Deep inside the FargoDome, in the North Dakota State locker room, a simple but powerful message is painted on the doors leading to the field. The message serves as a reminder for everyone that walks out of those doors wearing the green and yellow – Those Who Stay Will Be Champions. But the message isn’t a Division I thing. Its roots grow deeper, much deeper, to the origins of Bison Football as we know it today. It’s a story captured in the video of the same name, produced by NDSU Athletics and Epic Productions, which premieres this Thursday at the Bison Showcase at the FargoDome, chronicling the emergence of a Division I power.
That message, Those Who Stay Will Be Champions, is one of the guiding principles of Bison Pride. It was brought to NDSU by the late Denis “Izzy” Isrow in 1963. To know and appreciate where Bison Football is now, you have to understand the humble beginnings the program came from. In 1963, the Bison were a team without tradition, a team that had not won a conference title since the throes of the Great Depression.
It didn’t take long for Bison Pride to take hold and flourish in the deep Red River Valley soil. From 1963 through 1972, the Bison won eight North Central Conference titles, including three College Division national championships. That success continued in the 1980s, where the Bison added seven more NCC titles and four Division II national championships. The Bison added their eighth Division II national title in 1990. NDSU had become the undisputed king of Division II football, a position an alumni base and community grew accustomed to. Success was measured in championships.
So, in August 2002, when then-president Joe Chapman stood before the cameras at the university’s Alumni Center and announced that NDSU would be reclassifying to Division I status, it was not the watershed moment many view it as today, but a moment of uncertainty and trepidation. In a state and region slow to embrace any sort of change, the idea of joining the big boys at Division I was greeted with skepticism. Thoughts of a slow rebuilding process, years of mediocrity and a championship drought were disconcerting for the Bison faithful.
This is where the story of Those Who Stay Will Be Champions begins. Before the marquee wins over Minnesota, before the FargoDome was voted a Top 25 venue and tailgating spot in all of college football, before College GameDay, before the three straight FCS national championships, NDSU Athletic Director Gene Taylor sat at his home computer writing the letter recommending the Bison make the historic move. “Before I typed the last sentence I had to stop,” said Taylor, asking himself, “Do you realize what this means to this program if it does not work.” Without the benefit of hindsight, that question hung heavy over an entire university when the decision was made to move Division I. “I would say 70 percent of our fanbase was adamantly opposed, probably 10 percent very much in favor of it, and the rest were on the fence,” said Taylor.
The Bison wasted no time jumping into the deep end. In September 2003, NDSU faced their first big test at Montana. What many fans forget is, at the time, Montana was to the FCS what NDSU is today. The Bison entered heavy underdogs to the No. 3 ranked Grizzlies. “I’ll point to that game as a very pivotal part to our move to Division I,” Taylor explained, noting many observers wanted NDSU to fall big in Missoula. The Bison shut up those doubters with a monumental win, erasing a 24 – 2 halftime deficit to beat the Griz 25 – 24. It’s the first of many milestones highlighted in the movie, and an early precursor to another marquee moment that would come nearly ten years later to the day.
Many players and coaches, who were not eligible for the FCS playoffs during the transition years, laid the groundwork that served as a foundation for the three straight FCS titles. The movie features cameos Bison fans will love. The first comes from Jacksonville Jaguar head coach Casey “Gus” Bradley. “It validated the move and the direction we wanted to go,” said Bradley. “I think that it gave people a sense of comfort that, you know what, we can compete at this level.” And compete the Bison did.
As the movie progresses, the momentum keeps building. In October 2007, before 30,000 rowdy Bison fans in the Metrodome, NDSU defeated Minnesota on the strength of a career day from running back Tyler Roehl. The roar of those 30,000 can be heard when Roehl busts open a 3rd-and-7 swing pass from Steve Walker for a 77 yard touchdown. The win earned NDSU its first big taste of national exposure on the Division I stage, including several prolonged segments on ESPN’s SportsCenter. “It was just a stamp on we’re here, we’re here to play,” said Roehl.
The movie pays its respects to guys like Roehl and Walker, and their 2006 and 2007 teams, that connected an entirely different fanbase, the casual fan and passive alum, to Bison Football. Those fans quickly evolved into many of the diehards packing the tailgating lots of the Dome every fall. Only three years into the Division I transition, on October 8, 2007, NDSU was ranked No. 1 in the FCS poll for the first time. That first Gopher win signaled big things to come. According to Taylor, the win propelled the program to new heights. “This is different, this is a new level … we weren’t just a flash in the pan, we were a program that people were looking at, you better watch these guys because they’re going to have some success.”
But the success didn’t come without adversity. Following consecutive 10 – 1 campaigns, the Bison stumbled hard out of the gate when they began play in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, struggling to acclimate to the league’s physical play. The low point came in 2009, when NDSU suffered through a 3 – 8 season, only the program’s third losing season in 50 years. The movie acknowledges those tough seasons and how they served as a springboard rather than a death knell.
