Photos By J. Alan Paul Photography
Thursday, September 3, 1981, was the eve of the final weekend of summer for students at North Dakota State University. Many college students were out celebrating Labor Day weekend with beers and sun tan lotion, soaking in the rays by a lake or enjoying the final moments of summer love before beginning the fall semester at NDSU. But a small group of students on the football team found themselves tucked away in the basement of their dormitory watching a World War II epic about the largest seaborne invasion in the history of mankind, D-Day. “The Longest Day,” a 1962 thriller that third-year head coach Don Morton showed the team was an ironic foreshadowing of what would take place at NDSU through the first month of the season.
The Bison traveled to Marquette, Michigan, the next day to play the potent aerial attack provided by Northern Michigan, a team many around the nation placed among the early Division II playoff favorites before the season began. The Wildcats didn’t disappoint in the season opener. The Bison were blown out in a 38-0 clubbing. It was the biggest loss the 34-year-old Morton ever endured during his 21-game tenure at NDSU, and the program’s biggest loss in 22 years. “Don’t overreact. Be positive; we’re going to be alright,” offensive line coach Pat Simmers recalls Morton telling the team in the locker room after the blowout. “They were sitting there ready to get their butts reamed and all that, but he was so positive.”
The hopeful attitude of Morton didn’t help the next week when the Bison lost a heartbreaker to Northern Arizona, 23-17, failing to score in the game’s closing moments from the Lumberjacks’ seven-yard line. The fire surrounding the football team created by an uneasy fan base and a restless group in the media started to bloom when Morton’s record moved to 12-10 at NDSU. Against the heat, Simmers still remembers what Morton preached when it seemed the sky was falling, “This will not be our undertaker, but will propel us to new heights.”
With the longest season in full-swing, Morton was feeling the pressure from Director of Athletics Ade Sponberg to start winning like his predecessor Jim Wacker was doing before leaving town for Southwest Texas State. The Jamestown Sports editor piled on when he wrote, “Who’d give a plunk nickel for Don Morton’s job.” It gets worse. The Bison were preparing for their next opponent, who happened to be the North Central Conference defending champions, Northern Colorado. The new heights Morton prophesied seemed as dark and grim as the 0-2 cellar the Bison were occupying. The climb out would be defined by the toughness established by Morton’s unique ability to lead through turmoil.
“Prior to the ‘81 season, in the cool and calm of an air-conditioned meeting room, we had decided whatever happened in ’81, we were going to keep things in perspective,” Morton recalls over 30 years later in his office at Microsoft, surrounded by old football and U.S. Army memorabilia. “A lot of the times you have a tendency to go out and punish the players in practice early the next week and do a lot of tackling drills, but we weren’t going to do that.”
As Morton and the coaching staff attempted to play the season day by day, the players took it upon themselves to get their first game in the win column and protect their leader from further scrutiny. The Bison went to Greeley, Colorado, and returned with a 17-7 victory. That set up next week’s game with their rivals, the University of North Dakota.
Adding to the home-opener pressure was the fact that Morton had never beaten UND. The Division II Top 25 poll just gave the Sioux the No. 1 ranking and they were heavy favorites to retain their “King of North Dakota” crown for the fourth consecutive season. “No coach could survive losing three games in a row to UND,” Morton remembers. “The athletic director was a very good friend of mine, but it was very clear that this was what you’d call a ‘must-win game.’”
With his coaching job and possibly his career on the line, once again the Bison players refused to let their coach down. The turning point came when Mark Nellermoe scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns, giving him three on the day. “That was the finest game I’ve ever seen an option quarterback have,” Morton admitted in Ed Kolpack’s book “Bison Football: Three Decades of Dominance”–NDSU’s football Bible. The floodgates opened and the monkey was off Morton’s back as NDSU routed their rivals 31-7. That win would spark NDSU to a 12-game winning streak against its in-state rival, the longest in school history.
The Bison’s season was saved and so was Morton’s job. NDSU wouldn’t lose another game in 1981 until the Division II championship game. Morton would post a 35-4 record during his final three seasons on the Bison sidelines.
Thirty-six years after being named head coach at North Dakota State University in 1979, and 34 years after the NDSU’s upset over UND and their Cinderella run to the championship in 1981, Morton is finally calling it quits. He’ll be walking out of the doors at Microsoft after 15 years.
With his technical jargon when talking about software programs, you could almost mistake Fargo’s Microsoft site manager for the kid in the library covered by books, charts and big glasses. But this well-read Flint, Michigan, born leader patrolled the Dacotah Field sidelines like George Patton deploying his troops across Europe. Morton executed the perfect formula for winning in the 1980s with a quick-striking veer option attack and is seen as the springboard that launched NDSU to five championships in the 1980s.
Today, Morton’s far from any sideline. He sits quietly in his office inside the Horizon Building on the campus of Microsoft in Fargo. He’s not examining defenses or film of a high school football recruit; he’s now staring at financial plans, recruiting new employees and waiting for his next public appearance to act as an ambassador for Microsoft, representing the corporation’s second largest campus.
Being a phone call away from Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has made Morton irreplaceable in the eyes of the Microsoft retiree and founder of the Kilbourne Group, Doug Burgum. “I know he’s going to be missed,” Burgum said. “Don’s brought a lot of resources and a lot of jobs to Fargo because of the work that he’s done there and he continues to be a great champion for the community. Collectively, we can’t thank him enough because Microsoft is a big economic engine here and he’s been a big part of that.”
