The Championship-Run is Over, Now What?
The 2014 loss to Northern Iowa was one of the first Bison football games played after North Dakota State University hired a new boss for the athletic program. Matt Larsen has seen the football program falter before and pick itself back up. Just as Chris Klieman and the Bison did in 2014, when they were untouchable for the rest of the season and won the national championship, the Bison will be back. Larsen will watch as again, the football team rebounds from this year’s semifinal exit and contend for a title. But that’s all coming down the road. For now, Larsen reflects with us on what’s transpired at NDSU over the last six years and how the dynasty will be remembered.
Bison Illustrated: Since your arrival, what’s stood out to you most through all the success the Bison football team has experienced?
Matt Larsen: “There are two things that stand out most for me. First, is that the NDSU Athletics program has been forever transformed because of the accomplishments of the football program the last six years. Never has a program so young to Division I experienced such success, national exposure and notoriety. As a result, so many areas of the department have seen unprecedented growth such as the operating budget, donor base, licensing, regional/national TV exposure, fan attendance, and the overall national brand recognition of NDSU. This period of time will forever be a defining moment in the history of Bison Athletics.
“Second, is the way our coaches and players have remained grounded throughout. I have an incredible amount of respect for their ability to overcome adversity, stay the course, and to maintain the most unselfish locker room I have ever seen. This group is the definition of being a team, driven by the mantra of playing for the guy next to you. This is a real credit to our seniors over the years, the leadership from our coaches and the characteristics instilled by our strength program.”
BI: Bison fans were reportedly pleasant to JMU fans while in Fargo and continued their respect in Frisco. What does that say about Bison Nation?
ML: “Not surprising in the least. Not only do we have the best fanbase in the country in terms of passion and support for our program, but they are also true college football fans and really understand the game. So to make the trek to Frisco—a place that had become an annual vacation spot for Bison fans—to witness the National Championship game and be gracious to the team that eliminated NDSU, I wouldn’t expect anything less.
“We witness this hospitality each year both at home and on the road, as our fans invite opposing fans into their tailgates and treat them to a first class experience.”
BI: Did any other athletic directors or administrators at other schools reach out after the loss to James Madison? What did they have to say about the five-peat?
ML: “One of the great things about college athletics is that it truly is a close-knit profession and one in which there is a genuine respect for history-making successes. A number of colleagues reached out following the semifinal loss to express their sincere admiration for what the Bison football team had accomplished during this unprecedented run. Not only were they impressed with the consecutive championships but they were more complimentary of the manner in which we won them—with great character and class.
“A few even said how much they would kill for one championship, much less five-straight. We, in Bison Nation, have been truly blessed to be a part of this incredible run.”
BI: What’s it going to take to bring the Bison back for a sixth FCS Championship?
ML: “From a football perspective, I don’t believe the plan or approach changes in how we prepare for the 2017 season. The formula has proven to be successful in how we recruit, train and motivate our student-athletes. The one thing that has changed is that our players, coaches and staff are even hungrier now to return to the field.
“Sometimes a loss can provide great motivation. In our case, that semifinal loss will drive our players and coaches during winter workouts, spring practice and preseason as we target Saturday, September 2nd and the season kick-off versus Mississippi Valley State.”
BI: How does the athletic department keep the momentum going forward, in terms of the growing support from Team Makers and fans, even though NDSU didn’t win an FCS Championship this season?
ML: “I believe our fans, supporters and community understand how difficult it is to win a national championship every year. That being said, there is a high expectation, both internal and external to our department, to return to Frisco for another opportunity at a championship. As we have witnessed since the Bison run began, the rest of the Missouri Valley Football Conference and teams in the FCS have invested significantly in their programs, such as facilities, scholarships, coaching salaries and operations, in an effort to catch NDSU.
“As a football program, we have not allowed our players to become complacent in their approach and preparation. As an administration, we must do the same. To remain a national power at the FCS level, we must continue to invest in all our programs to maintain and increase our momentum as a department. This means continuing to grow our donor base as we Paint the Nation Gold, continuing to invest in state-of-the-art facilities, continuing to attract and retain the best coaches in the country and continuing to provide a championship experience for all our student-athletes.”
BI: Thirty years from now, when college football fans look back at NDSU’s run, where do you think it will rank among the all-time dynasties in college football?
ML: “History has shown that as time passes, there is a greater appreciation for significant accomplishments in sports. I believe this will hold true for the accomplishments of our football program over the past six years. The only program in college football history to win five consecutive national championships–at any level–and the dominant manner in which it was done.
“It is extremely difficult to win college football games. To win 71 games with only five losses, during that period with a head coaching change after year three, really exhibits the level of talent, coaching ability, the culture of the football program and the overall commitment of Bison Nation.
“Not only will five consecutive national championships be extremely difficult to match or surpass, but I believe college football fans for years to come will respect and appreciate the incredible run of the Bison football teams from 2011-2016.”