The final horn just sounded. North Dakota State had notched the biggest win in program history by knocking off Big XII runner- up Oklahoma in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Saul Phillips did his best Jim Valvano impersonation, running around the court in pure elation before ending up in front of the NDSU fan section, Section 103, in Spokane’s Veterans Memorial Arena. Phillips stopped and thrust both hands in the air. Each hand was holding up Bison horns, the familiar rallying symbol for Bison Nation, index and pinky fingers held high. It was a moment captured live on national television – a moment replayed hundreds of times during the tournament’s opening weekend, a moment beamed into millions of homes from Washington to Florida, from Maine to California. It instantly catapulted NDSU into national relevance on the college basketball stage as a mid-major power to be reckoned with.
Pretty remarkable for a team that was playing Division II ball when Athletic Director Gene Taylor arrived on campus in the summer of 2001. Fast forward to 2014 and Bison basketball was in its second tournament in six years of eligibility at the Division I level. More remarkably, in only six years of tournament eligibility, NDSU was standing in the national limelight after beating the Sooners, the No. 20 ranked team in the country. Charles Barkley invited Phillips golfing. The “New York Times,” the venerable Grey Lady herself, sent a reporter to document one of the biggest stories in college sports, the rise of a new hoops power. That reporter, John Branch, summed things up with the headline of his March 21 story: “North Dakota State Thinks Big, Has Fun, Earns Attention.” Branch is right. And the Bison are just getting warmed up.
Anyone thinking about playing basketball for the Bison should take notice. The “New York Times,” the best known newspaper on the planet, has labeled Phillips one of the most exciting coaches in the country to play for. “What makes Phillips different is that he is the rare basketball coach who appears to have fun coaching.” Branch goes on to note how Phillips’ players have just as much fun winning and playing in Fargo, N.D., as anywhere in the country, including San Diego. “The humor is contagious among the players. … After the (Oklahoma) game, when Phillips said of (Lawrence) Alexander, ‘I love him and he’s a winner,’ Alexander replied, ‘I love you, too, Saul.’” How many other coaches do you hear talk about their players like that? How many players, without hesitation, echo the sentiment right back? Rare indeed.
In an era where college basketball has, to some, devolved into a cold, corporate culture where there’s less fun and more players are under the laser microscope of pressure, the Bison are a new breed. Take, for example, this exchange between Taylor Braun, the Summit League player of the year, Alexander and Phillips after NDSU’s overtime win against the Sooners. NDSU trailed 66 – 63 with only twelve seconds left in regulation when Alexander buried a three from the right wing in front of the NDSU bench to send things into overtime. During the postgame press conference, the two Bison stars talked about the biggest shot in school history. “And what did you say when it was in the air,” Braun asked Alexander, both of them enjoying the moment. Alexander replied with one word and an ear- to-ear smile, “Buckets.” Phillips joined the act, kidding Alexander, “That’s a lot of confidence there, big fella.” In the locker room celebration following the game, Phillips summed up the shot. “Wow, wow, wow. Hey, L.A., simply one of the biggest shots in school history. You’re going to be on one shining moment,” Phillips said, referencing the CBS montage played after the Final Four’s national championship game.
But don’t take my word for it. Listen to how Steve Fisher, San Diego State’s Hall of Fame head coach, described the Bison. “Very, very, very impressed,” began Fisher. “They play exceptionally well together. They’re expertly coached. They know what they want to do, how they want to do it and do it.” This from a coach who has amassed a 24 – 13 career record in March Madness, led Michigan to a national championship in 1989, and recruited the iconic Fab Five, who appeared in back-to-back Final Fours in 1992 and 1993. “This is not a team doing it with smoke and mirrors; they’re talented.”
It was our school’s first ever tournament win, one of the most significant victories not just in NDSU history, but the history of the entire state of North Dakota, all sports, all schools. It was at once a program defining and program changing moment. “The whole experience was unbelievable,” said Braun. “Just the atmosphere was a hundred times greater than I expected. Just the intensity, everything about the game was unbelievable.” It promises to be the first of many such moments for the up-and-comers from Fargo led by their fun loving head coach.
With the newfound notoriety, many will be taking a second look at NDSU. According to a study released the last week of March by the U.S. Census Bureau, Fargo is the fourth fastest-growing metropolitan area in the country. Phillips says the trick is getting recruits to visit NDSU so they can see what the city and university are really like. Such visits open eyes and show recruits that Fargo is nothing like the outdated and inaccurate stereotype made popular by the 1996 hit movie “Fargo.” The exposure and outpouring of love the Bison have received from their tournament run has helped.“It will help. We had to smash some perceptions about Fargo. We do,” Phillips explained. Phillips specifically noted that many media members now on the Bison bandwagon have never been to North Dakota’s largest city. “Fargo’s actually a really cool place and it’s got a ton of youth with the colleges in town, ton of energy, great employment, just a nice place.”
While midnight may have struck for this year’s Cinderella, the Bison cracked the glass ceiling, laying the groundwork for big things. After falling short in their attempt at the Sweet 16, Phillips had a final message for Bison Nation. “I expect great things out of this program. We’re going to build, we’re going to get better, we’re going to have better facilities, we’re going to work harder,” concluded Phillips. The template is in place. “I think if we do what we did with this group, we have got a pretty good template to give it an effort.” And who wouldn’t want to be part of that? Everybody up for the tipoff, the march is on!