WHO ARE THE BISON?
A Look into the NDSU Football Program: Dominance awaiting National Attention
September 18th, 2013
September 18th, 2013
If you haven’t heard yet, ESPN’s College Gameday will be airing live from a Division 1-AA (FCS) school this Saturday as they head to Fargo, North Dakota. The reason? Fargo is home to a surging program that has done nothing but win the past decade. 10 years removed from Division II status, NDSU now enters FBS stadiums each September and walks away with “upset” wins and million dollar checks. One of the nation’s strongest football programs is not yet a household name (on the coasts), but will be after this weekend’s ESPN coverage. The North Dakota State Bison … who are they, and how have they risen to dominance in such a short time?
The North Dakota State Bison program has its roots in Division II, and went through 2 separate eras of dominance. Coach Darrell Mudra led the 1965 team to the championship level for the first time in school history, winning the DII National Championship. His successor, Ron Erhardt, took NDSU to an elite level going 67-7-1 over his 7-year tenure, and added 2 National Championships in 1968 and 1969. After a quiet 1970s, NDSU surged again in the 1980s, winning 6 National Championships in 9 seasons, which stacks up as one of the most dominant runs in NCAA history, regardless of division.
After more successful seasons in the North Central Conference, NDSU hit a dry spell under coach Bob Babich who became the first coach since the 1950s to not win a single league title. The Bison football program was a sleeping giant, one that caught the eye of Craig Bohl. Bohl was a former Blackshirt defender at Nebraska, and after his coaching start at NDSU, ended up coaching Nebraska’s linebackers for 2 National Championship teams, including the 1995 squad that is widely considered the greatest team of all-time. Bohl was the defensive coordinator at NU from 2000-2002, but was let go after the disappointing 7-7 season. Was Bohl at fault? Perhaps a little, but chalk up that 7-7 season to a stagnant offense forced to replace a Heisman QB, and undergo the slow, painful death of the triple option.
With the vacancy up north in Fargo, Bohl took the head coaching job and never looked back. After an opening 8-3 season in 2003, NDSU made the jump up to Division 1-AA which is usually a crippling transition to programs. The talent level difference alone is enough to set back a team’s progress from the start. But this wasn’t the case with the Bison, who thrived on the bigger stage. In their third year on the 1-AA level, NDSU made another jump in program status by capturing a Great West Conference Title, beating a Division 1-A opponent (Ball State) and coming within a last-second blocked FG of beating Minnesota of the Big Ten.
2007 saw two more D-1 wins: Central Michigan and revenge on Minnesota. The next transition was in motion, as NDSU jumped up to the powerful Missouri Valley Conference in 2008. After a few years of ‘growing pains’ Bohl’s machine was back on track in 2010 when the Bison beat its first Big 12 opponent (Kansas) and made its first appearance in the NCAA FCS Playoffs. The success that followed speaks for itself:
2011: National Champions (14-1), also beat Minnesota 37-24
2012: National Champions (14-1), also beat Colorado State 22-7
If that wasn’t enough to catch the nation’s eye, America quickly noticed the Bison on opening weekend this year. The defending Big 12 champion Kansas State Wildcats were 14-point favorites over NDSU – but the Bison struck again with this last-second TD – pulling off the closest thing to Appalachian State in 6 years.
But was it really that big of an “upset”? In the minds of BisoNation, they feel their squad can go toe-to-toe with anyone in the nation, FCS AND FBS. And so far they have done just that. Its hard to ignore back-to-back FCS National Championships and a 7-3 record against FBS opponents (including 4 straight wins).
Saturday, the Bison host Delaware State; while the game and matchup may not be a headliner, the purpose is to give this surging program the recognition they deserve. The passionate BisoNation fan base deserves to show the rest of the nation (outside of the Midwest) what they are all about. Get ready for the discussions about NDSU moving up to FBS – they are simply that good.
*North Dakota State is currently ranked 51st in the nation by the Sagarin Ratings (above roughly 70 FBS teams)