Photo by J. Alan Paul Photography
Gene Taylor came to NDSU before the 2001-02 school year and turned the athletic department on its head. Before you could say “Go Bison,” NDSU had become the framework for a program making a successful jump from Division II to Division I. Taylor was the architect for that framework. His leadership persevered through all the ups and downs that come with a transition of that magnitude. He ignored the doubters and turned NDSU Athletics into what we know and love today. A little over two years ago, Taylor began his new journey at the University of Iowa. With NDSU and the Hawkeyes battling on the gridiron this September, we figured we’d give NDSU’s old AD a call to see how Iowa City is treating the Bison legend.
This interview took place on August 12.
Bison Illustrated: How are you staying in the loop with what’s going on here at North Dakota State?
Gene Taylor: It’s a combination of everything really. I still talk to quite a few people, whether it’s through texting or phone conversations. I still get Forum updates and obviously still read, whether it’s your magazine or the internet or GoBison.com, it’s a little bit of everything. I don’t keep up with it every day, but enough that I can enjoy what’s going on, that’s for sure.
As this game approaches on September 17, are people at Iowa asking you more and more about NDSU?
They do. I’ll tell you a funny story. Last year, when we were done with our regular season, we just finished the (Big Ten) championship game against Michigan State, I was in the football office and we were beginning to prepare for the Rose Bowl for operation folks. It was a little bit of a down time for football and I go walking by (head football) coach (Kirk) Ferentz office, and he actually had the Northern Iowa-North Dakota State game on the TV. He pulled me into his office and we were just talking and he says, “Well, Gene tell me who some of these guys are.” And I said, “Well, coach, as much as I can I will.” So at about the time he said that, the kid, the running back (Bruce Anderson) takes off on the 100-yard touchdown return. He said, “Gene, please tell me he’s a senior.” I said, “Well, Coach, actually he’s a freshman.” He goes, “Oh, you have to be kidding me.”
Something else happens and Ben (LeCompte) nails a punt on the 10-yard-line—we watched it for a while—Ben nails it, and he goes, “Please tell me he’s a senior.” I said, “Yeah, Coach, he is.” He goes, “Well, that’s good.”
So a few plays later, Easton Stick does something pretty incredible and he goes, “Thank God he’s a senior.” I said, “Well actually coach, he’s not. The senior is hurt.” He said, “That’s not the kid that’s going to get drafted?” I go, “No, he’s a freshman, he’s like 8-0.” He goes, “You have got to be kidding me.” (Laughs) He goes, “Why did we schedule NDSU again?” I said I caught (Gary) Barta in a weak moment (laughs).
Our fans are excited. It’s going to be interesting because usually these games are at the beginning of the year. Both teams will have a couple games under their belt. We’re coming off either a big win against Iowa State, which I hope is the case (it was, 42-3, Hawkeyes), so we have an emotional game against our archrival. It’s going to be a big point of the season really for both teams. I know NDSU’s schedule is brutal this year. I think one thing our fans will realize at some point is when the game starts just how much green and gold are going to be in Kinnick Stadium.
First thing, tell Ferentz that Bruce Anderson changed his number to 8 so he can point him out in film. I was meaning to give you a hard time for not scheduling the game as the first one of the season.
Actually, it was supposed to be the first game of the year. I don’t remember what happened, but when I was at North Dakota State, I got a call from Gary and he said, they had a schedule change somewhere can we move it and it just happened to work out that we could. It was originally scheduled for the first game then a year or two after we got it scheduled they had to make a change for some reason. I can’t remember what it was.
Do you think there will be more of a buzz around this game compared to some of the other FCS opponents you’ve had just because of the stigma around NDSU, their track record of beating FBS teams and being the five-time defending national champs?
I would say, I think there is. I would think it is because mainly people know I’m from North Dakota State and Gary is from North Dakota State, he obviously played football at NDSU. In the spring, in April, we have our Hawkeye State tour and we go to a bunch of different communities and the subject typically comes up because people are remembering where I came from. I hear about it, and it probably won’t (increase) until game week just because we go to Iowa State the week before. People certainly understand who North Dakota State is, there’s no question the fan base here is very, very smart about college football. I would say the week of the game, the buzz will be much greater than it was for Illinois State and even Northern Iowa for that matter just because of the success NDSU has had.
How is this going to work for you? Wear an Iowa polo with an NDSU undershirt during the game?
A lot of people have asked me that. I think I’ll be clad very squarely in black and gold that’s for sure. It’s going to be interesting. Having all the coaching staff and most of the seniors and a lot of the juniors. Most of the younger guys I don’t know as well, or at all, particularly the freshmen. It’ll be an interesting day with fans that are coming down. I’ve gotten a lot of calls from fans about parking and tailgating. Fortunately, I turn them over to our facility staff and they come back and say, “These North Dakota State fans, they’re crazy.” (Laughs) In a good way crazy. Our athletic staff will tell you that they already get a sense this North Dakota State fan base is as passionate or equally as passionate as some of our Big Ten rivals with Wisconsin, Nebraska, in terms of what they’re asking for. Literally, trying to rent a parking lot for the buses and RVs that come down.
