Photos courtesy of NDSU and UND Athletics
(You can read Chapter 1, 2 and 3 here)
How do you liven up a 121-year-old football rivalry? Put it on a 12-year hiatus, introduce two new generations of athletes and fans and play it on the Division I level. Through the next six chapters, we break down the NDSU-UND football rivalry starting in the 1980s all the way through the process of both programs appearing back on each other’s schedules.
Chapter 4: North Dakota’s Super Bowl
Dating back to the first game in 1894, the biggest football game every year in North Dakota was the NDSU-UND matchup. Barring any playoff run, the game became the measuring stick for each school every season. It was natural, said Don Morton, explaining the uniqueness of college football, for having geographical rivalries created by universities only a handful of minutes apart. He compared the importance of having an Ohio State-Michigan and USC-UCLA-like rivalry game on the schedule every season.
“It becomes a very special type of game,” Morton said. “To win it is the height of happiness, and to lose it is the depths of despair. That’s the way it should be.”
UND found themselves on the losing end for many years during the peak of the rivalry through the 1980s and ‘90s. But Roger Thomas’s approach to that one game every season never changed throughout his career, even when NDSU would come in as heavy favorites.
“The age old cliché is that the best team doesn’t always win,” Thomas said. “If they fumble a bunch of times or whatever it might be, maybe, you’d always pray for the upset at that point. And on the opposite side, when you’re the good team, you’re praying that your guys don’t take the game lightly.”
The 1981 NDSU victory over No. 1-ranked UND begins the list of notable upsets in the rivalry. In fact, Dale Lennon claims that game alone changed the trajectory of both programs saying, “When you have a game that you can point at and say that was a significant point indicates, too, how intense that rivalry was and how much was put into one game.”
Now, as a defensive coordinator in 1993, Lennon preached the underdog mentality to his defense going into the game against NDSU. The philosophy worked. UND enjoyed the upset and grabbed momentum of the rivalry game until the Bison returned the favor in the 1995 playoffs in Grand Forks.
The 13th-ranked Bison knocked off seventh-ranked UND in the first round of the Division II playoff at Memorial Stadium in a 41-10 route. This time it was freshman quarterback Kevin Feeney who left his stamp on the rivalry.
The players and coaches were living and dying with the result of the rivalry game and joining them were both team’s fan bases, remembers Jim Kleinsasser. It was more than bragging rights for them. It was about deciding the rightful owner of the Nickel Trophy.
Established in 1938 as the trophy awarded to whichever team won the annual rivalry game, the Nickel Trophy became the most legendary 75 pounds of aluminum alloy in the Dakotas.
“It seemed liked every year leading up to that game, the Nickel Trophy at some point would be stolen from the one school,” Kleinsasser said. “It just kind of enveloped both campuses student-wise. You go into classes and people were talking about it. It was just a frenzy week and it was pretty exciting.”
Losing the game would turn into a year- long curse for the players and coaches who would have to answer questions about why they didn’t win. Whether coaches were on recruiting trips or players were at social gatherings, you’d want to be on the side that had gotten the best of the rival team that year to avoid eating crow.
The game itself was so personal for North Dakota native, Lennon, he jumped at the opportunity to join the UND staff in 1988 after NDSU had won seven straight games in the rivalry.
“You wanted to correct the ship and get that feeling of having the better football team,” Lennon said. “Trust me, it was a 365-day-a-year type of deal. I don’t think there was a day I woke up and didn’t think about it.” The nicheness of the rivalry within the grand landscape of college football caused it to become a sort of a quasi-spectacle around the nation. The growing popularity of the matchup reached its apex when NFL Films sent a camera crew to Fargo, Grand Forks and even the small town of Mayville to capture the essence of the North Dakota Super Bowl played on the frozen plains of the upper Midwest.
