Photo by Joe Kerlin
It was December 9, 2006. I was a freshman at North Dakota State (see I told you I went to school there). Tim Miles’ NDSU men’s basketball team was fresh off of a victory over a top 10 Marquette team in Milwaukee (by the way, the women’s team was about to beat the Gophers by 14 in Fargo). The Bison Sports Arena was absolutely rockin’. It was filled to the rafters and, if you guys all remember, it was not a nice place.
I will never forget the image of the student section, packed like sardines, shaking their keys at Kansas State head coach Bob Huggins.
That’s what a student section is supposed to look like. Not necessarily making fun of a coach for an incident you can look up if you so choose, but they were ravenous, they were many and they were amped. Beyond that, they were not alone. That night’s attendance was 6,110, which was a sellout crowd for the old BSA. It felt like a football game.
To freshen up the memories of Bison fans, there were a lot of circumstances that elevated basketball to this place. It has to be understood that technically this game meant absolutely nothing. It was a high major coming in for a random non-conference date in Fargo. North Dakota State wasn’t building a resume for anything, they weren’t even in the Summit League, they were still playing a fully independent Division I schedule. They weren’t even eligible for the postseason.
It also needs to be kept in mind that football wasn’t really all that great at this point. The Bison had Steve Walker, Joe Mays etc. on campus but they had gone a respectable 8-3 in 2004 and a slightly less respectable 7-4 in 2005. The 2006 season was a fun ride at 10-1, but ultimately NDSU football wasn’t then what it is now. Basketball was king because the coolest thing any sport had done since Gene Taylor elevated the department to Division I was NDSU’s victory over the Wisconsin Badgers in Madison in 2005.
Also people loved Ben Woodside.
Was North Dakota State a basketball school? Probably not because the Division II days hadn’t gone all that well, but it was closer at that point than probably any point before that and certainly any point since.
So why, now that NDSU has one of the finest basketball facilities in mid-major basketball, and a very reasonably sized one at that (5,700 capacity) can it not find a night in which more people attended a game than the 5,020 folks that witnessed the first UND/NDSU matchup in the SHAC?
The Bison men’s basketball program had four 20 win seasons, two Summit League Championships and an NCAA tournament win in the four seasons preceding the Sanford Health Athletic Complex’s opening. So how is it that a winning program and a beautiful new arena hasn’t produced a capacity crowd above 90 percent in two seasons?
Let’s look at some of the possibilities:
Has the winning stopped?
The answer, I suppose would be yes and no. 2016-17 was NDSU’s first non-20 win season in men’s basketball since ‘11-12. 2017-18 was men’s hoops first losing season since ‘10-11. Women’s basketball hasn’t gotten over the .500 hump since the season before that in ‘09-10.
Those, though, are the ebbs and flows of mid-major college basketball. On the men’s side, which is what I’ve covered for BisonReport since 2013, it seems as though people forget just how steep the drop off was after the Woodside years, how long it took to build up the Taylor Braun and crew team. Also, just how impressive it was to win the Summit League Championship and give Gonzaga the business after graduating Braun, Marshall Bjorklund and TrayVonn Wright.
Most mid-major conferences are won by seniors, and between Richman and Walseth’s clubs, the last two iterations of both teams have deployed eight seniors total. In what has to be a record, neither club will have a natural senior on the roster, as Coach Walseth’s team boasts just one: Junior college transfer Marina Fernandez and Richman will have none.
Brighter days are surely ahead.
Is football season too long?
I don’t think so, and even if it is, it shouldn’t hurt. Before North Dakota State was playoff eligible, football would wrap up just before Thanksgiving and then it was basketball season. It’s the same setup that programs with FBS football teams at their school have. It’s football season, then it’s basketball season with maybe a quick football break for a bowl game.
NDSU’s football season, since 2010 hasn’t ended until mid-December and most of the time it hasn’t ended until the first weekend in January. It’s a remarkable run but it also runs three or four games into basketball’s conference season. August to January is quite the commitment
Are NDSU fans a bit spoiled?
I don’t think it’s even that controversial of a statement to say that the football (and frankly track and field and softball) program have set unrealistic expectations for the way every sport’s season should end. It is somewhat difficult to remember that the other teams in the Summit League, Big 12 and Missouri Valley Football Conference are on scholarship too. They even pay the coaches. It’s hard to finish in first place over and over and over and over and over and over again.
If spoiled isn’t the right word, then it’s entirely possible that “fickle” is. You can often judge the record of the basketball team, especially the men’s basketball team by the attendance at the home games, and vice versa. It’s a natural course and maybe I’m naive to think football would sell out during a 7-4 season, but I’d certainly like to think so. There isn’t that much going on in the wintertime that you can’t fill a basketball arena that is less than 1/3 the size of the ‘Dome.
I’m trying to appeal to the general public, but this can also be directed at the students. Student sections have more of an effect on college basketball than any collegiate sport, in my opinion. The current state of the students at NDSU home game isn’t up to par and needs to be elevated. Students can even get in for free to Bison men’s and women’s basketball games.
What needs to be done?
Get excited. Be enthusiastic. Come to the SHAC, enjoy the world-class facility and, most importantly, take a note from North Dakota State men’s basketball’s marketing campaign: Embrace the Journey. Or take the women’s campaign to hear too: We climb together.
Don’t just come out when the programs are 9-1 in the league, come out and enjoy some mid-major basketball and be a part of the process that ultimately ends with a return to March Madness for the men and a rise up the Summit League standings for the women. Be a part of that legacy.
Pack the SHAC!