A lot of 701 numbers coming in when the tickets went on sale?
It’s funny. I told our ticket staff, when single-game tickets go on sale, be prepared, most the addresses are probably going to be from North Dakota and I would tell you, that they would say that. I didn’t say that. Our first day of ticket sales, I think we sold 2,600 and I bet 2,500 of them were NDSU fans.
Do you have time for an informal meet and greet with fans the weekend of the game?
I know NDSU has a lot of stuff planned. I think they have a Friday night event and a Saturday pregame event, and I won’t unfortunately be able to make any of them. My son has a football game the night before against his archrival West High on Friday night so I’ll be there. I’m going to see a lot of people probably postgame more than anything. Saturday, I have my own game day duties. If there’s a location that’s somewhat close to fans, I’ll try to get over there and greet as many as I can. It’s going to be fun for me, challenging at times. I’m going to be rooting for the Hawkeyes, but I’m anxious to see a lot of folks I haven’t seen in awhile.
Your family was so well liked in the Fargo community. How is everybody doing?
They’re great. Cathy is adjusting. She doesn’t have nearly as many in the friend base that we had in Fargo. She’s got a few of her friends from my son’s football parents. Casey is still at NDSU. She graduates in December and Jared is going into his senior year at City High. Last year, he had a great year as the quarterback. They went 8-3 and made it to the quarterfinals. He’s currently—the kid he replaced last year is back from an injury and they’re both really good quarterbacks—so he’s battling that, but he’ll be playing somewhere. He’s looking at opportunities to play at the next level and those things are coming his way. Mostly FCS and Division II opportunities so we’ll see how the year goes and see what he decides to do. He likes it here. Casey, she loves NDSU. The adjustment has been very, very good for all of us.
Is Casey going immediately back to school?
Yeah, she’s getting her degree in sports administration. I tried talking her out of it, but good for her. She wants to get her master’s. She’s looking to go back East. She did an internship this summer at the Naval Academy, and she’s done an internship at the Naval Academy in the summers the last three years. She was in Maryland this summer. She would like to go to Maryland or somewhere back East to get a master’s in business and stay in the business of college athletics. She really had a great experience this summer at Maryland and she got to meet a lot of great people.
So you’ve talked Jared out of getting a sports administration degree?
Ah, no, I don’t think so. I think he’d like to do this business some day. If you were to ask him today, he’d like to coach probably. He’s got plenty of time. He’s just enjoying high school and getting through fall camp.
Since I have you on the line, I have to ask you where do you think NDSU’s best fit in the college football landscape right now?
It’s a great question. I think what’s best for NDSU is the best opportunity comes along and, right now, they’re thriving and having tremendous success at the FCS level. I mean, they’re the beacon that everybody looks at and not just in football, I think across the board. What’s the domino effect the Big 12 (expansion) is going to have with (other) conferences? And if there’s something that came along that made sense for NDSU, if they looked at it. It’s hard where they are right now as we know being in the toughest football conference in the country and they could be a success at whatever (conference). I think it’s what’s best for them at the time it happens. Right now, there’s nothing out there with an FBS opportunity because you have to have a conference invitation. But if the dominos deflect to a point where somebody knocks on the door and they get a chance to look at it, I wouldn’t be shocked if someone comes knocking on the door.
Just looking at it from a budget standpoint it has to be a tough jump to the FBS because you look at Iowa, who has the 20th highest budget for any college athletics program…
Yeah, and we’re eighth or ninth in the Big Ten, so think about that.
…Can you give us an idea of the differences of how the program is run from a Power 5 school perspective compared to a Missouri Valley Football Conference program?
In terms of just how you prepare and how coaches work, that’s all the same. Everybody works hard and we really have in terms of the kinds of athletes we have at North Dakota State was just hard working Midwest, great kids. That’s what we have at Iowa, and I think Kirk Ferentz is high on that. Sometimes he gets grief for not having all the five-star and four-star athletes, but he brings in small town kids and turns them into great players and they end up going to the NFL, that’s Kirk Ferentz.
We have that in all of our programs. The difference is just the sheer numbers, not in terms of athletes, but just the staffing. If you’re here, and you’ll see our – although NDSU has tremendous football facilities, and they just keep getting better with the SHAC that’s opening up – but it’s just the sheer number of staff we have for football.
