By Brian Pommier
Zac Dickey may need to allow more time for getting into and out of restaurants from now on.
Dickey became just the second quarterback in the history of Pittsburg State University to bring home an NCAA Division II national championship two weeks ago, and now the Pittsburg native is a local celebrity, as well as the 2011 TeamKong.net Player of the Year.
After meeting at Chatters for an interview over lunch, Dickey was answering questions and eating – all while greeting well-wishers. Then, before leaving, he was surrounded by friends wanting to congratulate him on the title.
“When we got back to the rec center, there was a great number of people there. It was a fantastic feeling. When they told us we’d drive down Broadway, I didn’t think there’d be too many people outside because they’d all been at the game. There were tons of people lining the streets.”
UNDERSTANDING THE TRADITION
In 1991, another Pittsburg native – Brian Hutchins – came back from Florence, Ala., with a trophy. Back in Pittsburg was a 34-month-old baby boy who was destined to do the same thing 20 years later.
Dickey and his family have always followed the Gorillas – his uncle was on the 1981 team that lost in the NAIA title game and his sister runs track at PSU – so he was acutely aware of what this team means to the community. For many people, weekly Pitt State games are a brief respite from the workaday doldrums. Every week, those people spend hard-earned cash to come to Carnie Smith Stadium – PSU’s cathedral to the football gods – to watch the Gorillas prey on some overmatched opponent.
Think bull vs. matador.
But in the past few years, the bulls had become quicker, and the matador’s sword hadn’t been quite as sharp. The Gorillas suffered their first losing season in two decades in 2009. Then, in 2010, PSU backed its way into the Mineral Water Bowl and won, evening its record at 6-6.
This wasn’t Pittsburg State football. And Dickey – having watched the legends of the past – knew that.
But after a second year of getting everyone on the same page in the second year of the Tim Beck era, as well as a summer focused on dramatic improvement, Dickey helped lead a talented, young PSU team to the Promised Land.
“We knew this year that we would have a good football team.” Dickey said, after showing off the size 11 1/2 ring finger that will soon hold a large, diamond-encrusted emblem of the season’s accomplishment.
LIVING UNDER A MICROSCOPE
It was at the MIAA’s preseason press conference that Dickey felt the stares.
“I could tell we were the most hated team in the room,” he said. “I called a friend and told him that everyone there hated us and he texted me back. He said, ‘They don’t boo nobodies, Dickey.’”
Dickey simply doesn’t know how to be a nobody. After playing his high school ball at St. Mary’s-Colgan – the parochial school that has done more than its share of winning – he realized how much of the success he’s had has come from his past.
“Look at the coaching staff we had at Colgan. As a kid, as you’re going through there, you may not realize how fortunate you are to have (Chuck Smith, Wayne Cichon and Mike Watt) as coaches. Those are three guys who could take other jobs, but they choose to be there.
“That shows a lot of character, so they’ll try to transfer that kind of character to their athletes. Colgan teams don’t give up. It’s kind of a staple. We took pride in that, and we did that because of those coaches.”
But playing at Colgan also leads to life in a fishbowl. Playing at such a successful school – especially a private school – brings charges of recruiting and unfair advantages. It doesn’t make a team well-liked.
“This year at Pitt State was a lot like playing at Colgan,” Dickey said. “In high school, we were hated quite a bit. There were a lot of times we weren’t liked because we were Colgan. To know that people don’t like you because you play for a particular team – there’s a reason they don’t like you. It was a good feeling.”
Dickey’s upbringing in a successful prep program included winning six KSHSAA Class 2-1A state titles – one in football, another in basketball and four in baseball. It meant being a part of the Panthers’ then-state-record 66-game winning streak.
“Those state games are huge,” Dickey said. “They get the butterflies going just like the title game did. The transformation from high school to college is different, though. There are different pressures. In high school, you’re playing in front of your people. It’s more personal. Then, in college, you have a job to do.”
Perhaps that experience helped prepare him for another big role in the City of Pittsburg: That of starting quarterback for the beloved Gorillas.
CIRCUITOUS ROUTE TO PITT STATE
After testing out well when he arrived in Stillwater, Dickey said he was approached about playing special teams and being on the field for a road game at the University of Georgia as a true freshman.
