By Joshua A. Swanson
It was a stadium, an actual real life college football stadium, like the ones you see on television. For two 8-year olds that watched college football every Saturday in front of the 19-inch Zenith in the living room, Dacotah Field on Fargo’s north side was massive. It was a quantum leap from the single set of bleachers running 10 rows high and as many seats wide at the football field on the east side of Maddock, North Dakota. The scale of it—just the scale of it. The green Astroturf. This big, white-sided building called the Bison Sports Arena towering behind the east end zone. That, too, was an imposing, real-life arena. The enormous bleachers at Dacotah Field complete with a press box running what seemed like the length of the sideline. The scoreboard, back of the opposite end zone from the BSA, even showed down-and-distance, displayed scrolling messages, and implored fans in one permanent ad to tune into 970 AM or WDAY-TV.
It was November 1990, my first North Dakota State football game. The Bison were playing in the NCAA Division II quarterfinals against Cal Poly, a team from somewhere in California, a bastion of beaches, sports cars, and movie stars. It was cold. I remember Pa Swany bundling his boys into their snowmobile suits and those old winter boots—you know the boots—the ones with the brown sides and darker brown toes that every kid growing up in North Dakota has had since the dawn of time. Dad and his friends were wearing their Carhartts, and although this is without any supporting evidence, probably enjoying their hot chocolates a lot more than we were enjoying ours. The wind penetrated everywhere and it was overcast, not a glimmer of sun shimmering in the sky, all gray.
It was the kind of weather you got used to as a kid at recess growing up in the Midwest. Come wind chills of minus 40 degrees and driving snow, they sent you outside to run around for 20 minutes, where, like your homesteading pioneering ancestors, you and your friends learned to build forts from massive snow blocks to keep out the cold. Not so much the visitors from California. The NDSU media guide confirms my memory of the weather conditions that day: “Cool temperatures and gale-force winds did not help the Californians cause.” Some Bison players had short-sleeve shirts under their uniforms. That’s a special kind of tough, man. Meanwhile, Cal Poly players huddled en masse inside heat boxes with Knipco heaters arranged on their sideline. The Bison rushed the ball 65 times for 452 yards in a 47-0 rout. In a stat straight from Darrell Royal’s mouth, the legendary Texas football coach who was known for saying three things can happen when you pass and two of them are bad, the Bison completed one-of-four passes that day for 11 yards. Operation Desert Storm and the first Gulf War loomed on the horizon, prompting Cal Poly’s head coach Lyle Setencich to quip after the game, “I told you that coming in here was like going to Iraq with a .22 (caliber gun), didn’t I.”
I’ve been hooked on all things Bison ever since that day over 26 years ago, though, admittedly, maybe not quite as much as my brother. Anytime we were in Fargo after that game, whether in January or July, he made Pa Swany drive past Dacotah Field and take us to the Varsity Mart. It’s no coincidence that, years later, he would end up working for NDSU Athletics. A signed game program from then head coach Rocky Hager sits on display in his office at the SCHEELS Center at the Sanford Health Athletic Complex with prophetic words about him becoming a Bison. Not to be outdone, my office on the third floor at Vogel Law Firm looks like it belongs somewhere on campus with so much Bison memorabilia filling the shelves and walls that one of our senior attorneys and a fellow NDSU fan jokingly refers to it as “the dorm room.” All I’m missing is a tattered couch and beer fridge. Among my favorite items are the two Bison figures made of North Dakota lignite coal standing guard over my desk. Fittingly, one of them was a gift from the University of North Dakota School of Law for speaking at a law review symposium.
The Bison now attempt to add a 14th national championship trophy to the collection after a gutty 10-1 regular season. NDSU claimed their sixth-straight Missouri Valley Football Conference championship and the well-deserved No. 1 seed in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs. Somehow, though, this season feels different from the last five title runs.
Despite the MVFC title and having one of the most difficult schedules in the FCS, there are skeptics. Lost in the shuffle is the fact the Bison beat four other playoff teams and then No. 11 University of Iowa—something Jim Harbaugh’s University of Michigan couldn’t do—ensuring the Road to Frisco runs through the Fargodome, where NDSU is 16-0 in the playoffs. This team is the most battle-tested squad in the FCS. Yet, there are questions from some corners wondering if NDSU has enough in the tank to get back to Texas because they didn’t pile up video game scores on opponents, even though seven of their 11 opponents ranked when the Bison played them.
Each December for the last five years, I’ve addressed that question. Let me do so, again. Yes. While the Bison offense is a little more diverse than it was the last time we played Cal Poly in the playoffs, some things haven’t changed. We still rely on the power run game and a stifling defense, which has powered the program to even greater heights since winning our eighth national championship in 1990. That day at Dacotah Field may be a memory, but one thing remains constant. The culture. The tradition. Bison Pride. The way this team handles its business, there is an intangible that doesn’t show up on the stat sheet. This is why NDSU gets back to Frisco.
The intangibles, coming up big when it matters most. Tre Dempsey with his highlight reel interception against Eastern Washington to set up Lance Dunn’s game-winner one play later. Easton Stick dragging Iowa defenders in his wake when his team trailed late in the game on the way to Cam Pedersen’s clutch 28-yard field goal for the win, after the Bison defense held the Hawkeyes to a must-have three-and-out, forcing a punt. MJ Stumpf trucking Western Illinois’s Lance Lenoir, stopping him cold in his tracks at the one-yard line, keeping Lenoir out of the end zone and preserving a fourth quarter lead. It’s next man up and next man showing up big–like against Northern Iowa when Matt Plank intercepted a pass in the red zone with minutes left in the game to ice a giant road win at the UNI-Dome. It’s the Bison offense grinding out tough yards to run out the clock and seal another MVFC championship when everyone inside the DakotaDome knew where the ball was going.
That kind of toughness and fortitude isn’t sexy. It isn’t headline-grabbing or eye-popping, and it can’t be quantified on the stat sheet. But it wins games. It wins championships. Like the famous Justice Potter quote from a bygone United States Supreme Court case, although I can’t quite describe it or put my finger on it, “I know it when I see it.” There’s something special about this Bison team. After NDSU beat Eastern Washington in a 50-44 overtime thriller earlier this fall, Bison head coach Chris Klieman summed it up. “What can you say about those guys in that locker room. They always feel like they have an opportunity to win. They never feel like they’re out of it. They play for each other.”
In December, that’s what matters most, it’s all that matters. It’s Bison Pride. Some things will never change. Everyone up for the kickoff, the march is on!