North Dakota State’s proud football history isn’t anything new. Has it reached a new level? Unquestionably. You can’t travel to an airport or major metropolitan area in the country wearing a NDSU shirt without someone asking you about the Bison. But before the two visits by ESPN’s College GameDay, before games being regularly televised on ESPN’s family of networks and across the North Dakota NBC Network, before the three straight FCS national championships, before the 33-game winning streak, before Bison Nation’s annual pilgrimage to Frisco this week, there was Bison Pride, alive and well – even if the rest of America writ large didn’t know about it yet.
To understand how we got here, how this team is playing for a historic fourth straight national championship, you should appreciate where we’ve been. Tradition isn’t just a buzzword at NDSU. It’s our bedrock. Decades before FCS, Frisco, and GameDay became familiar terms in our vocabularies, there were packed stands at Dacotah Field that watched 25 teams win North Central Conference championships and eight of those teams go on to win Division II national titles. The Fargodome was built, in part, thanks to the success of those teams.
Before the Division I move and guys like Craig Dahl, Joe Mays, Ramon Humber, Marcus Williams and Billy Turner, there was NFL talent like Steve Nelson, Stacy Robinson, Tyrone Braxton, and Phil Hansen. There were College Football Hall of Famers like Joe Cichy, Mike Favor, and Jeff Bentrim. There were coaches like Darrell Mudra, Ron Erhardt, Don Morton, and Rocky Hager. There was Denis “Izzy” Isrow, the father of Bison Pride. There were hundreds of all-conference players and dozens of All-Americans, including two national Division II players of the year in Bentrim and Chris Simdorn. Nearly 30 years before Kansas State, in the midst of a dominating 1986 season that culminated with a national championship, ESPN’s Beano Cook, then a leading voice in college football, proclaimed the Bison the tenth best team in the country, regardless of division.
This reputation extends to the highest levels in football. In his recent biography, “Parcells: A Football Life,” NFL Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells specifically mentions the success at NDSU in reference to his offensive coordinator for two Super Bowls, Erhardt, who coached the Bison to national championships in 1968 and 1969. The morning of Super Bowl XXI, where the New York Giants defeated the Denver Broncos, Parcells tells the story of how he met Erhardt in their hotel lobby before leaving for the Rose Bowl where the biggest game in the world would be played. “At 7:30 a.m., Parcells and Barnes headed outside to hail a cab. Parcells turned to Erhardt, who had coached North Dakota State with great success for seven years. ‘Well, it’s just like the North Dakota State–Augustana game, right?’ Erhardt, nicknamed ‘Fargo’ after the state’s largest city, smiled.”
Our history paved the road for the present and is a bridge to our future. In other words, to borrow the title of another book, this one published in 1992, the year before the Fargodome opened, there was Bison Football: Three Decades of Excellence. That excellence was the beginning of a dynasty. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines dynasty as “a family, team, etc., that is very powerful or successful for a long period of time.” In the last 50 years, starting in 1964, when Lyndon B. Johnson was in the White House and NASA was launching Project Gemini, the Bison have won 28 conference championships and 11 national titles. That’s sustained excellence over the course of a half-century.
This Bison team is carrying that banner of their forbearers, albeit to unprecedented levels. In modern college football, no team at the Division I level has won four straight national championships. The FCS, previously known as I-AA, was formed in 1978. This year marks the 37th FCS championship. NDSU has been eligible for the FCS playoffs since only 2008 after moving to Division I. In those seven years, the Bison are already playing for our fourth national championship. Only two teams in FCS history, Georgia Southern and Youngstown State, have more championships than the Bison – and they had three more decades to do it.
People far from the plains of Fargo are now standing and taking notice of this remarkable program and rich history. They’re taking notice of one of the top dynasties in all of college athletics. During College GameDay’s trip to Fargo this fall, ESPN ran a video feature voiced by Tom Rinaldi, which they replayed during both FCS semifinal games. The feature included highlights from the last four seasons. Over the highlights, Rinaldi declared: “It is success. North Dakota State wins the Division I football championship. And succession. Chris Klieman first season at the helm. Change and continuity. Touchdown, what a play! It’s carrying the torch and passing it, and carrying it again. And the tradition for the Bison lives on. It is the definition of a dynasty.”
Rinaldi couldn’t have said it better. It is success, and succession. It is change, and continuity. But let me add one final thing. This Bison team isn’t building a dynasty. They’re building on a dynasty that was well-established prior to ESPN making NDSU a national brand. The Bison Family will gather from Fargo to Frisco to celebrate this history, and proudly watch this team continue carrying that torch. That is the definition of a dynasty. Everyone up for the kickoff, the march is on.