Photos by ESPN Images
Anish Shroff has been carrying the torch for Bison coverage at ESPN. He’s called the last three championship games and has made a handful of trips to Fargo to witness the scene inside the Fargodome. We asked him about the program and how many people are really paying attention at the Worldwide Leader in Sports, ESPN.
(Editor’s Note: This interview happened January 18)
Bison Illustrated: How many Bison games have you done now?
Anish Shroff: “Eight games. Three championships, three semis, two of the last three-quarters.”
BI: From the eight games you’ve called, have you noticed any differences in the program as time has worn on?
“That’s the amazing part to me and that we throw the word dynasty around in sports a lot, and if you think of it, dynasty implies a couple of things. One is the success and two is some form of succession. And we’ve seen that. They’ve had two different head coaches. They’ve had three different quarterbacks playing key parts of this playoff run. All these key elements that could cause a team to slip up or maybe cause some kind of regression and somehow they’ve managed to keep this impossibly high standard now for five years. That, to me, is the most amazing part, and if you want to talk about constants, I think the two constants that jump out, one is line play. They are just so sound and so solid in the trenches. In every game I’ve done, I’ve yet to see a team dominate or even be North Dakota State’s equal, really, in the trenches. The other constant has been the fans. I’m lucky enough to go around the country every Saturday, to all different programs and see all different schools and all different venues, and I’m not sure there are many fan bases, maybe you can count on one hand a fanbase as passionate, who are as loyal, and who impact the actual game as much as the Bison fans do.”
BI: Do you talk to coach Klieman before the games about the pressure to keep the success going and what does he say about that?
“Absolutely. He (Chris Klieman) jokes about it because we’ve had discussions about, ‘Hey, so is there a point now where just the pressure on you guys is overbearing?’ And he goes, ‘Yeah, I’d be at the grocery store or I’ll be out and about in Fargo and people will say, hey coach, bought my ticket for the championship.’ And he’ll look down and say, ‘It’s August.’ (Laughs) They expect to win here. I think this is a fan base that understands this run of success, this isn’t something that is going to last forever and I think they can appreciate how special this is. We may not see something like this in college football period – especially at the Division-I level – in our lifetimes. It’s magical what they have. As to how do you sustain it? One thing coach Klieman keeps going back to is this ‘stay hungry, stay humble,’ and it’s easy to say that, and when you keep winning, you can think maybe you get too big for your britches, maybe there’s some confidence that borders an arrogance, but then you go back to the type of kid they recruit. They’re not taking somebody else’s problems or anyone else’s reject. They don’t take junior college guys, for the most part, and they don’t take FBS transfers. They’re taking guys that have been passed up by Iowa and Nebraska and Wisconsin and all those – Minnesota – so those kids want to go to North Dakota State with a big chip on their shoulder. I think that’s a big part of it. These guys go in not thinking, ‘Hey, we’re just going to be a part of this dynasty fabric. We have something to prove because we were overlooked.’ I don’t think without it, you can sustain this kind of run.”
BI: You’ve covered a wide-range of sports and have been a sports fan your whole life, can you remember anything like this championship run?
“My broadcasting career, I’m primarily on the remote side, covering college sports, so no. A couple that sort of jump out, but again, we’re not even close to being apples-to-apples. I was a student at Syracuse and we had a great lacrosse program there. They went to 22 straight Final Fours at one point. But again, they didn’t win 22 straight championships. They never won more than three in a row, so just in the annals of college sports, in football, this is unheard of. It really is because you have success, people come after your coaches, people come after your assistants and that’s happened here, and yet they’ve still managed to sustain it. Again, if you want to talk about UCLA basketball, but that was a little bit before my time. I look at what the Bulls were able to do in the NBA, I look at what the Yankees were able to do, five in a row, you think about how few times that’s happened in sports in general. Hockey, I think it happened once with the Canadians, in baseball, the Yankees did it and that was 1949-53 when they had the end of the DiMaggio era and the beginning of the Mantle era. In basketball, you had the Celtics with Russell, Cousey and Red. This is rare. This doesn’t happen. And it’s mind-boggling it’s happening in Fargo, North Dakota in some ways.”
BI: What are your thoughts on NDSU going to the FBS?
“To be perfectly honest with you, I’m not sure there’s a really good reason for it. I think what they have right here is really special. It’s not as if, yeah maybe the fan base would be yearning, some of the fans are yearning for a move against bigger competition, but right now you’re THE team. You’re the big fish in the pond. And North Dakota State, if it goes into the FBS, I wouldn’t say they become just another team, but that mystic and that aura that they carry won’t be there. Certainly, you’re not going to the FBS and being the flagship school of the FBS. You’re not going to be Alabama, you’re not going to be LSU or Florida State or Oklahoma or a Texas. Right now, you’re the face of the FCS and I think there’s a lot of pride to be taken in that. The FCS is a very competitive division. There’s a lot of good teams and to do what they’ve done over a five-year stretch where they’ve shown they can beat the big boys. They’ve beaten the Kansas States, the Kansases and the Iowa States of the world. To me, I’m not sure it proves anything (going to the FBS). You have to look at logistics, too. You go to the FBS, you probably have to need a new arena. You’re going to get rid of the Fargodome? You gonna expand it? If you expand it to 40,000 hypothetically, would you even fill the place? These are the questions you have to ask. Right now, you have 19,000 filled to the brim, as loud as can be and it feels like 100,000 and that’s part of the allure of it.”
