Illinois State players raced up and down the sideline as if they had just beat North Dakota State for their first-ever national championship. Tre Roberson’s 58-yard touchdown run gave the Redbirds a 27–23 lead over the Bison with only 1:38 remaining in the game. Fortunately, for Bison fans, that touchdown would shortly be relegated to a footnote in the history book. We know how the game ended, and know it was NDSU winning an unprecedented fourth straight FCS national championship.
Of all the memories from that day, of which there are many, for me, one in particular stands out. It’s not one that was captured on camera or in the highlights. You didn’t read about it in the newspaper. It wasn’t by a Bison player. It wasn’t even on the field. But it captures the essence of the game, the essence of this Bison team and their refusal to submit to defeat. As Illinois State celebrated, one of their players turned towards the Bison crowd behind the Redbirds’ bench and started pointing, wildly thrusting his hands into the air, shouting how NDSU’s reign as champion was over. I remember thinking to myself, that guy is going to be feeling awfully different about things in a few minutes.
The shouting, gesticulating and celebration, proved premature. Six plays, 61 seconds, three R.J. Urzendowski catches and 78-yards later, Carson Wentz’s five-yard touchdown run took Bison fans from the lowest of lows to the highest of highs. The abrupt turnaround took that Redbirds player, and his teammates, from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows. Esley Thorton provided the final dagger a few plays later, when he intercepted Roberson with less than ten seconds left. Ironically, Roberson threw the pass from almost the exact same spot on the field where he began his touchdown run only moments earlier. Game, set, championship, Bison. The Bison became the first FCS team ever to four-peat.
As I wrote in the pages of this magazine last February, no championship season is the same. Every championship team is different. None more so than this team. Winning a championship is tough business, notwithstanding NDSU winning four straight. Montana, the gold standard in the FCS before the Bison, has won two titles. Conference rival Northern Iowa, a strong program in its own right, has never won a title. An example from another sport best illustrates the point. Duke basketball is instantly recognizable worldwide for their success. They’ve won four national championships in its entire history, all since Mike Krzyzewski arrived in 1980.
There is a strong argument that of the four-peat, this one was the hardest. A new head coach manned the helm with almost an entirely new coaching staff. Heading into the year, much more was made of the players not coming back – the seniors from the undefeated 2013 team – as opposed to the experienced and talented players who opened the 2014 campaign at Iowa State. The common refrain was that the Bison lost too much to get back to Frisco to win another championship. “The (Eastern Washington) Eagles will knock out North Dakota State in the playoff semifinals and then go on to beat Southeastern Louisiana for another national title,” wrote Craig Haley, the FCS executive director for The Sports Network. “The Bison are a much different team this season, having to replace 24 seniors under a new head coach, Chris Klieman.” That sums up how people outside of Fargo thought things would go.
These sorts of stories and questions didn’t go unnoticed by the Bison. In spring practice, Klieman noted that Colten Heagle, a team captain, was bothered by the fact that all anyone covering the team wanted to talk about was who wasn’t there as opposed to who was. This motivated the Bison to prove Haley, and the others dismissing them, wrong. “With all the naysayers and everyone saying we lost so many, we kind of put a chip on our shoulder and that was something we needed,” said John Crockett, one of the emotional leaders of the team. “When we heard that, it was great, it was motivating, I feel that was the driving force of why we’re here in the fourth in a row.”
The preseason questions now change to comparisons. Like where does this team stack up against the previous teams in the four-peat? I’m not interested in the answer to that question. I’m not interested because we weren’t playing those teams. I’m not interested because it implies that somehow one team, or one championship, is better than the other. They’re all special. But they are all different. While the 2013 team is remembered for its sheer dominance over opponents, the 2014 team should be remembered for their sheer resolve.
That’s what I’ll remember about this team. They refused to be denied. They never doubted. To paraphrase the title from one of the greatest songs of all-time, they never stopped believing.
“With our guys you never saw any doubt in their mind, you never saw panic in their eyes,” said Klieman, describing the mindset of his team after Illinois State took the lead late in the game. No matter what, through sheer resolve and determination, they were going to win the championship, period. “We are a hard working group … and we’re just going to go out and get the job done no matter how we got to do it,” Crockett said.
From the opening kickoff in August, that was the attitude of this team. That’s what experts, like Haley, overlooked. The most important things, the bedrock of Bison football, didn’t go anywhere. They were abundant as they’ve ever been. “The tradition is the same. The culture is the same. The preparation is the same,” said Christian Dudzik after the win in Ames, Iowa. Dudzik started all 61 games during the four championship seasons. “Same hard-nosed offense, same gang-tackling defense. It’s the way we do things.”
The Bison needed every ounce they could squeeze from their offense, defense and special teams during this championship run. Three times in the playoffs against South Dakota State, Coastal Carolina and Illinois State, the Bison trailed in the fourth quarter. Each time, the Bison were literally a play or two away from ending their season without the championship trophy. All three times the Bison rallied. It was a band of brothers mentality according to Crockett. “It’s a band of brothers going out there and basically fighting for each other and not wanting to let the other down because they know the other one is going to do everything he can not to let the other one down.”
Ultimately, the Bison were out to prove a point. “It says a lot about the program. I think coming into the season everyone looked at us like our backs were against the wall,” concluded Thorton. “I think we really proved to people that this is a special program not just these few last years but for years to come. To lose what we did and reload how we did and to show people we’re still competing at the highest level is huge for the program.”
The 2014 Bison proved their point. They showed that Bison football is bigger than one year, bigger than one senior class and bigger than any departed coaches. It says everything about the program.
Swanson is a native of Maddock, N.D., a proud NDSU alum and a life-long Bison fan.