Photos by Joe Kerlin
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this column do not represent the views of Bison Illustrated or Spotlight Media. The opinions expressed are the writer’s views alone.
There’s no fun way to say something needs to change with the North Dakota State women’s basketball program. Acknowledging that there is a major problem and that drastic change is needed, is the first step. The next step, the bigger step – the harder question – is what must be done about it. Not what “can” be done about it, but what “must” be done about it. The once proud program that competed for conference and national championships, with fans literally filling the Bison Sports Arena to the rafters, has plunged into an embarrassing state.
There aren’t easy words, but they are necessary words. You can’t say that there’s been improvement because the numbers don’t support that. In the last four years, NDSU hasn’t notched more than 11 wins in any single season. The program has teetered between two, four, and two conference wins per year since the start of the 2015 season. If you care about the women’s hoops program, what it once was, and what it can be again, you won’t run from these unavoidable facts. You’ll acknowledge their reality. Every single measurable, from our record to point differential in games, to simply being competitive in the Summit League, points to one grading truth. We are not where we need to be, and we are not trending in the right direction. There must be accountability. To borrow a quote from one of North Dakota’s adopted sons, the great Teddy Roosevelt, “We must hold to a rigid accountability those public servants who show unfaithfulness to the interests of the nation or inability to rise to the high level of new demands upon our strength and our resources.” Quite obviously, I’m not taking any public servant to task, although, we are a state-funded public university. The principle drives at the larger point that Roosevelt was making. We have to hold our leaders accountable.
Growing up in Maddock, North Dakota, Pa Swany would take my brother and me to Fargo to watch the legendary Bison teams of Hall of Fame head coach Amy Ruley. A few years back, Prairie Public did a great documentary called When They Were Kings: The NDSU-UND Rivalry. The documentary followed, in part, Ruley’s national championship teams yearly duking it out with Gene Roebuck’s University of North Dakota teams not just for state supremacy, but for national championships. If Rocky Hager and Roger Thomas had fire-and-ice personas, the same could be said, and arguably be an understatement, of Ruley and Roebuck. During those games, the BSA was every bit as crazy as Cameron Indoor Stadium or Rupp Arena. It was one of the best environments in all of college basketball, men or women. There was a time when women’s basketball mattered in Fargo, and was front-page worthy just like our football program. If you watch that Prairie Public documentary closely, you’ll see two chubby-faced kids in old-school plastic rimmed glasses sitting in the first row of the BSA’s wooden bleachers transfixed by those great Bison teams.
Now? The program that won national titles in 1991, 93, 94, 95, and 96, was the national runner-up in 1992 and 2000, and was expected to reach the NCAA Tournament on a regular basis, is no longer recognizable. In the brand-spanking new SCHEELS Center at the Sanford Health Athletic Complex, a facility with more bells and whistles and creature comforts than any other arena in our conference, a paltry 768 fans on average show up. Something must change. A few days ago, I came across a business journal article talking about the accountability spectrum. On one end of the spectrum, the end where things never get better, are characteristics like blaming others (injuries, great opponents), personal excuses (we’re a young team, we didn’t shoot well, etc.), and waiting (we’ve got a lot coming back next year, we showed improvement). On the other end of the spectrum, the end that delivers results, are characteristics like acknowledging reality (what we’ve been doing isn’t working, what do we need to do different), “owning it” (this is the mirror principle – the ones responsible for where we’re at are staring back at us in the mirror), and finding solutions.
Step one, acknowledge reality. What we’ve been doing isn’t working. The reality? We are light years away from South Dakota State, South Dakota, and even our neighbors to the north in Grand Forks. All three programs – SDSU, USD, and UND – have appeared in March Madness. The Jackrabbits made their eighth March Madness appearance since joining the Summit League the same year as the Bison. Last year’s North Dakota Miss Basketball, from just down the road in Wahpeton, elected to lace up her sneakers in Brookings rather than Fargo. While you can’t blame her, you have to ask how and why that happened. Even USD and UND, who were late to the Division I party, have lapped NDSU. Despite joining the Summit League several years after the Bison, the Coyotes have made an NCAA Tournament appearance, regularly compete for the league title, and even won the National Invitational Tournament, a/k/a, the NIT, in 2016, and are threatened to win the NIT again this year. You can’t hide from these facts and pretend things are okay.
As Jeff Kolpack noted recently in the Fargo Forum, the Bison are 33-84 in the last four seasons with three straight years of 20-plus losses. Their Summit League record during this span is 15-47. This year, NDSU finished 9-20, including a dismal 2-12 in league play, with three of their wins coming against non-Division I opponents. Can you imagine if our football or men’s basketball teams had four years like that? Bison Nation would be lighting its hair on fire while Jeff Culhane and Jeremy Jorgenson fielded angry calls every day during the Bison Insiders radio program on 1660 AM. Bisonville, the infamous internet site run by hardcore Bison fans, would have exploded.
Dig a little deeper into the results and you’ll see that in the last two years, the Bison have lost 24 games by more than 20 points. That’s not acceptable. Since making the leap to Division I athletics, every other program at NDSU has made an appearance in its respective postseason NCAA tournament, including most notably the football program’s six national championships, men’s basketball’s win against Oklahoma in the 2014 NCAA Tournament and appearances in the 2009 and 2015 NCAA Tournaments, and Darren Mueller’s softball team advancing to the Super Regional, the Sweet 16, in the 2009 NCAA Tournament. While every other program is thriving and competing, the women’s basketball program continues its decade-long backslide.
Step two, owning it. This is on us, not anybody else, and there are no excuses. I’m tired of hearing how young this program has been for the last four years. It is seemingly perpetually young. I’m tired of hearing about injuries, tired of hearing excuses after double-digit losses, and tired of hearing how the culture is really changing. The aforementioned numbers say otherwise. You can’t just say you have culture and, voila, you have culture. The Bison Football program has culture. The Bison Football program – from its coaches to its players – never complains about injuries or adversity. The familiar refrain is “next guy up,” and head coach Chris Klieman has pointed out, correctly, that nobody is going to feel sorry for the Bison when we hit adversity. The players, in turn, take that cue from their coach and his leadership. That culture refuses to make excuses. Did you see the list of injured guys heading into spring football? The refrain, though, was we’ll use this opportunity to develop depth and get young guys snaps. They own it, taking an obstacle and using it as a springboard like any elite organization does. It’s a big part of the reason they’ve reached the heights they have. On the other hand, if leadership is making excuses, feeling sorry for itself, and continuing in the same pattern that hasn’t produced results, players will follow that lead.
Step three is finding solutions. Albert Einstein is widely attributed with the famous quote that, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” Whatever the NDSU women’s hoops team is doing, it isn’t working. Doing it again will, unsurprisingly, have the same result. It’s time to care, and I’ll be the first to light my hair on fire. That chubby-faced kid sitting back at the BSA in the 1990s would be kicking his future self if he didn’t. So, here’s to striking the match. Everybody up for the tip-off, the march is on!