Feature photo by Hillary Ehlen
NDSU Director of Athletics Matt Larsen was glowing during the postgame press conference inside the media room at Toyota Stadium. Moments before, head coach Chris Klieman and his players were showered in confetti while raising their sixth national championship trophy in seven years. Larsen and his Deputy Director of Athletics, and longtime friend, Todd Phelps were gleefully standing in the back of the press conference room. Once Klieman’s 20-minute plus Q&A with the press was over, reporters filed out to work on their stories and columns. Larsen and Phelps watched the room open up their laptops to tell the internet and tomorrow’s newspaper readers what NDSU had just accomplished.
In appreciation toward the hoards of media that had attended the game, which seemed to be more than usual given NDSU’s matchup with James Madison, Larsen and Phelps wandered over to a group of Fargo media to thank them for their coverage. It had been a big day for Larsen’s athletic program. He couldn’t help but show his appreciation toward the people who were just as blessed as him to follow another historic chapter in NDSU’s FCS Dynasty. Now back in Fargo, Larsen gives us his takes on a variety of topics regarding the Bison athletic program.
What was your reaction after last year’s loss in the semifinal? Does any fear that the football program’s run of dominance may be over creep into your mind?
“(I was) incredibly proud. To see our football program accomplish what no other college football team at any level has done, was nothing short of extraordinary. The exposure and pride generated not only for the Athletics program but the University, Fargo and the State of North Dakota, was incredible during that six-year stretch. Three visits from ESPN — “College GameDay” twice and “Sports Center on the Road” once; participation in two ESPN FCS Kick-Off games, 21 nationally televised contests, 18 consecutive home playoff games in the Fargodome, the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL Draft, five FBS victories and an overall record of 83-7.
“Even though the run of consecutive national championships ended at five, my confidence in our program moving forward did not waiver for a second. With the leadership of the program intact with Coach (Chris) Klieman, the returning players in the locker room and our investment in infrastructure, coupled with the program’s history and tradition of success (since 1965, NDSU has won 29 percent of the national championships they’ve been eligible for), I was confident that we would continue to compete at the top level of FCS football.”
From your role as director of athletics, how did that defeat impact the coaching staff moving forward into this season?
“I am fortunate to see how hard our coaching staff works, the significant time invested with our student-athletes, the countless hours on the road recruiting and the many sacrifices they make personally on behalf of the NDSU football program. I also get to see how competitive and driven they are collectively as a group. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that this group does not like to lose football games. All that being said, I believe our staff was able to put the semifinal loss in perspective and understand that one game or one loss does not define them, our student-athletes or this football program. As with any great coaching staff, each win and loss are a learning opportunity, and the truly great ones use these lessons to get better. I believe our staff used last season to get better in the spring and summer leading up to the 2017 season.”
What did you miss about the trip to Frisco that you may have taken for granted during your first two trips?
“Knowing how difficult it is to make it to a National Championship game, I tried very hard the two times I went, to enjoy every second and not take anything for granted. Each year is special in its own way — different team, different opponent and different journey throughout the season.
“While I was extremely proud of the accomplishments of the 2016 team, if I had to list one thing I missed about not playing in the national championship game, it would be watching our student-athletes and coaches compete at the highest level and on the biggest stage. It is a dream for every college student-athlete to win a national championship. Seeing how hard our players train throughout the year, to come so close and fall short of that dream, I felt for them on so many levels. But I also knew that this program would not be defined by that loss.”
“It was nice for me to see how overwhelmed they were with their reception by Bison Nation. This is the side that the players never get a chance to see or experience.” – Matt Larsen
How did the Alumni Association get a majority of the “Pro Bison” to the pep rally? You were on stage with them. Have you ever heard a pep rally crowd get that excited?
“What has become a great tradition at the national championship game is the return of many former players and their coming-together for the closed Friday practice with the team. It has been fun to watch the interaction between former and current players and the messages they share among themselves about their experience as a Bison. We have been fortunate the past few years that current NFL alums have been able to join in the celebration.
“It was no surprise this year that Kyle Emanuel, Billy Turner, Marcus Williams and John Crockett all agreed to be part of the pep rally. In speaking with each of them, they all truly value and have very fond memories of their time in an NDSU uniform. It was nice for me to see how overwhelmed they were with their reception by Bison Nation. This is the side that the players never get a chance to see or experience. For them, it was special to see just how passionate our fan-base is away from the Fargodome.”
Easton Stick receives his undergrad degree in December and hoists the FCS Championship Game’s Most Outstanding Player Award a few weeks later. What can you say about the type of guy Stick is, and what he’s meant to this university?
“It is easy to run out of superlatives when talking about Easton Stick, the type of person he is and the positive impact he has had on NDSU and the football program. He truly is the definition of what it means to be a student-athlete. Not only did he graduate in three and a half years with a 3.916 GPA, but he’s always the first person in the office watching film and one of the first players on the practice field. His tireless preparation, both academically and athletically, is the reason behind his incredible levels of success. He is a leader in every sense of the word. Not only does he lead by example but he holds himself and his teammates to the highest of standards.
“And if that wasn’t enough when he is not studying or at practice, he is active in the community giving back to the people of Fargo and North Dakota. He is a regular visitor of patients at Sanford Hospital as a member of both the Student-Athlete Advisory Council and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
“I am incredibly proud of all Easton has accomplished during his time at NDSU. Not only is it well deserved, but it is a testament to his hard work, determination and character. I, along with all of Bison Nation, am looking forward to watching him compete in his senior year.”
The football team graduated 14 players before this year’s semifinal game. As an AD, is there a sense of validation because college athletics helped prompt these young men for a successful future out of pads?
“December 15 was the perfect example of what is great about college athletics. Student-athletes reaching the pinnacle of both their academic and athletic pursuits on the same day. Fourteen football players were able to attend winter graduation and receive their diplomas in the afternoon and then compete for a berth to the National Championship game that night on national television.
“As the Director of Athletics, there is no greater day all year than graduation. Seeing our student-athletes win the ultimate championship and graduate from North Dakota State University is incredibly special. Our collective goal in the athletics department is to educate our student-athletes and help prepare them for the next 40 years to be successful in whatever they choose to pursue beyond their time in a Bison uniform. ”
A little off topic here but you just joined the Division I Women’s Softball Committee. What type of policies and procedures will that committee be examining in the near future?
“I am excited for the opportunity to represent NDSU on a national committee. The sport of softball at the NCAA level has grown into one of its more popular national championships, especially since ESPN has committed to carrying the majority of the tournament games. As a member of the 10-person committee, we are charged with administering the championship tournament, including the selection of the 64-team bracket, as well as enforcing the policies and procedures that govern the softball championship.
“In my short tenure thus far on the committee, the one thing that has been consistently reinforced is the respect nationally that the softball community has for the NDSU softball program and the leadership that Coach (Darren) Mueller has provided.”