That’s where the story picks up again, with a group of freshmen that ultimately became the nucleus of the back-to-back-to-back championship teams, arriving as recruits in 2009 and 2010. The image of a noticeably younger Brock Jensen in the fall of 2010 jumps out. “The two classes of 2009 and 2010, when we stepped foot on campus we were told from the beginning we’d have an opportunity to do something very special here,” said Grant Olson, the linebacker-leader and a team captain of the last two FCS championship teams. “We wanted to return this program to national prominence were it belonged.” Guys that hadn’t played a down went all-in on Bison Pride. Like their Division I predecessors, guys like Olson, Jensen, Billy Turner, Marcus Williams, and on, and on, were about to take Bison Football to unchartered territory, even for the Bison. It was a level far, far removed from that 2002 evening when Taylor sat at his home computer and typed his Division I recommendation letter, a level that would see the Bison grow into a nationally-recognized power.
But that too wasn’t without heartache. No one, especially Jensen, could tell the story of these championship teams without mentioning the devastating overtime loss at Eastern Washington on the red turf in December 2010. It’s a moment you will cringe at in disbelief when the infamous replay is replayed in the movie. An introspective Jensen described the play. “Something I’ll never forget.” Showing maturity beyond their years, Jensen and his teammates did not let the devastation go to waste, instead, turning it to fuel for one of the most dominating three-year spans in college football history.
“The feeling of having the ball in my hands and just going down like that was very tough. I know I never wanted to experience that again in my career,” said Jensen. “It takes a team effort, a group of guys willing to sacrifice and give up things and not allow that to happen again.” In the two ensuing seasons, the Bison racked up consecutive 14 – 1 records and a pair of national championship trophies. With each of those seasons already having their own highlight video, Those Who Stay Will Be Champions briefly glosses over them in setting the stage for 2013. Everything in the movie crescendos to 2013, a year for the ages that introduced Bison Football to a nation.
The movie itself begins with Jensen under center and the Bison in Manhattan, Kan., as the two-time defending FCS champs faced their toughest FBS opponent yet, Kansas State, the defending Big XII champs. On August 30, 2013, the thermometer in Manhattan topped 100 degrees. A deep sea of purple shaded with a healthy sliver of yellow opened the college football season with a nationally televised game on FoxSports1. “Anybody across the country who never heard of Bison football or didn’t know what it was about soon became well aware of what we were capable of,” said Olson. It was a moment nearly ten years to the day after the Montana win, and 50 years from when Bison Pride arrived on campus. The 50th anniversary of Bison Pride would begin with one helluva party.
Just as Olson predicted, the nation became aware of the boys from Fargo. Trailing by two touchdowns in the second half, the Bison rallied to defeat the Wildcats. With eight minutes and change left in the game, NDSU delivered with the biggest drive in school history. The Bison marched down the field in 18 plays, culminating with Jensen’s one-yard touchdown plunge. NDSU manhandled Kansas State on that last drive – a drive that still raises the hair on your neck and makes you cheer when you see it in the movie. “I get goose bumps thinking about that drive. It’s something that you live for,” Jensen said. The roar from Bison Nation on Jensen’s touchdown rained down on Bill Snyder Family Stadium. “Two words: that’s ‘Bison Pride.’” That noise echoed all the way to Bristol, Conn., on the campus of ESPN.
Each big moment, each big win, built on the others. The Kansas State victory put NDSU on the biggest stage in program history with ESPN’s iconic College GameDay taking over Fargo for several September days and receiving a welcome like none other in the show’s history. Chris Fowler gave a rousing introduction, welcoming the rest of America to this special place. “This is Game Day. And we’re in Fargo, surrounded by rowdy college football fanatics, welcome to a boom town, where the business is winning championships, building a dynasty. And this is a scene that’s got to be seen, and heard, to be believed, as loud and proud and crazy and invested as any hotbed anywhere, College GameDay, for the first time, roams to the home of the mighty North Dakota State Bizzzon.”
The movie does a wonderful job capturing the magic of GameDay’s visit and the outpouring of Bison Pride the Division I move has produced. Olson put it into perspective, the overwhelming sense of team and Bison Pride that propelled the championship drive. That lunch pale and hardhat mentality has endeared this team to its fans.
“No matter what you can possibly do to help this team win football games you have the responsibility and duty to do that,” explained Olson. “That might be on scout team, it may be on special teams, it may be as an offensive or defensive starter and for some guys its being the star on the team. But whatever you have to do you have to be able to do it and be able to give it. Just that sense of pride that everybody is going to do everything they possibly can to help the team to win.” That’s the biggest story of NDSU’s Division I move and successes. At its core, Those Who Stay Will Be Champions is about a group of guys on a mission to live up to those Division II teams that came before them and establish Bison Pride at the Division I level.
Nothing could stop them. Not even their head coach leaving during the middle of a playoff run for another job. Their focus, to take it upon themselves, to not let it become a distraction is a testament to their faith and belief in Bison Pride. “These kids weren’t going to be denied,” said new head coach Chris Klieman. The ending was seemingly written before the nearly 20,000 Bison fans filled Toyota Stadium in what has become an annual pilgrimage to watch NDSU demolish Towson on the way to their 11th national championship.
This movie is a living, breathing tribute to Bison Pride. It takes something incredibly special to build a championship program. The Division I story is about more than one team, more than the story of one unforgettable year, more than three championship trophies. It’s the story of a program that, in only a few short years, has elevated itself to a recognized college football power, any division. It’s proof that Those Who Stay Will Be Champions.