Offensive lineman Colin Runge was one of the leaders on Northern Colorado Bears football teams that won national championships in 1996 and 1997.
Runge, a 6-foot-2, 290-pound guard, was all-in on being the best player he could be for the Bears, drawing on his leadership skills and his high football IQ.
Colin Runge Was Ready to Play College Football As Freshman at Northern Colorado
Runge arrived at Northern Colorado in the fall of 1994 and quickly learned about just how competitive Division II football was.
“There are grown men playing football, and you quickly learn that the assumptions about (Division II schools) are overblown,” Runge said. “It takes a certain kind of determination and toughness to stick it out in that type of environment.”
Runge was redshirted in 1994. He was thankful because he used his redshirt season to get used to the routine of being a college athlete. Drew Masten, a Bears offensive lineman who was also redshirted in 1994, said Runge showed his commitment to the Bears by studying the playbook at night after two-a-day practices.
“I didn’t have to study very hard,” Runge said. “I enjoyed it.”
Runge learned parts of the playbook that he did not necessarily have to know, such as the quarterback section. He was able to help other players understand the concepts and schemes behind the Bears offense.
Colin Runge Was Leader Throughout Freshman Season for Northern Colorado Bears
The Bears were unique in utilizing spread formations to complement the veer option, which was the most common offense in Division II at the time. Studying the playbook extensively helped Runge emerge as a standout early in his UNC career. The Bears never had full-time captains, but Runge was often selected as a game captain.
“Colin was a born leader,” said Ed Bendokas, another Bears offensive lineman and Runge teammate.“Colin by far was the smartest one (of the offensive line group) and picked up the offense the quickest. Because of that, he gained the leadership role with the younger guys. As we got older, he became the leader of the offensive line and the entire offense.”
Runge was starting by the third game of his redshirt freshman year in 1995, playing left guard. The Bears would finish 9-2 that first season. However, they would lose their first playoff game 36-17 to Pittsburg State.
He said it was good for the team to experience the playoff atmosphere but the Bears were not able to keep up with Pittsburg State.
“We thought we were a competitive team, and they beat us pretty handily,” Runge said.
1996 Season Had a Rocky Start for Runge
The Bears used the loss as a learning experience leading up to the 1996 season. There were high expectations for the team, but the season did not get off to the start that was envisioned. They were 5-3 with three games to play and had to win all three of their remaining three games to get into the playoffs.
Runge sprained his knee during the season and had to miss games, and there was obvious frustration that went along with that. However, it was not as hard as it could have been for Runge because he did not have to travel to away games.
“It was difficult to have to listen to games on the radio and not be a part of the team,” Runge said. “But I don’t think it was as hard as if they were at home.”
Runge, Northern Colorado Bears Peaked at the Right Time, Won Championship
The Bears won their last three games of the regular season to finish 8-3 and make the playoffs. Once again, they had a road matchup in the first round with Pittsburg State. Being familiar with the stadium and the raucous atmosphere helped the team, Runge said. It was a close game, but the Bears blocked a field goal to secure a 24-21 victory.
Their next game was at home against Northwest Missouri State. The Bears were down 26-21 late but got a go-ahead score with six seconds left to advance to the semifinals against Clarion. They would mount yet another game-winning drive, and get to go to Florence, Alabama, for the Division II Championship against Carson Newman.
The championship would not be as close and tense as the Bears’ three previous playoff games. They went into halftime leading 17-14 and added two more field goals in the second half to win 23-14.
The Bears would get their championship rings, with “Believe” etched onto each one. “Believe” is what senior safety Jesse Tann told his teammates to do in the nail-biting victories in the 1996 playoffs.
“He’d run up and down the sidelines telling us to believe,” Runge said. “We latched on to that, and that belief paid off multiple times.”
Runge said the Bears could not believe they were able to pull off their championship season in 1996. The feeling was one of shock and euphoria.
1997 Was Still An Underdog Story for Northern Colorado Bears, Even With a Championship Repeat
The Bears were on top of the Division II mountain. However, they did not see themselves this way entering the 1997 season because of the loss of key players from the championship season.
“We still viewed ourselves as underdogs,” Runge said.
The Bears finished the 1997 season 9-2, and once again played at Pittsburg State in the first round, this time winning 24-16. They also had playoff rematches at Northwest Missouri State and then Carson Newman. The Bears edged Carson Newman 30-29 on a last-second field goal to advance to the championship game.
The Bears trounced New Haven in the championship, 51-0.
“Respect” was etched into the championship rings. Runge said the team felt disrespected because they did not get a single home playoff game despite being defending champions.
1998 Season Ended With a Disappointment, but Runge Left a Great Legacy
In 1998, Runge said, the Bears felt like they were going to beat everyone who stood in their way.
However, the Bears lost 42-17 to Northwest Missouri State to end Runge’s senior season. He attributed this loss to the team simply not being as good, even though there were higher expectations for the season.
“We didn’t run the ball as well, and in retrospect, it really hampered our ability to perform in the playoffs,” Runge said.
Runge now lives in Westminster, Colorado, and works as a sales operations manager for CenturyLink Communications.
Runge and his teammates may have not had the media circus that big schools like Ohio State or Alabama had, but the love of the game helped the Bears bond and win two championships.