In 1995, “Football America” featured a 10-minute segment about the week leading up to the NDSU-UND rivalry football game for its 95-minute long TV movie. The late Steve Sabol from NFL Films was the movie’s executive producer and featured interviews with Rocky Hager and Roger Thomas on the practice field, fans at a small diner in Mayville and footage of the 21-7 UND victory. Today, the clip still lives on YouTube with more than 15,000 views.
One of the stars of the program was Rocky Hager. With his fiery attitude, youthful energy and three-game losing streak to UND in his back pocket, his passion for the rivalry was transparent to the thousands watching at home.
“I made a statement on ‘Football America’ that if you win the game, it’s good. But if you lose, it’s 364 days of hell,” Hager said. But those 364 quickly turned into 14 when NDSU went back up to Grand Forks during the first round of the playoffs and upset the favored Fighting Sioux in 1995. “It’s fun. It’s part of the spirit and camaraderie and it gets pretty intense in more than a way or two.”
Today, Hager is the assistant football coach at The College of New Jersey and his adversary, Thomas, is the athletic director at the University of Mary in Bismarck. And every now and then, Thomas said he’ll run into either an NDSU or UND fan wanting to talk about the games played almost 20 years ago, “Everybody seems to have a favorite in the game.”
UND had grabbed the upper hand over NDSU by the late 90s and early 2000s winning the last five of six matchups. Then, as quickly as UND’s success came, the pageantry and passion of the annual NDSU-UND football game was gone.
Chapter 5: Changing Direction
The college athletic landscape is forever changing and evolving as institutions are strategically positioning themselves for a better today and promising future. This reality struck the proudest and strongest Division II league, the North Central Conference, in the early 2000s.
Major waves began striking the NCC when Morningside College, one of the NCC’s charter members, jumped ship to NAIA for all of its athletics in 2002, and the next year, Northern Colorado announced its much-anticipated jump to Division I after the 2002-03 season.
Next were NDSU and South Dakota State University.
“Those rumblings of that Division I had been going on in conference meetings for a couple of years,” then UND athletic director Roger Thomas said about the NCC. Thomas also said Fred Oien, athletic director of South Dakota State, and NDSU athletic director Gene Taylor advocated for the conference to make a push to Division I.
“I remember Joe Chapman (NDSU President, 1999-2009) and the president from Northern Colorado (Hank Brown) were particularly interested in talking to the league about going,” Taylor said. “And when that was shut down, we each individually started looking at it.”
Taylor became the athletic director at NDSU in the summer of 2001. After going six months without an AD, Taylor made it his mission when he arrived to have a comprehensive study and internal assessment of NDSU Athletics.
“They were a Division I program in the way they did things, but they didn’t know they were,” Taylor said in a 2014 interview about his research on NDSU before coming to Fargo. “So when I came in and that was one of the changes with President Chapman, I knew it was going to be a lot easier than what everyone thought because the support mechanisms were already at a high-level, above any other Division II programs.”
So, was it a no-brainer then to make the transition for NDSU? “It was,” said Taylor.
NDSU made it official Aug. 30, 2002. They were to leave the North Central Conference and Division II after the 2003-04 season and start the five-year transition processes to Division I for all sports.
Meanwhile, the NCC was going through one of its largest turnover of schools since its conception in 1922. It lost three of its five remaining charter members in a span of two years and lost one of its strongest members in Northern Colorado. The conference introduced the University of Minnesota-Duluth in 2004, but it was dangling on to hope.
After NDSU and SDSU took the plunge toward Division I, effective starting the 2004 season, UND had a decision to make: Do we follow in their footsteps or do we stay at the same level and continue the success? This turned out to be a much more difficult question to answer in Grand Forks than in Fargo.
UND’s hockey program was flourishing in Division I with national championships in 1997 and 2000, but could it afford to move the rest of its 17 programs to the Division I level?
Dale Lennon, who became the head coach of the football team in 1999 after Thomas moved to the athletic director position, said he was asked for his input on whether or not UND should go Division I. “I just said that we can’t let NDSU go without us going with them.”