“Coach Gundy sat in on all the quarterback meetings and he asked me if I’d be interested in special teams. I said yes, but he said to talk to my dad and get back to him.”
But after speaking with his father, they decided it was in his best interest to keep his redshirt in tact. A year later, there was talk of moving Dickey – who also played safety, defensive end and tight end in high school – to the defensive backfield.
Again, Dickey faced a decision.
And after a polite conversation with Gundy, he found himself in the burgundy and silver of the Fort Scott Community College Greyhounds, where he completed his only year of competition at FSCC with a third-place finish.
In the nation.
How could he have known he would do two spots better just a couple of years later?
WEATHERING THE STORM
Things were rosy for the first few games Dickey played for the Gorillas. PSU opened the 2009 season with a drubbing of Central Oklahoma and an equally impressive 41-13 win over then-No. 7 Chadron State in its first two games. The Gorillas entered the Fall Classic at Arrowhead as the No. 4 team in the nation.
Then the bottom fell out.
The Gorillas lost 30-10 to Northwest, then lost heartbreakers to Central Missouri and Missouri Western the next two weeks. Pitt State was in a free fall, and the Gorillas staggered to a 5-6 finish.
It was the first losing season for the Gorillas in the storied tenure of head coach Chuck Broyles, who wouldn’t return to the sidelines after an offseason DUI charge caused him to resign as both head coach and athletics director.
In 2010, with longtime assistant coach Tim Beck at the helm, the Gorillas showed signs of improvement, only to suffer setbacks. But after a gutty comeback fell short in the Fall Classic in the last regular season game of the year, the Mineral Water Bowl selection committee saw fit to invite the Gorillas to Excelsior Springs. And Pitt State carried the momentum from the 13-9 win over Concordia-St. Paul into the offseason.
REAPING THE REWARDS
After a summer of intense workouts – plus a couple of key additions, namely sophomore wide receiver John Brown – Dickey came into the 2011 season with high expectations. And as a captain, he held the rest of the team to those expectations.
And after hearing the naysayers whisper that if he struggled early, the coaching staff would turn to Dickey’s friend Anthony Abenoja early in the season, Dickey showed that sometimes results matter more than stats.
“I knew it was my job, and I never anticipated coming out of the game,” Dickey said. “There’s still some thoughts that go through your mind. The coaching staff is going to do what is best for the team. They may have to make changes, and that could start with me.”
“I just wanted to win football games, and let the rest take care of itself.”
Dickey rushed for 1,165 yards on 210 carries and 10 touchdowns en route to becoming the leading rusher for the Gorillas in 2011, beating out Briceton Wilson by more than 300 yards.
But the question was never about Dickey’s legs. It was the passing game that needed improvement.
So Dickey simply doubled his production through the air.
Dickey passed for 2,290 yards and 17 touchdowns while completing 149 of 248 passes – a drastic improvement over his 992 yards and six TDs and 91-of-188 passing line. In fact, he averaged 80 yards more per game than in 2010.
The most important stat, however, was the 13-1 record. With it came the school’s first outright MIAA title since 2004, a first-round playoff bye, three home playoff games and a national title.
Just like the Pride of the Plains Marching Band would say – or play – All I Do Is Win.
SECOND PLACE ISN’T GOOD ENOUGH
Dickey said his family has been a constant source of support for him. Even his Uncle Steve, who played on the ’81 team.
Instead of good-natured teasing about who won the title and who didn’t, Dickey said his uncle gave him inspiration this year.
In the form of his runners-up ring from 30 years ago.
“I wore it in the locker room before every game to remember that I didn’t want to be second.”
A NEW ROLE MODEL
Meanwhile, Dickey is starting to embrace his role as a local icon – even though he doesn’t like to use that term for his newfound fame.
“I remember my dad taking me to (Pittsburg High) games to watch Dylan Meier,” Dickey reminisced. “Then we’d go to Colgan games and Pitt State games. As a little kid, you look up to all those guys. I remember how good Pat McNally and some of those guys were to me growing up. I want to make sure I’m as good to people as they were to me.
“I hope I can do it as well as they did.”