Photo By Hillary Ehlen
The college athletics landscape has drastically changed over the course of 2020. From business as usual to the canceling of seasons, 2020 has not been easily navigable for athletic departments across the country. North Dakota State is no different with seasons canceled last spring and fall sports being postponed to spring 2021. One may look at that and see only negatives, challenges and obstacles that seem far too overbearing to topple.
NDSU athletics director Matt Larsen and his staff enjoy a good challenge. Larsen feels adversity and challenges create only positive outcomes. In the case of NDSU athletics, a truer statement has never been uttered.
The last seven months have not been easy for Larsen and the athletics department. He has had to deliver devastating news, alter the way NDSU athletics operates and perhaps most importantly, has not gotten to see the hard work of student-athletes pay off on the field.
Through all of this, the mentality within the athletics department has not changed. They continue to move forward and take each new challenge head-on. One could say NDSU has handled this tumultuous era better than most. In Larsen’s mind, overcoming adversity comes with the territory at NDSU. It is that commitment to culture and safety that has helped NDSU get through this pandemic in many ways. One cannot underestimate Larsen’s leadership during this time as well.
We discussed that and a litany of different topics with the NDSU athletics director.
With so many things changing on a daily basis, how have you and your staff approached this pandemic era we are in?
It’s been a very challenging six or seven months now. From somebody who has been in college athletics for 25 years, nothing prepares you for this. I’m sure our coaches and staff would echo the same thing. What I told our staff in our opening staff meeting in September was just how proud I was of their leadership and how they handled the last three or four months. Early on, we challenged our student-athletes and staff. We could have just as easily sat around and said it was unfair or that we lost a season or whatever. I think we saw the exact opposite.
That is very much what it means to be a Bison. We face adversity all the time, you can either back down from it or take it head-on and I think that is what our student-athletes, coaches and staff decided to do. We all rose to the challenge and said ‘we’re not sure when all of this is going to end, but North Dakota State athletics is going to be better for it in the end’. You saw that in little things with how our coaches have had to evolve in recruiting and engaging with their teams. You saw from our student-athletes when you go online in the spring and they get a 3.52 cumulative GPA across the board. They were maintaining their focus and not backing down or making excuses.
When you meet with the volleyball or soccer program and tell them their season is going to be moved to the spring, but the very next day they are back practicing again. I think that speaks to our culture. However, these are life lessons. For the rest of their lives, they are going to face adversity, they are going to deal with challenges. You can either back down and give up or continue to move forward and get better. Our student-athletes and staff have chosen to get better.
Talking with student-athletes, they all said that you were visibly upset when you had to break the news about fall competition. How did you personally handle breaking that news knowing that it would hurt each individual program?
Personally, it’s always important to be as transparent as possible. If you ask some of those teams, they would probably say I ended up meeting with them three or four times in the first couple of weeks of practice. I consistently wanted to meet with them so that they had the most up to date information. I didn’t want there to be any surprises and those were really hard conversations. The reason why they were so hard is that I am fortunate enough to see all the behind the scenes work that goes into their training, preparation and all the sacrifices they have to make to be able to play the sport that they love. To have to get up in front of them and say that it has been taken away from you is really hard and there was emotion in the room.
The last thing I ever wanted to see happen was to have them not compete. Unfortunately, that is what happened, but again I do think it is important to take those things head-on and be open and honest. Once we deliver that message, then we can figure out how we move forward, how we continue to get better and how are we going to continue to grow. These are young men and young women and you don’t want to sugarcoat it, but you have to understand just how difficult that information was for them.
From a morale standpoint, how important was the October 3 football game? That was the first athletics competition since March. How important was that game for Bison Nation?
It was huge. For morale and everybody mentally it was something important. One, because it gave us something to look forward to. So much of college athletics is the event because this is an event-driven business. It’s about the event and it’s about people and to be separated from a lot of things for the better part of seven or so months is really difficult. I really credit our staff because things evolved so much around that one game and our staff rolled with the punches and continued to move forward with the hope of putting together a great event.
Even for our fanbase, their fall is usually scheduled around Bison events be it volleyball, soccer, cross country or football. To have that one event where the fanbase could come together, celebrate and have a little bit of a return to normalcy, I think was important for everybody.
What is something new you learned about NDSU athletics and its staff during this pandemic?
Two things for me jump out. One, and this is something that I didn’t necessarily learn, but it was something that we reaffirmed. I know that we have incredible men and women, passionate and talented administrators and coaches and I know they all have great character. However, sometimes you don’t always see that unless you are faced with adversity or challenges. I think that cream rises to the top and that is exactly what we saw during this time. It really reaffirmed the quality of people that we have at every level of the athletics department.
What I learned and what I was so impressed with is the way we have evolved. Not being able to meet with student-athletes in person, not being able to recruit in-person, not being able to meet with donors and fans in-person, we have had to evolve. A lot of that has to become virtual and we discovered new ways to be able to engage with our student-athletes and fanbase. That is something that has been a challenge, but we have risen to that challenge. In turn, we have accomplished some really good things. I would say anytime you go through a tough time, you hope there are some things you can take away from it. There are things that we have learned over the last seven months that we will probably incorporate into how we do business moving forward. There are definitely some positive takeaways as we move forward.
This whole time period has been defined by two things. One being the pandemic and the other being this conversation surrounding social justice in our country. Because there is so much divisiveness in our country, how have you approached those social justice conversations knowing that a lot of student-athletes, coaches and staff are hurting based on what is occurring nationwide?
What we have tried to do, and this comes from working at an institution of higher education, is that we continue to get better, continuing to increase our knowledge and continuing to listen. Those are the conversations we have had as a staff. From a student-athlete perspective, we have said that it is okay to respect everyone’s opinion, it is okay to disagree though too, but let’s respect the other person’s opinion. Let’s be open, let’s be willing to listen to different views from our own. That has been the undercurrent of our conversations because that is how change happens. To me, change happens through open-mindedness, dialogue, listening to how other people really feel. That’s how you make a change and that has been the center of a lot of our conversations.
With sports moving to the spring and basketball season fast approaching, this is looking like a very busy spring in the athletic department. How have you and the staff approached the spring knowing that it will be jam-packed with events?
It will definitely be a spring we have never experienced before. It will not be without its challenges, but I know our staff is up for the challenge. We are really excited about it and we’ve already started to build what that schedule looks like. For Bison fans, what more could you want than an event pretty much every day of the week, maybe even two or three in a given day.
It’s definitely not going to be without its challenges, but I’m confident that our staff will rise up. We want to put on a great event, make it safe for our student-athletes, staff and spectators, but also give our athletes an opportunity to compete and have success. We’re certainly up for the challenge.
I have seen a lot of dedication and commitment from the entire athletics department. NDSU is doing things the right way to the point that student-athletes have seen little change in the mentality and attitude in the department. How has this pandemic era affirmed NDSU’s culture and amplified it?
If anything, this time period has reaffirmed and reinforced why we do some of the things we do. During this time when there is adversity, change and difference, that is when you need your culture to be the strongest. That is when you need your student-athletes, coaches and staff to be dialed into everything that we are doing. We have absolutely seen that at so many levels. Whether it is continuing to be laser-focused in the classroom or doing the right things socially like wearing masks and social distancing, all of those things have been heightened in a lot of different ways.
All of this while continuing to practice, lift, prepare and getting ready to compete. We’ll be that much better because we are doing all the little things the right way leading up to our seasons.