can pass effectively as well.
This season's 13-0 group is directed by quarterback Matt Blanchard, who Tuesday became a finalist for the Gagliardi Award, given to the top player in D-III. Running back Levell Coppage has 7,594 career rushing yards, a record for both the Warhawks and the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (WIAC) and the second most in Division III history. Whitewater also has one of the nation's top defenses, yielding 11.7 points per game.
Since 1956, the Warhawks have had only five losing seasons. The games against Mount Union and St. John's taught Berezowitz that to become a national contender, he needed to improve his team's overall speed and add an extraordinary player or two at skill positions. He knew upgraded facilities would help; a state-of-the-art weight room was installed in 2002, and Berezowitz raised $1.5 million for a building to house offices, meeting rooms and study areas for the team.
Whitewater still draws nearly all of its players from southeastern Wisconsin and the Chicago suburbs. The new facilities began luring a larger pool of better athletes, elevating it to the top of the rugged WIAC by 2005. Berezowitz retired after coaching the Warhawks to NCAA runner-up finishes in 2005 and 2006, but the die had been cast.
"It's amazing what happens once you get there," he said. "After that, no team wants to be the one that doesn't go to the championship. And when you go to a high school to recruit, the kids say, 'I watched your game on TV.' You can't put a price on that."
Berezowitz still spends time around the team, as does 91-year-old Forrest Perkins, who coached from 1956-84 and oversaw the building of the handsome 11,000-seat stadium now named for him. Berezowitz played quarterback for Perkins, while Leipold played for both men, creating a coaching continuum that spans seven decades.
Still, Leipold's hiring came as a surprise to many. It was widely expected that longtime assistant coach Stan Zweifel would succeed Berezowitz. But Leipold had been learning his craft under coaches such as Wisconsin's Barry Alvarez; Nebraska's Frank Solich; Nebraska-Omaha's Pat Behrns; and former Badgers and Vikings assistant Jim Hueber, who remains a close friend and mentor.
All of them helped form a coach with grand dreams for Whitewater, a place for which he has deep affection. That sold Plinske, who wanted someone with ambition and drive worthy of a Division I institution.
"What set him apart was that his vision was bigger than I could have ever imagined," said Plinske, a Minneapolis native and Bethel alumnus. "He knew how to take what Bob started and move it to the next level.
"Lance helped me raise the level of expectations in the athletic department. His ideas were flowing constantly about how to set ourselves apart in Division III, and he has an uncanny ability to keep the pedal to the metal. It takes a special person to sustain something like this. He does not let up."
Leipold's philosophy is based on urging players and coaches to improve every day within a highly focused, competitive environment. A master of organization and efficiency, he has a gift for keeping everyone on task, fostering a champion's outlook without the sense of entitlement.
Despite the achievements of the past few years, he and Plinske prefer to keep looking ahead. The school has continued to invest in facilities, including new turf and an instant-replay scoreboard at Perkins Stadium.
For the moment, the Warhawks are concentrating solely on St. Thomas, knowing the Tommies are gunning for them -- just as they were chasing Mount Union and St. John's nine years ago.
"It was great to get there, and Lance has done a great job of taking it and running with it," Berezowitz said. "But I don't think anyone could have imagined this."