Burgum brought Morton to Great Plains Software in 2001 to become his chief of staff. The chairman and founder of Great Plains said he hired Morton because of his experience on the football field and battles he led his players through during his 21 years of coaching, three of which were spent at the Big Ten’s University of Wisconsin while they were going through a transitional period in the university’s administration.
Morton won six games in three years at Wisconsin and was fired after the 1989 season. Barry Alverez would win the Rose Bowl with Wisconsin four years later, which, according to Morton’s offensive coordinator, Simmers, was mostly Morton’s recruits. “When you’re going to do things right, particularly at that level, it takes time, and you’re not going to cut corners,” said Simmers about Morton’s short tenure at Wisconsin.
But the hardship hardened Morton into the leader Burgum needed at his grassroots software business. “You think of all the stuff he’s been through, I mean the highs and the lows of winning a national championship and then losing one on a last second field goal,” Burgum said, explaining the demeanor Morton brought to a young staff at Great Plains. “Then you have to walk back in the locker room and talk to your team and face everybody after something like that. There weren’t very many things that would happen on a day-to-day course of software that was any match to what he’d done. If we lost a sale, we didn’t have to hold a press conference the next day about it and get drilled by everybody on why we lost the sale.”
“Hey, Mary, how’s your father doing?” he asks an exhausted looking employee about to rush down the southeast stairwell.
She looks away before responding in a quiet, distraught tone, “Not any better. I’m headed to the hospital now.”
Morton, now at a complete stop with his attention 100 percent committed to what appeared to be a nonchalant hallway interaction, says, “I’m sorry to hear that. Let me know if you need anything.”
Morton’s employee nods as she turns to race down the stairs to her ailing father. He turns, shakes his head and continues his mid-day trek down the vibrant halls of Microsoft’s original building in Fargo.
It’s subtle but speaks volumes about who Burgum calls a “true gentleman.”
A true gentleman is someone who lets a fifth-year senior, who’s never played a down in a real football game or sniffed anything other than the practice field, stand in front of a national TV audience during the 1983 national championship game.
Bruce Koke was a 6-foot-4, 290-pound offensive lineman at NDSU who was nearing the end of his football career when he walked into Morton’s office one day to admit his wrongdoing.
“Coach, I’m sorry,” Simmers says, retelling the Koke tale. “I’m, sorry, I’ve been feeling sorry for myself because I’m on the scout team and a fifth-year senior, and I haven’t been doing my best. I just want to let you know that won’t happen again.”
This was a player who seemed as forgettable to a fan base as a first quarter false start, but as consistent as the sun rising in the east came into the head coach’s office to confess his lack of effort during practice. According to Simmers, Morton was flabbergasted.
Morton responded to the courage and character shown by Koke by slapping a coach’s uniform on him and sending him with the team to McAllen, Texas, for the 1983 national championship game. Koke was named an honorary captain and was one of the few to represent NDSU during the nationally televised coin toss.
“When you have kids responding like that, you’re doing something right,” Simmers said. “I think that was the commitment we had to kids and the commitment Coach Morton had to people.”
Finding a job on the collegiate gridiron seemed reasonable enough for someone who led a coaching staff to be considered the most revered in the late 80s. But Morton never did. The answer will never be clear, but it’s apparent he had a higher calling.
Morton builds real relationships with people in the community and the superficialities that come with a bigger college coaching job is too theatrical for a personable man who knew he was put on God’s green earth to do more than coach a game. Morton is a mentor. Just ask his son Josh, or Burgum, one of Fargo’s most influential citizens.
Morton isn’t just a mentor to a select few who are blessed enough to throw a football 80 yards or run at speeds only regular Joe’s dream of traveling at. Morton is a mentor for the common man. Somebody who drinks light beer at football tailgates and loves their family.
“As a son, you couldn’t ask for a better role model when it comes to finding a career path and no matter where your career goes,” said Josh Morton, who now works in the athletic administration office at Michigan State. “It has nothing to do with football coaches, but I don’t think there are too many football coaches in America who could get fired from a Big Ten institution and finish their career at a place like Microsoft.”
Coaching provided an avenue for Morton to display his leadership and motivational skills and after 20 years, it was time to find a new highway to navigate. That highway happened to be Great Plains Software, and then eventually, Microsoft.
In 2001, Great Plains had 2,001 employees across the world. It was Morton’s goal to implement a strategic leadership development plan to manage the rapidly growing company. “I think one of the things I’ve learned from Don that we applied broadly was the whole idea of measurements,” explains Burgum. “If you think about it, Don, back when he was winning national championships, he had this pyramid of goals and the top goal was to win a national championship. If you went down all the different layers, you’d get down to the very bottom, it was very detailed at the fundamental level.”
The fundamental level is where the treatment of his fellow coaches, athletes and employees come together, and it’s what ultimately makes Morton stand out among the great leaders in North Dakota history.
Morton may have saved his job back in 1981 by upsetting UND, but in hindsight, it was delaying the inevitable. The old ball coach was put here to do more than coach a game we all religiously follow and love; he was here to mold and grow leaders and to accelerate the careers of many bright minds of the future.
Morton will be stepping away from Microsoft sometime this year, but his lasting impact on multiple generations of college graduates will remain for many years to come.