“I think what happened is you had some people at the University of North Dakota (that) weren’t all that familiar with the UND-NDSU rivalry and they just didn’t see the big picture,” Lennon said. “Especially at the Division II level of what was happening on the national scale and how Division II was in the process of becoming more and more watered down. And UND failed to see that and that’s why they didn’t make the transition, which at that time too, I just did not think it was the right decision for us. We should be making sure we didn’t lose that connection with North Dakota State.”
“It gets pretty complicated because it ties into all the things that were going on with UND at that time,” Thomas explained. “I will say that it was a school’s decision to not make the move to the next level and whether you agreed or disagreed with the school’s decision you were going to live with it.”
In the summer of 1999, Dr. Charles Kupchella became the 10th president at UND. Before arriving in Grand Forks, Kupchella served as Provost and Professor of Biology at Southeast Missouri State University beginning in 1993.
In 1991, Southeast Missouri made the transition to Division I athletics in the Ohio Valley Conference and what could go wrong went wrong. The men’s basketball team had two winning seasons in its first nine years in Division I and fired its head coach Ron Shumate in 1997 amid an NCAA investigation. Later, it was discovered that the university and its athletic department were paying its basketball players. The basketball team was placed on probation for three years and their average men’s basketball attendance dropped by nearly 2,000 from 1991-97. The football team struggled, too. They went 33-67 from 1991-1999 and failed to finish better than fourth in the Ohio Valley.
The trepidation felt by UND’s leaders, starting with Kupchella, could have been a symptom of past failures at previous schools. UND was thriving at the Division II level just as Southeast Missouri State had a decade before. But once the transition was made to Division I, the success in athletics didn’t translate. To this day, Southeast Missouri is climbing its way back to relevancy and was voted to finish sixth in the Ohio Valley for football this season.
“People then thought that the difference between Division II and 1-AA (FCS) was this humongous gap and it just wasn’t that big of a gap,” Lennon said. “The perception was, this Division II program would never be able to compete at the Division I level and that was just a false perception.”
Past failures at other schools to successfully make a smooth transition could have been a part of the equation, but there were other tangible challenges facing UND in the early 2000s. Beginning with the “Fighting Sioux” nickname controversy that swirled around UND athletics like the plague.
You include an array of new facilities with the construction of the Ralph Engelstad Arena, Alerus Center and Betty Engelstad Sports Center; revenue wasn’t going into the athletic department like it did when UND athletics were played on campus.
“There were a lot of sidebars going on and the school was trying to keep their arms around everything that was happening,” Thomas said about the turmoil in Grand Forks nearly 15 years ago.
UND would remain in Division II athletics thus breaking one of the longest rivalries in college football. NDSU and UND wouldn’t play on the gridiron for the foreseeable future.
Chapter 6: Rivalry Restored (?)
Deciding who’s to blame for the NDSU-UND football game not returning sooner has been a polarizing debate to say the least. Reasons have been given on both sides, but an absolute answer has not, and probably never will be, ascertained.
In 2003, North Dakota’s two most prominent institutions were at the same crossroad and went different directions, leaving more questions than answers in their respective paths as to why they didn’t link up until 12 years down the road.
At the time of NDSU making its transition to Division I, there was a clear-cut answer as to why UND didn’t schedule NDSU. “The reasons were at that time, UND would have been penalized under the D-II playoff system for playing a D-I team,” former WDAZ sports director Pat Sweeney said.
UND learned its lesson from North Alabama in 2003 when the Lions went undefeated in the regular season but were seeded behind one-loss UND in the D-II playoffs because one of their victories came against Jacksonville State, a member of the Division I-AA Ohio Valley Conference. North Alabama would eventually meet with UND in the semifinals, a game UND would win 29- 22 at the Alerus Center.
“Before we made our announcement (to move Division I), Roger (Thomas) and I had talked about, in general, just the decision to go to Division I or not, how that would impact not only the football game but all the sports,” former NDSU athletic director Gene Taylor said. “Then I think once we finally announced it, Roger and I talked for a while more and he basically called and said, ‘We don’t see us playing you guys any longer.’”
