As a young boy, Zac Dickey grew up watching Pittsburg State football build a reputation as a national contender in NCAA Division II. This week, Dickey will quarterback the Gorillas in the national title game as they look to claim their second NCAA trophy, and first since 1991.
Dickey was born in 1989 — the same year that Pitt State became a member of the NCAA after competing for 81 years as an NAIA school. The Dickey family, living in Pittsburg, Kan., had many connections to the Gorillas’ athletic program. Dickey’s grandfather Bill is a former athletics director for the program. His uncle played on the 1981 NAIA runner-up team and his parents were both graduates of the school.
“I’ve been going to Pitt State games for as long as I can remember,” Dickey said. “My dad (Michael) and I would go hunting in the morning and then Pitt State games in the afternoon — it was kind of our tradition. I still remember exactly where our seats were.”
During Dickey’s early childhood PSU was forging itself into a national powerhouse, reaching the national title game three times in the 1990s. The Gorillas captured the 1991 National Championship and finished as the national runner-up in 1992. PSU won a school-record 25 consecutive games during that two-season span. Another hometown boy — Brian Hutchins — was PSU’s quarterback during that run. In 1995, the Gorillas returned to the national championship game and finished as the runner-up.
“My dad would always point out different players that were really good and have me watch them and how they played,” Dickey said. “It was always fun to watch them, and cheer for the hometown team. Pitt State was more than just a university to be because of all the connections we had — I really did bleed Crimson and Gold. That’s the way we grew up — it was just natural.”
While he may have been a little too young to remember the program’s first few title bouts, Dickey vividly recalls the early 2000s, and PSU’s return to the national championship game in 2004.
“In junior high and high school I was able to watch the games from more of a student perspective,” Dickey said. “I really liked watching (two-time All-America) Neal Philpot, who started at quarterback for four years and is now an assistant coach. They ran an offense similar to what we run now, and he was one of my favorites to watch.”
As a high school senior, Dickey garnered first-team Kansas Class 2A All-State honors at quarterback at St. Mary’s-Colgan High School, and wanted to try his hand at big-time college football. He headed to Oklahoma State as a walk-on in 2007, coming in with a group of players that have made a lot of headlines for the Cowboys in the last few years.
Dickey roomed with current quarterback Brandon Weeden, who had played professional baseball before joining the Cowboys in 2007.
“He was 24 or 25 years old at the time, and I had just turned 18, so it was kind of like a big brother-little brother thing,” Dickey said. “He was fun to be around.”
With then-QB Zac Robinson and Weeden ahead on the depth chart, Dickey decided his shot at playing quarterback was slim at Oklahoma State.
“I had played quarterback in high school and fell in love with that position, and I wanted to play it at college,” Dickey said. “If I stayed at Oklahoma State, most likely I would have been moved to defensive back or safety.”
Dickey still stays in touch with several of his former Cowboy teammates, and keeps tabs on how the team is doing as often as possible.
“I was in Grant Garner’s wedding last summer in Dallas — he is the starting center at Oklahoma State,” Dickey said. “I made some really good friends my freshman year and I still stay in touch with a lot of those guys. I’ve gone down there for games throughout the years, and they’ve come here and stayed with me before.”
After saying goodbye to Oklahoma State, he transferred to Fort Scott Community College in Kansas where he beat out six other players for the starting quarterback position, and led his team to a Heart of Texas Bowl victory against Blinn College.
Then, it was decision time again. He could stay at Fort Scott for another year and try to get recruited by another Division I school, or he could spend the remainder of his career at one Division II program. Returning home to Pitt State turned out to be right move for Dickey.
However, when he arrived on campus in 2009, the quarterback spot was essentially solidified. The coaching staff knew they had to get the athletic Dickey on the field, so he spent the year at wide receiver. But it was a rough season for the Gorillas as they posted a 5-6 record.
“I grew up learning about the Pitt State tradition and they always made deep runs in the playoffs,” Dickey said. “It was the first losing season in thirty-something years. It was really disheartening for someone like me who was a fan growing up.”
Tim Beck — a long-time Pitt state assistant — took the reins as head coach in 2010 and the program made schematic changes both offensively and defensively. Dickey started at quarterback in nine of 12 games, and also played a bit at wide receiver. The team concluded the season with a victory over Concordia-St. Paul in the Mineral Water Bowl, evening its record at 6-6.
“We had some growing pains,” Dickey said. “We were very talented but we were still adjusting to the changes.”
The bowl win gave the Gorillas some confidence, and they knew they could improve in 2011 — if they worked at it.
“We committed ourselves as a team this spring,” Dickey said. “The captains and the seniors took charge of the team. We were sick of being mediocre – that’s not what Pitt State football is about. We committed to working out in the offense and it is paying off for us now.”
“Zac’s been a great leader for us,” Beck said. “He really took a hold of the starting quarterback position in the springtime. In Division II we have no contact with student-athletes in the summer, so it was really important for our captains to get a good group of guys working out together. He was a guy that would call other kids and get them there so they would get their running and lifting done in the summer.”
The squad was picked to finish fifth in the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletic Association in the preseason coaches’ poll, but the players were out to prove those predictions were wrong. And, they did. The Gorillas reeled off eight consecutive wins to open the season before stumbling against Washburn in a 43-25 loss. But PSU recovered to win its’ final regular season game, and earn a berth in the NCAA playoffs for the first time since 2008.
The Gorillas opened NCAA action by avenging their only loss of the season, defeating Washburn 31-22 and then went on to defeat perennial national powers Northwest Missouri State and Delta State. PSU will be playing in its’ fifth NCAA Division II championship game.
Dickey has passed for 2,100 yards and 16 touchdowns, and leads the team in rushing with 1,097 yards and 10 TDs. He was selected second-team All-MIAA for his efforts.
Now, the hometown kid will try to help PSU bring the NCAA trophy back to Pittsburg for the first time since 1991, and practically his whole family will be rooting him on at Braly Municipal Stadium in Florence, Ala. Dickey’s parents, two sisters, his brother, both sets of grandparents, eight sets of aunts and uncles and about 20 first cousins will be making the trip.
“They’re probably more stressed out than I am, but it’s been a fun ride for them,” Dickey said.
“There are a lot of people that don’t realize how much pressure there actually is,” Beck said. “As a starting quarterback, like the head coach and offensive coordinator, you get way too much credit when you win and take away too much blame when you lose. Our fans are great, but they can be tough at the same time and are very eager to win. He’s handled it very well. He’s level-headed and a very mature individual that takes everything in stride.”
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