In the serendipitous way that songs do, “Winds of Change” by Scorpions just played on my Pandora. I’m in a reflective mood, so bring on the hopeful, 80s hair-band induced perestroika and glasnost lyrics, and let’s follow the Moskva down to Gorky Park and see where it takes us. And why not? The Cold War is back on, after all, North Dakota State and the University of North Dakota are playing football for the first time since 2003.
In a nod to yesteryear, let’s shelf the détente for a minute and, instead, focus on the “fire and ice” spirit of Rocky Hager and Roger Thomas. Some things only exist in our memories. Like the clicking filmstrips of students diving under their desks bracing for Armageddon, before Google, Twitter and the iPhone, when “the Bakken” wasn’t synonymous with oil and UND didn’t have 13 committees to decide its next nickname, there was a day every fall when even UND fans cared about football. I kid, probably, for the most part anyway, but it’s fun to reminisce in a good, old-fashioned rivalry sort of way.
“Once the crops have been harvested, the thoughts of every North Dakotan turn to one of the oldest and fiercest football rivalries in the nation,” begins a 1996 feature on “the game” in a documentary called “Football America.” The documentary was produced by the National Football League and aired nationally on TNT. It tells the story of America’s greatest game, coast to coast, from the professional to high school level, by highlighting some of its best stories. One of those stories was “the game” – North Dakota’s Super Bowl.
The “fire and ice” rivalry of Hager and Thomas, of the Bison versus the no names, will give you a reminder of what the game once was. If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and Google “Football America Bison rivalry.” It showcases the 1995 game that UND won 21 – 7. There’s a ten-minute clip on YouTube, which, obviously, was posted by a UND fan as it cuts out the final seconds that mention NDSU demolishing UND 41 – 10 in the playoffs only two weeks later. Spoiler alert, it includes some wise-cracking by former UND defensive coordinator and head coach Dale Lennon, who jokes, “What we say is if you want to go into farming, you go to NDSU. If you want to own the farm, you go to UND.”
To paraphrase Rocky, what a knucklehead. We have a saying too, Dale. I can’t believe I’m actually writing this – it feels juvenile, but it is a rivalry and I can’t let Lennon, who, like me, hails from Benson County, get away with that sort of tomfoolery. Here it is, coach. If you want to win national championships in the Missouri Valley, you go to NDSU. If you want to watch NDSU winning championships in the Missouri Valley, you go to Southern Illinois. Bazinga.
For fun, and to give you a taste of what else is to come, we could engage in the typical back-and-forth between NDSU-UND fans on the topic. Get ready for your first preview of the debate that will rage across the region this summer and into the fall. I’ve already read dozens of these verbal barrages online and, yes, even heard it at my venerable law firm between highly-tuned legal minds
“Twelve championships, man, who’s won the last four? That’s right. How many times has College GameDay been to Grand Forks? Yeah, thought so.”
The response. “Really? At least we play real Division I sports. Hockey! We have a Tim Horton’s at the Ralph. Long live Tim Horton!”
The rebuttal. “Hockey. Yep. That’s big time Division I. Union, Canisius, Lake Superior State, and Bemidji State.” Etc., etc., etc.
Rivalries, though, at least the good ones, aren’t about high-minded rhetoric. They’re about the Subway Challenge, where, once-upon-a-time, the winning school’s fans were treated to either Bob Babich or Lennon’s favorite 6-inch Subway sandwich – for free – the day after the game. You read that right. At every Subway in North Dakota, the day after “the game,” if the Bison won, every Bison fan got a free 6-inch sub of whatever Babich declared his favorite cold cut. Likewise, for Lennon. Now that is a part of the rivalry that everyone can get behind.
So, in the spirit of détente, like the SALT or START treaties, here’s an olive branch to the kelly green and white for a new, friendlier beginning for this rivalry that doesn’t involve mutually assured destruction. It’s like the great American Rocky Balboa said after knocking out Ivan Drago. “If I can change, and you can change, everybody can change.” Only 107 days until the rivalry is renewed, but who’s counting? Everybody up for the kickoff, the march is on!
*I dedicate this column to the biggest Bison fan in all of North Dakota, maybe in all of America, heck, in the entire world, Jimmy Gilbertson, who is undoubtedly weeping for joy into his coffee at Harriman’s in Maddock, N.D. After the Bison win, Jimmy, the first round is on me. And a special mention to Judge Gary Lee in Minot, N.D., who I clerked for out of law school, the only guy in North Dakota that has more Bison stuff hanging on his office walls than I do.*