Photo by J. Alan Paul Photography
That didn’t take very long. Only days removed from North Dakota State vanquishing Eastern Washington to capture the program’s seventh national championship in eight years, and the school’s fifteenth national title overall, the naysayers are circling like vultures around a carcass, all too eager to chronicle NDSU’s demise. Some are already on record proclaiming 2019 as James Madison’s year and that the Dukes will be the team winning it all in Frisco, Texas, come next January.
I’m talking to you, Sam Herder. Sam is familiar to most FCS fan bases, players and coaches for his work chronicling the FCS for Hero Sports. Truth be told, Sam does an excellent job, and there are few scribes that have as in-depth knowledge of the subdivision as he does. But there, in bold headlines splashed across Hero Sports’ website, Mr. Herder has JMU as the prohibitive favorite to win the 2019 championship.
He’s not alone. I have a feeling that other FCS aficionados like Craig Haley at Stats FCS and Athlon Sports, along with Sam’s counterpart at Hero Sports, Brian McLaughlin, will likewise crown the Dukes as favorites. To pile on, don’t be surprised if the Bison barbershop quartet of Dom Izzo, Mike McFeely, Jeff Kolpack and Eric Peterson tap JMU as the preseason No. 1 in August. And why not? Like Churchill said, “You must look at facts because they look at you.” Or, to quote our second president, John Adams, “Facts are stubborn things.” The facts are this. As Haley correctly points out in a recent article titled, “FCS Football: 2019 National Title Contenders,” JMU returns 19 starters, and, as we’ve heard ad nauseam, and will hear ad nauseam, has proven they can beat the Bison in the playoffs.
Isn’t that record more played-out than a Justin Bieber song? Anyway, according to Haley, much like this year’s EWU team that made a run to the championship game after missing the playoffs in 2017, the Dukes “are motivated after an early exit from the playoffs following back-to-back appearances in the title game.”
In fairness, Messieurs Herder and Haley have the Bison listed among the teams they think could make a run at the championship – although, they are quick to point out, as Herder does, “Will the Bison be as dominant as 2018? No. The field should level up.” To quote Churchill, once more, “All wisdom is not new wisdom.” Just five years ago, weren’t we having this same discussion? NDSU has one of the best teams in FCS history, dominating the subdivision on its way to winning the FCS championship with an undefeated season. Lo! 2014 beckons and the headlines say the Bison are a much different team. Or, as Mr. Haley explained back in August 2014: “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,” adding, for good measure, “The Bison are a much different team this season, having to replace 24 seniors under a new head coach, Chris Klieman.”
So much for that. The Bison won their fourth straight national championship in 2014, going 15 -1. That team had a chip, more like a boulder, on their shoulders. New head coach, graduated a huge senior class with marquee players ranging from Brock Jensen to Marcus Williams and having to hear how there would be a drop-off and a changing of the guard.
“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 senior running back John Crockett, following that year’s 35-3 semifinal win over Sam Houston State. “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.”
Have we not learned anything from that experience? It appears not. All the better for NDSU and its fans. The facts, indeed Mr. Adams, are stubborn things, and, emphatically Mr. Churchill, this is not new wisdom. For the last decade, NDSU has dealt with these lofty expectations. For a decade, NDSU has had to hear the chorus of doubters saying this can’t, and won’t, go on forever. That one day, like the glory of ancient Rome, this golden age, too, will crumble. The odds are stacked against the Bison, the headline goes. The Bison are on their third head coach in that span, their second athletic director, fourth starting quarterback and have new players across the board hungry to emerge as impact guys. About the only constants are Dean Bresciani sitting in the president’s office at Old Main and Jim Kramer manning the strength and conditioning program at the SHAC. Something has to give, right? Even the great UCLA dynasty under John Wooden had a sunset. Not even the New England Patriots or Alabama Crimson Tide win every year.
But haven’t the Bison already defied history and the odds? Isn’t that one of the stories on this dynasty, that it’s without equal? That no matter the circumstances, there’s something about this place, this culture, this program, built to defy the odds. What, and who says this has to come to an end. Certainly, not the 2019 Bison, who, as you read this, are hard at work under the direction of new head coach Matt Entz and grinding in the offseason strength and conditioning program led by Mr. Kramer. The 2014 Bison opened the season as underdogs at Iowa State with a new quarterback under center, a guy named Carson Wentz, and a new head coach in Chris Klieman. The Bison went into Jack Trice Stadium in Ames, Iowa, and handed it to the Cyclones 34-14. After that game, the players made clear that anyone who thought NDSU was satisfied with a trifecta of titles was wrong. Dead wrong.
“The tradition is the same. The culture is the same. The preparation is the same,” said Bison free safety and team captain Christian Dudzik following the win. “Same hard-nosed offense, same gang-tackling defense; it’s the way we do things.” Has that changed? From the very first team meeting in January 2014, Klieman made it clear that NDSU expected to be back in Texas for the four-peat. “I remember Coach Klieman said at our first team meeting we fully expected to be back in Frisco,” said Kyle Emanuel, the Buck Buchanan Award winner that season as the best defensive player in the FCS. “We put in a lot of hard work, a lot of hungry guys, a lot of guys that were motivated and here we are.” Has that changed? Do you think Entz said anything different in his first team meeting?
The story is this. You don’t rebuild at North Dakota State. You reload. Caveat emptor – you pick against the Bison at your own peril. Much like that 2014 squad, the 2019 Bison will have a chip on their shoulder. Much like the 2014 guys, there are key players returning that have a championship pedigree. Like 2014, the Bison are not starting from scratch with a new coaching staff. There is a culture and continuity in place with coaches like Entz, Randy Hedberg, Tyler Roehl, Nick Goeser, Buddha Williams, Kody Morgan and Jake Otten returning. Oh, and some guy named Grant Olson is coming back to coach linebackers.
As for the 2019 media darlings, the JMU Dukes. Their new head coach, Curt Cignetti, says it’s the Dukes year. During his introductory press conference, Cignetti made it clear where he thinks things stand. “There’s no other school at this level like JMU,” said Cignetti, adding, “[T]here’s only one James Madison, there’s only one.” Cignetti went so far as to call JMU the Alabama of the FCS.
Well, we’ll see about that.
Everybody up for the kickoff, the march is on.