By Joshua A. Swanson
From now until next September, whether you’re sitting on Big Cormorant Lake dropping the auger to cut some ice for a line, pulling the air seeder planting your field, or pushing the mower through tall green grass, behind closed doors, a team is at work. This team knows that what happened at the Fargodome on a Friday night in December doesn’t define who they are. Just like certain events on the snow-covered red turf in Cheney, Washington, on December 11, 2010, didn’t mark an end. There is more to the story. Much more. History has a funny way of being circular rather than linear in a chronological sense.
Others have and will continue to write their postmortems on how North Dakota State’s historic run of five straight Football Championship Subdivision national titles finally came to an end. James Madison slayed the big bad Bison, ding-dong the wicked Bison are dead. To that, I say, woe! Woe to anyone that harbors misguided thoughts that NDSU is going to quietly fade into the sunlight and posterity of history. The “streak” may be over, but the Bison will be back.
While outcomes, especially in sports, are measured by wins and losses, those individual wins and losses, winning streaks and championship runs don’t tell the whole story. They are but a snapshot giving us only part of the picture. Think about that proverbial iceberg sitting above the waterline. The vast majority of the iceberg lies below the surface. So too, like that iceberg, we see just a fraction of the big picture—the outcome, that win or loss. But what defines a team, a person, or an organization, isn’t always the win or loss, but their response to winning or losing. NDSU didn’t win five straight national titles and six straight conference titles by basking in win, after win, after win, championship after championship after championship.
The Bison won by staying hungry, staying humble, and acting like they hadn’t won anything when preparing for the next season. You’ve likely heard that Bison players are not allowed to wear championship gear in the weight room. It’s about winning each day, looking forward to and embracing the next challenge. For the first time since the closing days of 2010 leading into 2011, the Bison hunger and humility will be tested by an offseason of knowing the team fell short of its ultimate goal the previous year—standing on the stage at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas. Resilience and perseverance are hard learned lessons. They also can set the table for big, big things.
Think about what you felt in the hours and days after NDSU lost a playoff game for the first time ever at the Fargodome. You’ve probably moved past that, washed it away with some holiday cheer and hopes for a short winter as a prelude to next fall. Now, take whatever you felt on the heels of that loss and multiply it by every single snowflake in your yard. What you felt as a fan, albeit well intended and out of the incredible passion for our team, pales in comparison to what our players, coaches, and anyone affiliated with our football program is still feeling. It’s cliché, but true—you learn more about yourself and what you’re about in failure than in success.
Two of the biggest games in recent Bison history were prologue to what began in September 2011, setting the stage for what has since followed. In early December 2010, the Bison were in the FCS playoffs for the first time. The week before they suffered the heartbreaking overtime loss at Eastern Washington in the national quarterfinals that everyone remembers, the Bison beat Montana State 42-17 in Bozeman, Montana.
I’ll never forget sitting in the press conference following NDSU’s win over the Bobcats. I drove from Minot, where I was working as a judicial law clerk, through a blizzard with a fellow Bison alum, to cover the game for Bison Illustrated. The home team was stunned, dumbfounded. Most of the people in the room were dumbfounded. The Bison knocked off the No. 3 ranked Bobcats. At home. In the playoffs. The sense of “what the hell just happened” hung heavy in the brisk Rocky Mountain air. After falling behind 21-17 early in the fourth quarter, the Bison reeled off four straight touchdowns, punctuating a day that put the rest of the FCS on notice. I can’t remember the exact question, but at that press conference, someone asked Bison offensive lineman Paul Cornick about NDSU’s unexpected victory and, after two postseason wins, a playoff run. The media was surprised. Not Cornick. Not the Bison. In a no-nonsense, matter- of-fact way, Cornick said the Bison were hungry for more.
Hungry for more? Starving is more appropriate. The tradition was there. It never left. After winning eight Division II national championships and dozens of conference titles going back to 1965, NDSU was primed to take our brand of football, our tradition, to a new level. The rest of America witnessed exactly what that meant as the Bison became a national brand with a national story as NDSU built upon an already rich history and culture with five more national titles and wins over big-time opponents like Kansas State and the University of Iowa. Losing to Eastern Washington in 2010 was not the end. It also wasn’t the beginning. What happened that day was set in motion years, if not decades, before.
“Woe to anyone that harbors misguided thoughts that NDSU is going to quietly fade into the sunlight and posterity of history. The “streak” may be over, but the Bison will be back.”
Our story, the story of NDSU football, didn’t start with the national limelight of winning five straight FCS championships and regular appearances on ESPN. Likewise, the story of NDSU football didn’t end with what happened against James Madison. The “streak,” the run of consecutive championships, never defined this football team or our university. It is something to be remarkably proud of. It was historic. It is, and will stand for some time, as one of the greatest team achievements in the history of sports. It deserves a standing ovation and all the attention that has come along with it. But it’s not the end, it’s prologue for what comes next.
The last time the Bison fell in the playoffs, you know what happened. The history of our championship program is that we come back stronger. This team, our players and coaches, our university, has never let a loss define us. The Bison have never and will never let a loss be the final word. The mantra of this team is “Attack the Process,” to take each day one at a time, and to win each day. There will be no sulking, no pouting, no feeling sorry for themselves. There’s work to be done. Helluva season, Bison. We’re proud of you, damn proud of you. And we know this is not the end. Come next September, we’ll be ready and hungry too. The strength of the Herd is the Bison, and the Strength of the Bison is the Herd. Everyone up for the kickoff, the march is on!