BI: I think some of the people here who want to go up still feel like they’re not getting enough exposure on the national stage, do you feel that?
“If you ask me, though, I think they have the national recognition. GameDay has been there twice, SportsCenter did a live setup there. When we fill out our programming grid once the FCS playoff bracket was released, North Dakota State is getting the marquee game because they are the flagship of the FCS. They’re the brand. They’re the most recognizable program. They rate the highest quite frankly. When we’re looking ahead, which quarterfinal game goes on ESPN, which is usually the highest rated game in the tournament, Jacksonville State was the one seed, Illinois State was the two seed and North Dakota State is the three seed, but because of the prolog, because of what they’ve done and what they’ve become, it was a no-brainer to put that on ESPN. And the other games got slotted down on ESPN 2 or ESPNU and what have you.”
BI: Do you have colleagues at ESPN that come up to you and ask about North Dakota State and, if so, what do they say?
“(Laughs) Yeah, they do. I work out of the studio at ESPNU down in Charlotte, N.C., and people are definitely intrigued by what’s happening up in Fargo. I frequented Fargo enough times now where (laughs) they crack a few jokes. They wonder if I’m going to change my last name to Gunderson or something soon (laughs). Listen, this is a phenomenon that’s being talked about at ESPN. North Dakota State has a lot of fans and supporters at the network because we’re amazed at what they’ve been able to do and how long they’ve been able to do it.”
BI: In my opinion, you look more like a Gustafson. Anyway, what do you think it’s going to take to make this a six-peat?
“As long as they can keep the coaching staff intact, which I do believe will be challenged the further along you progress. And if you have a year where you do get knocked out early and teams are looking to fill vacancies, why wouldn’t you raid North Dakota State’s staff? They know how to win. They’ve been on the biggest stage. They know what it takes. I think they’ve been fortunate in a lot of ways, too, with injuries. I know Carson Wentz goes down this year, but the next man up is Easton Stick. Maybe they run into a year where their o-line gets banged up or they have to burn a bunch of redshirts. This is a program that likes to redshirt guys. They haven’t had that issue so far. There’s certainly an element of fortune and luck that plays a part of it. You need that if you’re going to win five in a row, and the coaching staff will tell you that. I look at next year, they have their top four tacklers are back, eight starters are back on defense. Three offensive linemen are back, your top four running backs are back, your number one wide receiver is back. Sure you lose Carson Wentz, your first round pick. I think you have to feel pretty good about Easton Stick as a four-year starter, don’t you? There’s a lot coming back and you look at what they have, how’s that team not preseason number one or number two going into 2016?”
BI: Where do you think Carson Wentz ultimately ends up?
“I’ll tell you this, and you can print this, one of our colleagues at Scout Inc. (They) told me last year after the championship, ‘Carson Wentz, I’m telling you, my NFL friends are telling me this kid could be Joe Flacco, and he’s got a chance to go really high next year.’ And Wentz was talked about as a prospect, not sure many saw him as a first-round pick last year. Talking to (them) after the Liberty Bowl, (they) said, don’t be surprised if the Carson Wentz hype machine just blows up leading up to the NFL Draft. (They) think there’s a chance, you’re talking about a guy who could be the first or second QB off the board come late April.”
BI: So it was the right call to play that last game?
“He made a lot of money. I mean, not playing for three months and just making some throws in tight windows where – listen, you follow the FCS and covered it a lot longer than I have – you just don’t see guys make those throws at that level. I mean, shoot, you don’t see a lot of guys make that throw at the FBS level. He was making some Sunday throws and we were in the booth just looking at each other, thinking ‘Man, this guy hasn’t played in three months? Imagine if he’d have some regular game reps how good he’d be.’ I saw him last year on that final drive, what (the scouts) told me was, ‘You look at the top QBs and it’s (Jared) Goff and it’s Wentz, it’s Paxton Lynch, (Connor) Cook, (Christian) Hackenberg. Hackenberg’s stock has dropped pretty considerably, where you’re not evaluating him in the first round.’ He’s got a second round grade on him. Cook is looked at as a late-first rounder. There’s a lot of questions about Paxton Lynch because of the system he played in and he really struggled at times down the stretch so his stock has dropped. (The scouts) were telling me, ‘You are probably going to see, it’s either going to be Goff or Wentz who’s the first QB taken.’ They said, once Wentz gets in front of Scouts on pro day and they see a 6’6 guy who can move like he does and throw like he does, his stock is just going to shoot up so you’re talking about a guy right now projected in the mid-to-late first round. They think he’s got a chance to be a top 15 pick, maybe even the first QB taken.”
BI: We’re ready to have the highest-attended Pro Day in Bison history.
“You know, and that’s the other thing, you talk about the exposure for the program. As great as five championships are, I don’t think you can undersell the value of what it means for a school like North Dakota State to have a marquee position player like a quarterback go in the first round whenever everybody is watching. It’s huge for the program.”