Seven years ago, it captured national media attention. It wasn’t just a story relegated to the sports pages. This was front-page news complete with the banner headlines. Local media descended onsite, doing live spots before and after games, a rarity for television stations that don’t hold the broadcast rights. It was the lead story on the evening news. It was the biggest thing, sports-wise, to ever happen in North Dakota. Networks from ESPN to CBS ran features. Print outlets from the New York Times to USAToday had stories on this upstart team from Fargo.
Seven years ago? Wait, didn’t North Dakota State’s run of five straight national football championships begin, well, five years ago in 2011? It sure did. But this sensation didn’t wear shoulder pads and helmets. No, they laced up sneakers and brought big-time college basketball to the Dakotas. This might help you remember. A guy named Ben Woodside comes down the court at the old Sioux Falls Arena during the Summit League championship game against Oakland. Game tied. Only seconds left. A spot in the NCAA Tournament at stake. Winner dances in March Madness, loser goes home.
Woodside darts from the top of the key going hard left, gets a rock- solid screen from Lucas Moormann, suddenly pulls up and rips a 17-foot jumper that was good from the moment it left his hands, giving the Bison a 66-64 victory and first ever appearance in the biggest sporting event in the world. NDSU fans storm the court, pandemonium ensues and the Bison become a nationwide story. “He pulled up on the shot instead of taking it to the rim and I remember when he got it off, I knew it was in as soon as it left his hands,” said then-Bison coach Saul Phillips in an interview commemorating the tournament’s final year in the “Old Barn” in 2014.
That was supposed to be a team for the ages. And it was, but not in the way most expected. The squad boasted three of the top scorers in program history in Woodside, Brett Winkelman and Mike Nelson. Pioneers for sure, but not the once-in-a-generation team the experts predicted. With all of NDSU’s success, including three NCAA Tournament appearances, it’s hard to remember that in 2009, the thought of the Bison regularly appearing in March Madness seemed, to many, as unthinkable as winning an FCS championship, let alone five straight.
Lest we forget, take this snippet from the New York Times that appeared in the paper’s January 23, 2006, edition after the Bison upset the No. 15 Wisconsin Badgers. Looking back, it was the first salvo in a run that has witnessed the Bison climb the ranks to a nationally recognized program. The article summarizes the now epochal Genesis story: “North Dakota State officials were criticized when they made the jump to Division I two years ago. The Bison still do not have a conference and are not eligible for the NCAA basketball tournament until 2009. The move caused hard feelings throughout the state, because it broke up a long rivalry with Division II University of North Dakota.”
No conference. No postseason eligibility for three more years. No problem. If making the NCAA Tournament and playing Kansas in the Metrodome was the Apollo moment, akin to putting our guys on the moon, once a seemingly impossible concept, the win against the Badgers was the culmination of the Gemini missions. We could do this. It set the stage for a university that, at the time, few outside of Fargo had heard of, a school that certainly wasn’t supposed to make regular appearances in March Madness or appear on ESPN’s College GameDay. The same New York Times article quoted then-NDSU athletic director Gene Taylor. “‘It was a challenging move, and not everyone was on board with it,’ Taylor said. ‘But you look at all the interest throughout the country in this win over Wisconsin. You cannot put a price on that exposure for the athletic program and the university.’”
You know the rest of the story. What was billed as a once-in-a-generation run in 2009 has happened two more times since, culminating with the victory over Oklahoma in 2014 that gave the Bison the glass slipper of America’s Cinderella. From Woodside, Phillips and Taylor to Taylor Braun, Lawrence Alexander, Dave Richman and Matt Larsen, the Bison have built a perennial winner with a championship culture. Again, the New York Times took notice, this time with a banner headline on March 21, 2014, after the upset against the Sooners. “North Dakota State Thinks Big, Has Fun, Earns Attention.” That headline and these words leap off the page. “And no collegiate athletic department is riding a bigger crest of momentum,” proclaimed America’s newspaper of record, which has told our nation’s story since 1851.
Think about that. The most recognized newspaper in the world proclaimed that no other collegiate athletic department is riding a bigger crest of momentum. Thinks big. Has Fun. Earns attention. Man, how does your heart not swell with pride – Bison Pride – when you read that? As Ma Swany says, “but go one better.” Since those words were written, NDSU has made a repeat trip to the NCAA Tournament giving Gonzaga a run for their money, won two more FCS national championships, made NCAA Tournament appearances in softball and baseball, had Olympians in track and field, dozens of all-Americans, been ranked in the Top 25 in wrestling and softball, won a regular season conference title in soccer, has a quarterback about to be drafted as one of the top picks in the NFL Draft, SportsCenter visited campus, and GameDay is talking about making a third appearance. Don’t forget the icing on the cake – we’ll open a brand spanking new sports complex and basketball arena next fall that will be one of the crowning jewels in mid- major hoops.
If we were riding the biggest crest of momentum in all of college athletics in March 2014, what would the New York Times have to say about where we’re at in March 2016? I think about where we’ve been and the road we’ve traveled. What makes me more excited, though, is thinking about the road we’re on and our future, where we’re going. The slogan of the New York Times is “All the News That’s Fit to Print.” You could say the same thing about North Dakota State – after all, we’ve got quite the story to tell and we’re just getting started. That’s some news that’s fit to print. Everybody up for the tipoff, the march is on!