This day was coming. We all knew that. It was, as they say, just a matter of time. We couldn’t keep Gene Taylor as our athletic director forever, even if we wanted to. Gene is too good – too good not to eventually get his opportunity to lead a major BCS athletic program. And that day is finally here. The University of Iowa made a smart decision in hiring Gene to become their No. 2, directly behind athletic director Gary Barta who is, ironically, an NDSU alum. Barta won three national championships playing football for the Bison in the 1980s. It’s a well deserved opportunity that couldn’t have happened to a better man, a better Bison, a Bison that, in the 120 years of our program’s storied history, stands atop the mountain of all-time greats. The fact is, we were lucky to keep Gene as long as we did.
How do you even begin describing what Gene has done for our university and the Bison family? Well, for starters, before the numbers, before the championships, the new facilities, and national exposure, take the simple fact everyone familiar with our university and athletic programs – from our university’s leadership, to our biggest donors, our coaches, the student athletes, our students, the athletic department staff, the media, to fans alike – calls him Gene, not Mr. Taylor. This is not out of a lack of respect, it’s because Gene has made himself so accessible, so approachable and personable as the face of Bison athletics and a pillar of our university. Whether you are NDSU’s president, on the custodial staff at the Bison Sports Arena, or a fan in the tailgating lots, Gene has treated everyone as equals and with respect. Despite his many individual accolades and awards, Gene – like his student athletes and coaches – always, without fail, demurred, sharing the credit with his family, staff and others. It was never “me” with Gene, it was always “we”, as in the Bison family. This endeared him to us.
Yesterday, talking with a former student athlete that excelled at track at NDSU for several years before running track at another university during his first year of law school, he explained what makes Gene so special. This student athlete told me he wouldn’t even recognize the athletic director at his new school. But Gene, this student athlete told me, was regularly at practices and knew him by name. This former student athlete told me that he, along with many other student athletes, often stopped by the Bison Sports Arena just to visit with Gene. Despite the busy schedule of a Division I athletic director, Gene always put our student athletes first with the singular focus on whether his decisions would benefit the student athlete. During his farewell press conference, when asked to describe his legacy at NDSU, Gene was quick to point out it wasn’t necessarily the championships and big wins that are his legacy, but the successes of his student athletes and coaches, both personally and professionally, off the field as well as on it that he’s most proud of.
For the last 13 years, since he arrived at NDSU in the summer of 2001 when we were competing at the Division II level, Gene has taken our program to places few could imagine. Then, the only place NDSU could complete against, let alone actually beat Kansas State, Oklahoma, Minnesota, Wisconsin, or Auburn was an EA Sports video game. Today, thanks in large part to Gene, our list of memories includes program-defining wins over Kansas State and Oklahoma that captured the national spotlight. Our list of memories includes ESPN taking over downtown Fargo for College GameDay, three trips to Frisco, wins in the NCAA basketball, baseball and softball tournaments, and appearing daily on those Capital One Cup commercials on SportsCenter. It also includes a Bison competing for Team USA in the 2012 London Olympics! NDSU has become the flagship university not only for our state, but for our region – we are a nationally recognized university – because of Gene’s vision of not what we were, but what we could be.
Within a few short years of making the Division I leap in 2005, we have arrived as a power to be reckoned with, regularly winning and expecting to win conference and national championships. How many Division I programs can boast they won nine, that’s right, nine conference championship and a national championship within the last year? My guess is one – NDSU. In the last year, how many Division I programs made the postseason in football, and qualified for the NCAA Basketball Tournament and NCAA Baseball Tournament? Ten. Those ten schools read like a who’s who of major BCS programs: Texas, Oregon, Arizona State, Stanford, North Carolina, Louisiana Lafayette, Oklahoma State, Louisville, Nebraska, and North Dakota State. This isn’t novel, we belong with this group of schools.
And the future? The future, my friends, couldn’t be brighter for NDSU. You need not worry about the departure of Gene and several other high profile coaches in the last few months. Why? Because of the people still here and our shared commitment to Bison Pride and the Bison family. Gene has assembled a high caliber stable of talented coaches that share his philosophy and vision for NDSU. Coaches like Chris Klieman, Dave Richman, Roger Kish, Kari Thompson, Mark Cook and Maren Walseth were all hired in recent years (or months), and are championship level coaches. They are as committed to building winning programs as Gene was. They aren’t going anywhere. And, perhaps more importantly, these newer coaches have veteran stalwarts like Don Larson, Tod Brown, Darren Mueller, Jim Kramer, Ryun Godfrey, and Stevie Keller to provide the sort of strong, institutional knowledge, experience and support to grow and thrive – to build upon our successes that were reached under Gene. These coaches will provide the leadership, the Bison Pride, to weather the transition to our next athletic director.
Add to this mix the behind the scenes folks in the athletic department too numerous to mention but, as Gene often notes, the best in the country at what they do. These folks are the brick and mortar that will serve our new athletic director with the same work ethic and passion they brought to the table under Gene. They have decades of combined experience working at NDSU and embody the best of Bison Pride, having a deep understanding, appreciation and love for our university. Many of these folks have been around since the Division II days and were, and will continue to be, on the frontlines building our program. Okay, now factor in our incredible student athletes that are working hard this summer, even as you read this, to build on our tradition. Did I mention President Dean Bresciani isn’t going anywhere? His leadership of our university, coupled with his vision and understanding of what we need to do to continue our successes will speed the learning curve for our next athletic director. Starting to see why our future has never been brighter?
Finally, as it always has been and always will be, it’s about you, the Bison family, the Team Makers group, partners like Sanford Health and Scheels, that will keep our program strong. You aren’t going anywhere. All of us, together, man alive, the things we’ll do in the next ten years, the places our athletic program and university will go! I’ve laughed at columnists like Craig Haley of the Sports Network who have written in recent days that our athletic teams will find it hard to maintain the high levels of success we’ve experienced with Gene moving on to Iowa. With all respect, Haley doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about. Our cup isn’t empty, it runneth over! Bottom line, our culture and tradition isn’t going anywhere. Championship organizations are built by people and we’ve got some good ones.
That is why we’ll be stronger in the coming years even in Gene’s absence. Gene has built our program to last. While the names and faces may change, Bison Pride won’t. There is a great quote from Jim Collins, one of America’s leading authorities on great companies and how those companies sustain success over the long haul – think companies like General Electric and Coca-Cola, staples of our economy since long before we stormed the beaches of Normandy – that you need to take to heart. This simple but powerful quote answers the question of what will happen to NDSU athletics now that Gene is trading his Bison green and yellow for Hawkeye black and yellow.
In his book Built To Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, Collins writes, “Visionary companies are so clear about what they stand for and what they’re trying to achieve that they simply don’t have room for those unwilling or unable to fit their exacting standards.” With the touch of a keystroke, and borrowing Collins’ principle, I’ll answer, loud and clear, for all to hear, why the Bison will not only stay strong after Gene’s departure, but, in fact, will grow even stronger. “North Dakota State is so clear about what we stand for and what we’re trying to achieve that we simply don’t have room for those unwilling or unable to fit our exacting standards.”
Gene and Cathy Taylor will be missed in Fargo and at NDSU, they are special people. They embody what Bison Pride is, and, no matter where they go, they’ll always be Bison. Once a Bison, always a Bison. I wish them well, and I know that Gene will be the athletic director sooner rather than later at a major BCS school. As he leaves NDSU, our program is stronger than when he arrived and positioned for future success – positioned to, one day, join the ranks of those BCS schools. That, for me, is Gene’s legacy. He has built a program to last.