It was an unfortunate way to end the rivalry, but in the end, both programs felt like they were doing what they thought was best, said Sweeney. He also recalled what then-UND head coach Dale Lennon said after UND made its announcement to remain at the Division II level. “I would love to play NDSU. I played them as a player, assistant coach, and head coach. Believe me, nobody likes to play them more than I do, and nobody likes beating them more than I do,” Lennon said at the podium. “I’ve looked at this every different way, and it would not be to our benefit to play them.”
UND would decline football games in 2004 and 2005 while NDSU was filling out its schedule during its transition to Division I. In fact, UND wouldn’t schedule a game in any sport against NDSU until the spring of 2010 when the two baseball teams met at a neutral site in the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis.
With its in-state rival out of the question for scheduling, Taylor was put in a bind trying to fill out schedules for each NDSU program that was competing without a conference affiliation.
It’s hard to remember a rough period in the Division I transition for NDSU, but the football team had a stint in the Great West Football Conference for football from 2004-2007. Soccer was in the United Soccer Conference in 2006, and wrestling, men’s and women’s track and field, softball, baseball, men’s and women’s basketball and volleyball were all independent from the fall of 2004 through the spring of 2007. The only exception was the wrestling team who entered the Western Wrestling Conference during the 2006-07 season.
Many theorized the stress of scheduling for an independent program that ultimately weighed into the decision as to whether NDSU should schedule UND when UND entered Division I. The thought was that Taylor was returning the favor, or lack thereof, to UND. But new athletic director Brian Faison claimed scheduling NDSU wasn’t at the top of their agenda when he arrived in the spring of 2008.
“There wasn’t any intensity to it or speed to it at the time,” Faison said about scheduling NDSU. In 2008, UND started playing football in the Great West, a league Taylor helped establish in 2004. Taylor’s mission was to give NDSU a home for its football program while it was going through its five-year transition. NDSU announced in March 2007 that it would ultimately split for the Missouri Valley Football Conference in 2008 and finally give its other programs conference affiliation in the Summit League.
The plan, or so it seemed, was for UND to spend the next few years in the Great West as NDSU had and then look for a conference that had an automatic qualifier for postseason play like the Summit League and MVFC. But another obstacle would emerge for UND during its transition.
“The thing that complicated things for the University of North Dakota was the nickname controversy that was going on,” Lennon said. Lennon jumped ship for the Southern Illinois University head-coaching job after the 2007 football season. “In fact, that was probably as bad of timing as the school could possibly have. To be going through this transition and to also be dealing with this emotional conflict of losing your nickname.”
Earlier in 2005, the NCAA banned the usage of American Indian mascots, deeming “at least” 18 schools on the list of schools with “hostile or abusive” nicknames. UND’s “Fighting Sioux” nickname was on the list. This prompted tribal resolutions, lawsuits, state law, a public vote and turmoil during a delicate decision-making time for UND. (They announced they were going Division I a year later).
While UND was a full-time member of the Great West, Tom Douple, commissioner of the Summit League, made it clear in April 2009 that UND wouldn’t be considered for its membership unless it abolished the nickname. One year later, voters in Grand Forks chose to remove the nickname and on August 15, 2011, the nickname was retired.
After the challenge of overcoming the nickname debacle, everything seemed on track for UND to join the Summit League and begin playing its former in-state rival in at least the majority of their sports. Then a sudden twist came on Oct. 29, 2010.
“I will never forget it,” WDAY sports director Dom Izzo said. “It was a Friday afternoon, we got the email that the Summit League visit had been canceled and two days later, the Big Sky announced that they were taking UND into the league.”
“Football,” Faison said. “What he (Douple) couldn’t do is offer a home for football and the Missouri Valley at that time didn’t indicate any interest in expansion.”
Then, on November 3, the University of South Dakota, who was making the transition along the same timeline as UND and had reportedly agreed to join the Big Sky along with UND, changed its mind.