And the dollars. We’re able to make decisions a little quicker. If we have an out-of-the-budget decision whether it’s a football issue or department issue, it’s maybe a significant number, five digit number of $20- or $30,000 issue, it’s easier for us to make than it would be at North Dakota State when you’re balancing your budget on a yearly basis. When you have $102 million budget, there’s just things you can do, it’s still not easy, but you just have resources that are more than you would at a North Dakota State and North Dakota State is funded as much as any FCS program in the country. It’s just the sheer number of staff that we can afford to hire here that helps those coaches prepare week-in and week-out.
According to a predominant news outlet, you should have been a top candidate to land the athletic director position at the University of Minnesota. It ended up not happening, but what was it like to have your name in the pool for a Power 5 AD position?
Yeah, it’s funny, I kind of laugh at that. It was kind of flying around and I had to help some people out and let them know, I really wasn’t. It was more media driven. But it’s a compliment. I think any time that somebody thinks you’re capable of being a candidate at a Minnesota (school) or wherever the case may be. I knew pretty early on, in talking to the folks (at Minnesota), I knew what they were looking for and they found what they’re looking for and good for them. It was a great hire.
You’re always complimented, but you try not to get in the middle of it. You just let it unfold sometimes on its own and as it got kind of later in the process, I had to help some folks out and let them know I wasn’t in Minneapolis. You’re always complimented though by someone thinking you have the ability to step in at a job like that. Right now, like I said, I’m extremely happy here. Gary and I had a plan to be here two, maybe three years. I just started my third year and if something comes along that somebody thinks I can do the job and be a true finalist, I’ll be happy to look at it. With Jared being a senior this year, I really want to make sure I get a chance to watch him play football and we’ll see what happens from there.
Hard to believe it’s your third year already.
Time flies, doesn’t it? We were talking as a family and I walked in and got a great opportunity—I was in Fargo last weekend for a wedding, and I snuck into the SHAC and got a nice little tour with Matt (Larsen), Todd (Phelps) and Jack Maughan. I happened to walk in the weight room and there were a bunch of guys who were just finishing a workout and a lot of guys that I recognized that came over and said hello. Then there were a lot of guys that were like, “Oh boy, who is that dude?” It goes quick.
…When you see something on paper and for how many years we looked at the drawings and when you actually get a chance to walk through it and it comes to life, it’s really going to be a first class (facility). They have some great ideas in terms of changing some things that were on paper, Matt and Todd have done a good job of getting that thing finalized and finished. I don’t know if you’ve been in it, but when it does open up completely, it’s going to be one of the tops in the country pound-for-pound facility wise.
One of the last things you did as the athletic director was break ground on the Sanford Health Athletic Complex (SHAC). Where does that facility rank among your long list of accomplishments at NDSU?
We had so many great things that we were able to accomplish collectively as a department there. A lot of people point to the championships, clearly, those are big things and those are the results of a lot of hard work by a lot of people. I think the building itself was so long coming and people looked at it and talked about it and it took so long to get the financial position and they’re still raising money for it, but that to me, is the final piece of the puzzle for the (Division I) transition, really. We knew that the facility, although great in its day, needed to be fixed, so to put a shovel in the ground and realize it’s going to be finished in a couple of years, and everybody’s quality of life, coaches, student-athletes, are going to improve in such a big way. That, to me, was a big source of pride to be able to get that done because so many people committed to it. Donors, staff, it was really fun to see that shovel in the ground and even more enjoyable to see it about to open here in a few months. It’s going to be cool.
Every time we step in to see how construction is coming, I think about that meeting we had in your office after it was announced the renovation was about to begin back in 2013.
Were they dropping weights on top of our offices at the time (laughs)?
What’s it been like to see Carson Wentz, a kid from North Dakota and played at NDSU, getting all this national attention from being the No. 2 pick in the NFL Draft?
I saw something the other day. It was a Twitter thing about the number of athletes in the NFL from North Dakota State and you look at them and think, “No wonder we were pretty good.” But to see the Carson thing from start to finish, watch it unfold and every time I turn on ESPN, particularly now, it’s just story after story after story about this kid from Bismarck, N.D., that we almost didn’t recruit. It’s sometimes surreal. And then you watch him play, and although we have a lot of guys go out and play (in the NFL), it’s just right now, I’m watching ESPN and it says, “Up Next: How long before Wentz starts for the Eagles?” It’s a little unusual because you go, “Wow, I know that kid.” The best thing about it is, he’s such a great kid and handles himself so well and he’s going to represent NDSU at such a high level, and he’ll be extremely grateful and supportive of NDSU as all of our guys in the NFL do. It’s really fun to see. The CFL, too, you know Brock (Jensen) scores his first touchdown and he comes off with the horns raised. That’s pretty cool to see that.
Gene, it was great to talk to you again and hopefully we see you before or after the game.
Great talking to you guys as well. Can’t wait to see everybody in Iowa City.