Photo by J. Alan Paul Photography
Chris Klieman sat at the podium in Frisco, Texas, wearing a fresh-out-of-the-box North Dakota State 2017 National Championship shirt and matching hat after a redeeming 17-13 win over James Madison to capture NDSU’s sixth national championship in seven years. The sun smiled down on the clear January afternoon as former Bison players embraced current ones behind the bleachers just cleared by the Gold Star Marching Band, many with tears of joy trickling down their faces. The mass of green and yellow clad Bison fans that stormed the field after quarterback Easton Stick ran out the clock and chucked the football towards the heavens to start the party, the most beautiful minus-27 yard run you’ll ever live to see, slowly filtered out of Toyota Stadium to the tailgating lots to revel in yet another national championship.
While it was a scene familiar to Bison fans, this one took on an added, special meaning as it was intimately tied to the ones before it. Not just the five previous FCS championships, but the eight Division II national championships going back to 1965. It was the great redemption. NDSU reclaimed its crown from JMU, stopping one aspiring dynasty dead in its tracks and simultaneously proclaiming that the Bison dynasty is as strong as it’s ever been.
“It’s the best feeling I’ve ever had, I just knew one year ago we were going to be here,” said senior Nate Tanguay, who had to watch from the sidelines on December 16, 2016, with an injured knee as the Dukes did something nobody else had done in the previous 22 attempts – beat the Bison in the postseason. “I never envisioned anything else. I knew we were going to come and be national champions again.”
There are few teams in any sport, college or professional, that can match NDSU’s sustained run of excellence. Only three other teams in the history of the Football Championship Subdivision have repeated as champions. Georgia Southern went back-to-back three separate times, Youngstown State did it once and Appalachian State won three in a row. The FCS, formerly known as I-AA, began play in 1978. The Bison have been eligible for the FCS postseason since only 2008 after making the jump to Division I athletics. In ten seasons of postseason eligibility, NDSU has six national titles, tying Georgia Southern for most all-time in the history of a subdivision celebrating its 40th birthday this fall. The Bison legacy and tradition, though, stretches back long before 2011, long before there was an FCS.
You don’t, you can’t, have this kind of success without a strong foundation, a point emphasized by Stick after his MVP performance against JMU, and echoed by All-American linebacker Nick DeLuca. “It’s really special, to be out there at our walk through, and see 200, 300 former players around. That’s what makes this place so special,” said Stick, referencing the Friday practice before the championship attended by former Bison players. “It’s not just the past six or seven years. It’s been going on for a long time. We’re all very fortunate to be at this place.”
DeLuca, too, highlighted the previous generations as laying the foundation. “It’s a legacy, it’s everything that we work for, all those workouts, all that stuff we do during the offseason, it’s for this moment and this stage. Like the guys that came before us set the foundation and the tradition for us,” DeLuca said.
That bond, that tradition, what we call “Bison Pride,” is the cornerstone that has allowed NDSU to achieve its historic success. It’s intrinsic. It’s not a metric that lends itself to measurement because you can’t quantify an unbreakable bond and love for this program and university that we all share. Look up and down the stat sheets and you won’t find a statistic for brotherhood and culture. It transcends statistics or any sort of analytics. Sure, you can point toward the stifling Bison defenses and the pounding rushing attacks, the NFL and All-American players, the fact the title teams have had quarterbacks with names like Grasamke, Bentrim, Simdorn, Jensen, Wentz and Stick, or coaches like Mudra, Erhardt, Morton, Solomonson, Hager, Bohl and Klieman. But it’s not any one guy or any one team. In a game where turnover of players and coaches is a fundamental constant as certain as the changing of the seasons, the results are the same, the program endures.
In 52 years, the Bison have won 14 national championship and 34 conference titles. That means that in 27 percent of the seasons played since 1965, NDSU has won the national championship. It means that in 65 percent of the seasons played since 1965, NDSU has won a conference championship. No other program in college football comes even close to matching that. Not Alabama, Notre Dame, Florida State, Oklahoma, nobody.
When describing Bison Pride and the culture here, Klieman harkened back to one of the program builders that got it all started in the 1960s, Ardell Wiegandt. Wiegandt was a team captain and all-conference linebacker when the Bison defeated Grambling for the school’s first national championship in 1965. Wiegandt spent time at Northern Iowa, where he coached Klieman. “I came here in 2011 and didn’t know what to expect, but everybody that I talked to, the people that I’m close to that played – Ardell Wiegandt played here in the ‘60s. Ardell coached me, and everybody told me how special this place was. To be here for all six of those FCS championships, it’s a lifetime dream,” Klieman said.
That Klieman can reach back to Wiegandt – How many coaches reference a guy that played 50 years ago after winning a national championship? How many players, moments removed from being named the MVP of a national championship game or on their way to the NFL Combine, talk about the hundreds of players that came before them? How many schools have thousands of fans that take their yearly vacation to Texas in early January to support their team?
“It’s unbelievable when you look out in those stands and see all the green and gold, it’s just a testament to our fan base and the tradition and everything this university stands for,” said DeLuca.
It’s the tie that binds us, the theme running back to the 1960s that has enabled our program to achieve the stratospheric heights it has. That is the Strength of the Herd.
“Bison Pride and NDSU, we always talk, we’re different,” concluded Klieman. “If I could tell you why, I’d retire and make a million dollars selling it, but I can’t tell you.”
Klieman is right. You can no more measure Bison Pride than you can measure patriotism or your faith. Some things, maybe the best things, in life are meant to be experienced, to be celebrated and shared, without quantifying them. It’s the great unquantifiable. Everybody up for the kickoff, the march is on!