Photo by Paul Flessland
Now this is the law of the prairie
As old and as true as the sky
And the Bison that keep it will prosper
And the Bison that break it will die
As the creeper that girdles
the tree trunk
This law is the final word:
For the strength of the Herd
is the Bison
And the strength of the Bison
is the Herd.)
“For the Strength of the Herd is the Bison, And the Strength of the Bison is the Herd.”
These 18-words are iconic. They are the heart and lifeblood of everything we do at North Dakota State. The words come from the final stanza of the poem, “The Herd.” When we think about what it means to be a Bison, what NDSU is, our forbearers picked the perfect mascot – the perfect representative that was, as it turns out, the brainchild of then-football coach Stan Borleske in 1919. Borleske was no stranger to tradition, playing for the legendary Fielding Yost, one of college football’s forefathers at the University of Michigan. Yost coached the Wolverines in the early years of the twentieth century and was an instrumental force in turning college football into what it is today.
According to an old NDSU football media guide, Borleske wanted a strong and fierce mascot and “the Bison was a logical choice.” Borleske’s contribution to NDSU has stood the test of time. Since 1919, just one year shy of a century, we have been the Bison. The first time I read the words to “The Herd,” was in November 1990 during a Division II quarterfinal playoff game against Cal Poly at old Dacotah Field. I was eight years old. My dad brought my brother and me to our first Bison game. That date, that game, proved a pivotal moment in our lives. Who knows where we’d be if dad hadn’t taken us to that brutally cold playoff game with, as the same media guide colorfully described it, “cool temperatures and gale-force winds.” The Bison won 47–0, with Cal Poly’s head coach bemoaning after the game that, “I told you that coming in here was like going to Iraq with a 22-caliber gun, didn’t I,” in reference to the unfolding Gulf War.
The words of “The Herd,” particularly that last stanza, resonated with us as much as words can resonate with a pair of eight-year olds. The idea that the strength of the Bison is the Herd conjures an unmistakable image – an image of Bison thundering across the plains, and over opponents, as an unstoppable force. From that day forward, we were part of something special that joins all of us. I don’t know that, even today, I fully understand and appreciate how powerful that idea really is. This is the well spring from which North Dakota State draws its power. The sum of the Bison is the Herd, and the Herd is all of us. The metaphor is as irresistible and simplistic in its beauty as fierce in its power. Listen to how one opponent described the Herd. “I really think they were relentless, their effort on every single play was just unbelievable, they didn’t take any plays off,” said Kyle Lauletta, Richmond’s quarterback, after NDSU dominated the Spiders in the national semifinals, 33-7, in December 2015. That is the strength of the Bison – never taking a play off, being relentless, unparalleled effort.
I’ve heard many opposing players and fans come through Fargo and describe what it’s like running headlong into the Herd. I don’t know that anyone captured the essence of what it’s like facing NDSU like Lauletta outside of familiar Bison foe John Stiegelmeier, the head coach of rival South Dakota State. Stiegelmeier offered what remains one of the more exacting descriptions of the Herd. “Literally 18,000 people come to the game, and they come to try to impact the outcome. They don’t have any fan who walks in there who doesn’t think they’re part of the program. And they’re going to create as tense an environment as possible,” said Stiegelmeier in describing the Herd. And that’s just it. Everyone reading this, everyone in the stands on game day, everyone watching in sports bars or homes across the country, knows this to be true. We think we are part of the program because we are part of the program. We are the Herd.
In early January 2016, the night before the Bison played Jacksonville State in the national championship game in Frisco, Texas, NDSU released a video featuring several former players. They described better than I ever could what the strength of the Herd means. “That is what NDSU is all about, it’s a bring your hardhat and lunch pail type of environment around here, and that’s been established years ago and that’s been continued,” said Brock Jensen, the all-time winningest quarterback in FCS history, who guided the Bison to three straight national championships from 2011 to 2013. Chad Stark, an All-American running back, was part of three national championship teams in 1983, 1985, and 1986. “We continued the legacy that’s been built many, many years before us,” said Stark.
Going back further, George Kallenbach, who played for the 1965 Bison, the first national championship team in school history, summarized it thusly. “This culture, this tradition, this Bison model of good things happen to those who work hard,” said Kallenbach, explaining how the Bison have won 14 national championships and 34 conference titles across multiple generations. We are the Herd. It is an unbreakable bond, a driving force, what separates us from every other university. It’s not to be taken for granted. Mike Whetstone was an offensive lineman and All-American on the 1983 national championship team. Only three days after the 1988 national championship game, he died of cancer. He delivered a message via an audio recording to that team. Whetstone’s words are memorialized on a plaque in the Bison locker room. They read, in part, “I guess to me that is what Bison Pride is all about, everybody looking out for each other. The strength of the Herd is in the Bison and the strength of the Bison is in the Herd. Bison Pride is knowing that everyone is looking out for everyone else.”
From two eight-year olds going to their first Bison game, the newborn swaddled in Bison gear for their first pictures, the stalwarts that follow the team across our country, the alumni chapters springing up from the Carolinas to Arizona, to the freshmen walking onto campus this fall and the seniors prepared to graduate and leave their mark on the world. That is the strength of the Herd, we are the strength of the Herd.
Somewhere, Stan Borleske has to be smiling at that.
Follow on Twitter: @Swany8
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