Photo By Hillary Ehlen
This was supposed to be a “rebuilding” year for North Dakota State. HERO Sports summed up the prevailing sentiment circling the NDSU dynasty in its 2019 FCS Preview last July.
“This season will be the biggest challenge yet of reloading the starting lineup. Just three starters are back on offense and four return on defense. … The narrative in Fargo seems to be that people nationally are doubting the Bison.”
In short, somebody else, namely, James Madison, or another Missouri Valley Conference foe would surely pour cold water on another Bison championship. It was just too big an ask for a rookie head coach and his first-year quarterback, new coaching staff and a program tasked with replacing the all-time winningest signal-caller in FCS history along with 22 other seniors and their championship pedigree.
On the Bison Illustrated Podcast before the season-opener at Target Field against Butler, local FCS guru Dom Izzo, as knowledgeable on the state of the FCS as anybody in the country, who’s usually solid in his predictions, forecasted the Doomsday scenario for Bison fans. Izzo had the stones to say the Bison would lose three games to conference foes Illinois State, South Dakota State and Youngstown State. “I think they lose three times this year … they go 5-3 in the league, I think the young team they’re going to have, those teams are waiting for them.” Izzo was far from the only FCS mind thinking along these lines.
As easy as it was to call this a “rebuilding year” for the Herd, the evidence seemingly there supporting the moniker, have we not learned anything from our history with this program? Apparently not, with memories running short, and five years ago qualifying as ancient history. This was the exact same script after the 2013 season leading into 2014. A new coach, coupled with losing nearly two dozen seniors, meant the Bison were vulnerable and couldn’t possibly contend for another championship.
Here’s the thing, though. And FCS experts nationwide, and locally, take notes. The word “rebuilding” isn’t in NDSU’s vocabulary, and it surely isn’t accepted by anyone associated with the program. There’s no such thing at NDSU Football as a rebuilding year. Whether it’s offseason workouts with Jim Kramer, NDSU’s legendary assistant athletic director for athletic performance, the first days of spring ball under Matt Entz’s leadership last spring or the prevailing thoughts emanating from Old Main or the Sanford Health Athletic Complex on campus, you can bet that this ten-letter blasphemy of a curse word – “rebuilding” – was kindling a motivation of sorts, slowly burning to an inferno of intensity, “just wait, we’ll show you.”
And show us they did. The rest of the Missouri Valley Football Conference, the FCS and the talking heads got a severe lesson. Doubt NDSU at your own peril. This Bison team not only won their eighth national championship in nine years, along with a ninth straight conference title, but they also became the first team in modern college football history to finish 16–0. No other team in Bison history had won that many games in a season, not even the iconic 2013 and 2018 squads, who each finished 15–0. To put this sort of perfection into perspective, the last team in Division I to win 16 games in a year was Yale, in 1894, playing a slate that consisted of Crescent Athletic Club, Volunteer (NY) Athletic Club, Chicago Athletic Association, Boston AA and Orange Athletic Club.
We could also rattle off all the individual accolades notched by the Bison, like Trey Lance becoming NDSU’s first Jerry Rice Award (outstanding FCS freshman) and Walter Payton Award winner, the first freshman to ever win the FCS’s version of the Heisman Trophy. Or Lance and Derrek Tuszka winning the MVFC offensive and defensive players of the year, and Entz the conference’s coach of the year. But this team wasn’t, and never is, about individual awards. It was about proving, definitively, that the Bison were the best program in America. It was on a mission to silence the doubters.
“That’s part of the desire of every kid [who] wants to live up to the expectations that our tradition has shown,” said Entz the day before the championship game against JMU, a game the Bison won 28-20, their second win over the Dukes in a national title game in the last three years. It was a driving theme for Entz, who arrived in Fargo as the Herd’s defensive coordinator in 2014. The tradition and culture were paramount, and the most important thing, beyond getting to Frisco or bringing home another championship trophy, was making sure the Bison held true to their identity. We should appreciate that about Entz, his staff and their players. The idea that in addition to this national standard to uphold, more importantly, there was an internal one, living up to the expectations of the guys that played before them. Tradition means something different at NDSU. No other program, at any level of college athletics, has hundreds of former players show up to the practice the day before the championship game to share in their brotherhood, including guys that played in the 1960s.
“Probably the number one thing or my greatest concern, it goes all the way back to spring ball, was making sure that it still looked like Bison football,” said Entz, describing the bedrock fundamentals that sustain college football’s greatest dynasty. “How we practiced, how we go about our conditioning work during the week, how we attack the weight room, how coach Kramer works with our student-athletes in the summer. That was my greatest fear.”
In short, the Bison had to stay the Bison, and do things the “Bison Way.” Like Sinatra, Entz did things his way, never afraid to be bold or play the aggressor – whether it was going for it on fourth-and-1 in Brookings late in the game to clinch the Dakota Marker, or dialing up a fake field goal in the title bout versus JMU, Entz banked on that Bison mentality as a difference-maker.
Sure, you can say, and some have, that the championship blueprint was in place. But that isn’t to say winning this much is easy, or that by following the blueprint, another NCAA championship trophy was preordained. It wasn’t. What Entz and the Bison just did was incredibly difficult. That’s why only two teams since 1894, or literally the entire 125-year history of College Football, have gone 16–0.
“Coach Randy Hedberg and Tyler Roehl were both two guys that I leaned upon greatly in the process. Of course, as a new head coach, it doesn’t matter what program, there are things you maybe want to tweak or change, but I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel. I wanted it to continue to look like, and feel like Bison football when you walked on to the practice field.”
It was a message in place since last January, after the Bison beat Eastern Washington and Chris Klieman left for Kansas State. Entz told the Bison Illustrated in last year’s championship issue, “The number one thing that I tried to discuss with them was that we’ve been in this situation before. We’ve lost an unbelievable senior class every year I’ve been here, we have some of the most special kids that come through this program, ones that know how to win.”
That included having a chip on their shoulders. “I know there will be those naysayers who say we lost this or lost that, they have a new quarterback, they have a new staff and my challenge to our team was that it’s okay for us to have a chip on our shoulders. If enough people doubt us, let’s take this chip on the shoulder and questioning of our talent and let’s turn it into a positive and turn it into a great spring, summer and into fall camp.”
The Bison turned that chip into another championship. NDSU is now 128-8 since 2011, with as many national championships as losses in the last nine seasons. The scary part for the rest of the FCS is that the Herd shows no signs of slowing down or being content. This dynasty is as strong as ever, as hungry as ever and working to get better.
That chip from last offseason Entz described has likely been replaced by another chip on the shoulder, to show folks across the college football landscape that the team from Fargo isn’t daunted of the prospects of going into Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Oregon next fall.
Maybe one day folks will learn not to pick against the Bison.
Everybody up for the kickoff, the march is on!