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Devils' Football 25th AnniversaryScandal was rocking Richard Nixon’s presidency, U.S. bombs were still raining over Vietnam, Roe vs. Wade was creating storms of controversy, and Joe Namath was hurling touchdown passes for the New York Jets. It’s December 1973 and the front page of the Morris County Daily Record’s sports section announces to its readers the FDU athletics family has a new member: a football team.
The thought had occurred to University leaders like Athletics Director Robert Shields and Campus Provost James Griffo that a football team could provide added enthusiasm to campus life and be a great source of pride for the student body. They couldn’t have been more right. A quarter of a century later, FDU football has grown into one of the most respected Division III programs, and a Devils’ game is easily one of the most popular campus events.
Perhaps the most important factor in building the program was the decision to name as head coach 27-year-old Bill Klika, who had been working as an assistant at nearby Madison High School. Klika fondly recalls those early days, including the challenges. To find players, he sent letters to every New Jersey high school coach. The biggest obstacle he faced, besides convincing players to come to a school that had never had a football team, was directing the program while continuing to teach history at Madison High and also serving as FDU’s assistant lacrosse coach.
Klika and his three assistant coaches assembled a motley crew that first year; some players were lacrosse members who were already on campus, and some had never played the sport before. Jay Sciortino was Klika’s first “big” recruit. “I couldn’t imagine that we would be a real good team,” he remembers, “but I knew that I would play all four years that I was there.” Sciortino did play and played well. The former tailback stands as the number three all-time rusher and holds the school mark for the longest run (80 yards).
With only about a month of practice time under its belt, the squad opened its first season at Kean College against a well-established program. The result: the worst loss in school history, 63-0, but it was a start. Klika says he knew the team would suffer some lumps that first season, and he was right. It wasn’t until the fourth game that junior quarterback Lou Schlueter scored the team’s first points on a touchdown run. FDU lost that game, though, 41-6, and finished the season 0-5.
“Every week we would take a terrible beating,” recalls Sciortino, “but we would all come back the next week because of the desire we had to play football. Coach Klika always had things under control.”
FDU opened the following season at home against Ramapo College. The game would prove to be a landmark event. The Devils often had trouble executing their counter play but, on this day, it worked to perfection as Sciortino galloped 38 yards to the end zone. It proved to be the only score FDU needed as it went on to win 6-0 for its first-ever victory. The next season, the team garnered its second win, again at the expense of Ramapo.
The Devils continued to make strides and, in 1981, Coach Klika joined the University on a full-time basis, devoting all his energies toward the program. Although they were playing teams with rich winning traditions, the Devils competed hard each week, and in 1985, they earned their first winning season.
The team and its stars were beginning to attract serious recognition. In the 1980s, FDU produced its first All-Americans, including tight end Greg Rutter (named to the third team in 1983), defensive lineman Ira Epstein (honorable mention, 1983, and first team, 1984), defensive back Eric Bray (first team, 1986) and defensive tackle Frank Illidge (first team, 1987).
The 1988 season featured a record-breaking mark of 6-2 and first team All-American honors went to defensive tackle Glen Kipila. Then, in 1989, Klika became the campus’s second athletics director, replacing Shields. In his first season as head coach and athletics director, the club finished 4-4-1, and Kipila and defensive back Jerry Mingin were named All-American honorable mentions.
In addition to Klika, the Devils have benefited from a long line of dedicated coaches. One of the most memorable was defensive coordinator Wade Watkins, who joined the squad in 1991. “Coach Wade” was a loyal friend and mentor to the players and was seen everywhere on campus, getting to know the students and encouraging school spirit and enthusiasm. Klika recalls him as a “master recruiter who helped players realize they couldn’t make a better choice than FDU.”
Watkins’ dedication and spirit proved contagious, and the team set new milestones. In 1993, FDU rejoined the perennially strong Middle Atlantic Conference (MAC) and finished with a new school mark of eight victories with just two defeats (the team had belonged to the MAC from 1978 to 1983). The squad qualified for a berth in the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) playoffs, narrowly losing a hard-fought contest against Wesley, 6-0.
In addition to the team accomplishments, the 1993 season showcased some great players including linebacker Ed Schon and quarterback Frank Plefka, who both were named All-American honorable mentions. But there was one star who exploded onto the scene. Vic Moncato seemingly did it all for the Devils, catching passes, returning kicks, booming punts and scoring touchdowns. In 1993, the junior set school records for receiving yards in a season (1,217) and a game (220), while also breaking marks for most catches in one year (64) and in one game (11). Moncato scored a University all-time high 14 touchdowns and averaged a record 42.3 yards per punt, including a 70-yard boot that still stands as the longest at FDU.
Moncato’s feats were nationally heralded. He was featured in Sports Illustrated as the “most versatile athlete” in Division III football and was named the MAC Most Valuable Player and first team All-American. Topping the honors was his selection as one of three finalists for the Melberger Award, presented to the most outstanding football player in Division III.
While there were many highlights in 1993, the team and the entire University suffered a tragic loss on December 21, when Wade Watkins died. Watkins, who was only 30 years old, was stricken with encephalomyelitis, a rare disease that causes inflammation of the brain. “He was the most enthusiastic person about life that I’ve ever met,” says Klika.
Playing the following season in memory of Watkins, the Devils pledged to “Win Wade’s War in ’94” and, despite a late-season slump, earned their second consecutive winning season. Moncato enjoyed another stellar campaign and broke his own record for receiving yards in a game (230). He was named to the All-American second team and finished his FDU career as the all-time leader in receiving yardage (2,854), receptions (168), touchdown receptions (30) and points (192).
The next season, wideout Jake Doran emerged from Moncato’s shadow and put up impressive numbers on his way to garnering second team All-American honors. Doran led FDU to an early season win over nationally ranked Widener University with a school-record 268 receiving yards, which was the third highest total in the nation in 1995. He also finished the year ranked second in the country with 133.4 receiving yards per game and second on the FDU single-season list with 1,201 receiving yards. Doran pulled in 70 passes to break Moncato’s mark and snared a school record 13 catches in one game.
All eras must come to an end, and so after 23 years, Klika decided to step down as head coach and devote his full attention to serving as the athletics director. FDU offensive coordinator Larry Arico became only the second head coach in school history, and in his first season in 1997, he was greeted with one of the most difficult schedules in the nation, playing six nationally ranked teams. While the recent Devils have struggled in the win-loss column, they have displayed both heart and character and shown signs that the future is in good hands.
The Devils’ program has come a long way since 1974 and members of that first team can take great pride in the legacy they began. (During this year’s homecoming celebration, FDU honored members of the first team.) For the players, for the fans and for the entire University, the decision made by Shields and Griffo in 1973 has borne much to cheer about. In Shields’ words, “It was a wonderful choice.” —A.C./A.W.
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