The 1975 Division II National Championship football team was not the only squad in NMU history to dramatically reverse its fortunes following a winless season. In 1956, the Wildcat football team finished 7-0-1 after losing every game the previous year.
A national championship was out of reach and reserved for more elite programs because NCAA divisions did not form until 1973.
A coaching change ushered in the 1956 season, with Lloyd Eaton as head coach and former NMU athlete Burt Gustafson as end coach. According to an online football history bio, Gustafson stayed onboard for seven more years as the team continued to have success. The Wildcats won more than 72% of their games, the greatest seven-year stretch at the time for Northern.
“The coaches were very inspirational,” said Iron River native James Wickman (BS ‘58, MAE ‘62), a member of the 1956 football team. “They ran us very hard and made us do challenging obstacle courses. We were in good condition, which was important because we did not have many players. We also did not have a specific position in those days. You played both offense and defense each game, so a lot of us had to play almost every minute of every game.”
In addition to the new coaching staff, only three members of the 1955 team had returned. The 1956 season also marked Edgar Harden's first year as NMU president.
“With Dr. Harden as president, it was the start of a new era,” said Wickman. “He brought with him a focus on academics and athletics. Having an undefeated season was a very uplifting experience for us at NMU. It made us feel proud, and it certainly made the university feel proud.”