Lennon couldn’t believe the phone call he received.
“I was actually contacted by the Missouri Valley Football Conference and was asked, ‘Well, do you think the University of South Dakota would be interested in the Missouri Valley (Football) Conference?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I’m pretty sure they would be very interested.’ The next day, UND accepted, and the following day, the University of South Dakota declined (the Big Sky) and took the Missouri Valley and Summit League deal instead.”
UND was on an island belonging to the Big Sky which was composed of institutions in California, Oregon, Washington, Montana, Colorado and Arizona. They finally joined the conference in 2012, and their football team has gone 8-16 in conference play since.
With UND unable to realign with former North Central Conference opponents, the attention of the public turned back to resuming the NDSU-UND rivalry as a non-conference matchup.
In April 2011, the two sides nearly closed a home-and-home deal in 2015 and 2017, but talks fell through.
“My last year or two, we started talking about playing the game and I had thrown out some scenarios to Brian, none of which he considered,” Taylor said. The 2011 proposal was sent back to Taylor, which he countered with a single-game offer in 2015 played in Fargo.
“I don’t know what he was thinking in terms of how he felt, why he wouldn’t say, ‘Yes’ before, but I felt we honestly, in a little bit of the bargaining, we had a little bit of the advantage in terms of the negotiations,” Taylor said, now the deputy director for intercollegiate athletics at the University of Iowa. “We were selling out all of our home games. We’d been able to get teams into Fargo that were new teams and we were able to maintain.”
Faison declined Taylor’s offer and proposed moving the aforementioned 2017 game in Grand Forks to a later date in 2018, 2019 or 2020.
“It’s hard because the Alerus Center only seats 10,000, and NDSU games are now drawing around 19,000 for home games so I don’t know if they (UND) can host a game,” Izzo said, giving his take on the negotiations. “I don’t know if that means they should never have a game up there, but it’s going to be awfully hard, and NDSU is in the captain seat. They can dictate if you want to play the game. And UND has no other option here. They have to play at NDSU.”
The final proposal sent by Taylor before his departure was finalized. NDSU-UND would renew its football rivalry in 2015 and 2019 – with both games played in the FargoDome and UND guaranteed $125,000 for the first game and $140,000 for the second – plus 500 tickets and the option to bring cheerleaders and band.
“(UND) Coach (Bubba) Schweigert called me up,” Lennon said, “And he said, ‘Okay, what do you think about this agreement?’”
I told him it’s not really a great agreement for the University of North Dakota, but I said, ‘Grab it.’”
On, Aug. 22, 2014, the two games were officially scheduled, 22 days after Taylor left his AD position at NDSU to join the athletic administrative staff at Iowa.
Interim NDSU athletic director Prakash Mathew said in the official NDSU press release, “Gene worked hard to find a solution that would be agreeable to both schools. I am happy that Gene’s offer has come to fruition.”
The 12-year hiatus was scheduled to be lifted. Through the reclassification of North Dakota’s two largest institutions, conference realignment drama and years of back and forth between the administrations on both sides, a plan to resume the football game was accomplished.
“I’m so thankful they’re playing,” said Thomas, now the athletic director at the University of Mary in Bismarck. “For North Dakota, a state with no pro teams, I always thought this is it. This is the Super Bowl and for literally everybody to enjoy.”
For now, NDSU’s current athletic director Matt Larsen and UND’s Faison haven’t discussed the future. But maybe that’s okay. As both schools lay the foundation of their future at the Division I level, the two schools will continue to push forward doing what they believe is best for their respective programs.
As Lennon said, the NCC, once the defining power and jewel of Division II, is gone. The peak of the NDSU-UND rivalry is gone. The Nickel Trophy is gone. But for one day this September, fans across North Dakota, in Kelly green or Bison yellow, can stop pointing their finger, relive a once defining game for each program and experience something only North Dakota can offer: a re-installment of Division II’s oldest and most revered rivalry.