Feature photo by J. Alan Paul Photography
Less than a week after winning their sixth FCS national championship in seven seasons, the North Dakota State coaches office in the upstairs of the Fargodome was as busy as ever. With National Signing Day a month away, the Bison coaches were popping in and out of each other’s offices or chatting at the printer about recruits, who else has offered their targets and where they’re hitting the road in the next couple weeks to secure the next great Bison.
The grind never ends for college football coaches, especially when you’re playing into January. But NDSU has the luxury of enjoying another national championship instead of a quick after-season vacation. And you can bet the coaches will enjoy it until spring ball rolls around.
“You still want to bask in the glory a little bit. We’re going to enjoy this,” Chris Klieman said. “A part of recruiting is enjoying this. We want to go into a young man’s home or school and celebrate that fact that we’re national champions. You keep it on the forefront at all times because it’s going to help in recruiting. If someone wants to compete for championships, they really need to look hard at North Dakota State.”
After winning five of those national championships in a row from 2011-15, the Bison were dethroned last season in the semifinals by eventual champs James Madison. NDSU got its payback in Frisco, defeating the Dukes 17-13 in an instant classic. Klieman downplayed the word “revenge” all season. But when asked, he agreed this title does feel different than the previous five.
“The fact that we went to be the hunter this year so to speak,” Klieman said. “We weren’t defending the national championship, we were trying to reclaim it. Our guys had a chip on their shoulder all season long about the run or the dynasty being over. There were so many upperclassmen that were leaders that were out to prove that this was the elite program in the FCS.”
Just like the previous NDSU championship teams, this one faced challenges all throughout the season. All-American defensive end Greg Menard tore his ACL before a full week of practice was even complete. The running back and linebacker positions at times had more players injured than available. And starting cornerbacks Jalen Allison and Jaylaan Wimbush hurt their knees during the semifinals and were sidelined for mostly the entire game in Frisco, Texas.
“Just how proud I am of the guys for attacking the adversity that we faced this year,” Klieman said. “They never flinched throughout the season. They stayed the course and stuck together. We had tremendous leadership and they were not going to be denied this championship.”
Adversity struck again in the fourth quarter against the Dukes. The Bison were held scoreless in the second half. Up 17-13, their field goal was blocked with 4:22 left. On the ensuing possession, JMU ran a fake punt all the way down to the NDSU 29-yard line, then reached the 19-yard line on the next play. But like they’ve done all season, the Bison answered the call and got a stop to seal the game.
“Our guys always believe,” Klieman said. “They always know they’re going to find a way to win. That’s the culture of Bison football and this place since the 1960s. When we had the field goal blocked and then they make a drive, fake the punt, it was ‘Hey, let’s go out there and find a way to get a stop.’ And then offensively, to finish the game when they had timeouts. Not many people end the game like that, running around backward for 20 yards and taking a knee as time expired. I felt good all week long leading up. We had three weeks to prepare, but that last week, I felt great about our gameplans. But more importantly, I felt great about the focus and the attention to detail.”
Bison Illustrated: As you watched Easton Stick run around on that last play, what was going through your mind?
Chris Klieman: “Once I saw the formation and knowing we had to get rid of four seconds and they didn’t have everyone on the line of scrimmage to bring pressure, I felt really good. If the snap was good, Easton was going to run the clock out. He took the snap and started backing up and when they didn’t come right away, I knew it was over. I and everybody in Bison Nation want the ball in Easton Stick’s hands to win a football game.”
BI: What’s the locker room like after winning a national championship?
CK: “Well, we didn’t get in there for so long because we were out on the field for over an hour. But it’s euphoria. It’s kind of mission accomplished. Just to see the smiles on all the senior’s faces. Because it was 13 months ago that I walked into a locker room after a semifinal loss and saw so much despair in people’s eyes and faces. Just to see that, and then the way that these guys wanted it and expected this season to end, it’s so gratifying.”
BI: How about right after the game with the players and fans storming the field? Are you making a beeline for that stage after shaking the head coach’s hand or what?
CK: “Every year has been different and I’ve been fortunate to be a part of it. Because of where the play ended on the opposite end of the stage, it was a race to get to Coach (Mike) Houston and congratulate him on a great season. And then it’s euphoria. You’re running through the crowd and find people that you see and get to that stage. It’s something that never gets old. One of the best feelings you have as part of this team is not only running to that stage but overlooking the sea of green and gold.”
BI: What was the coolest text message you got after the game?
CK: “Jon Gruden. That was pretty cool. I feel blessed because I’ve been to a lot of different places. You hope you made an impact at each place you’ve been. Whether it was former players at other institutions or former players at this institution, former coaches I’ve coached with, to have those guys reach out and be genuinely happy for what we’ve done, that’s pretty cool.”
BI: You got elected to the American Football Coaches Association board of trustees. What does that honor mean to you?
CK: “It’s a great honor. I have so much respect for our American Football Coaches Association and the executive director, Todd Berry, to reach out to me in mid-December. They had a spot open in the FCS for a head coach and I had a unanimous vote, I guess. There are some unbelievable coaches on that board and for me to be a part of that and learn from those guys, it’s a great honor in this profession.”