Photos by Paul Flessland
In its long and storied history, North Dakota State football has won 13 national championships. Of course, nowadays, when you hear about the Bison, most of that talk focuses on the five consecutive titles won at the Football Championship Subdivision level. People, especially national media outside of Fargo and North Dakota, tend to ignore the previous eight championships won at the Division II level. But, if you ask anyone that has worn the green and yellow, they’ll tell you those earlier championships have as much to do with NDSU’s current success as anything else.
The night before the Bison played Jacksonville State for this year’s title, NDSU Athletics released a hype video featuring several former players, all of whom had won national championships. George Kallenbach, a native of Maddock, N.D., played for the 1965 Bison, the first national title team in school history. What Kallenbach and the other players said tells you all that you need to know about the tradition of Bison excellence.
Its genesis centers on one word, one singular concept standing above all else – culture. “This culture, this tradition, this Bison model of good things happen to those who work hard,” said Kallenbach, explaining how the Bison have been able to win 13 national championships and 32 conference titles, most of those coming since 1963 when guys like Darrell Mudra, Ron Erhardt, Denis “Izzy” Isrow, Ardell Wiegandt, and Walt Odegaard arrived on campus and started building the Bison culture, what we now call Bison Pride. These founding fathers of NDSU football started the process of turning around a program that had won only three conference championship in the team’s first 69 years from 1894 to 1962.
There are two powerful visuals that tell this story, that give meaning to a one-of-a-kind culture. The first is what has become an annual part of NDSU’s championship run to Frisco. The day before the Bison play in the national championship, hundreds of former players turn out for the final practice of the year to signify that this team, this program, and university, is much more than one group of players in a single season, but the sum of decades of dedicated people that have built NDSU football into the juggernaut it is today.
“We continued the legacy that’s been built many, many years before us,” said Chad Stark, an All-American running back who came to NDSU from Brookings, S.D. Stark was part of three national championship teams in 1983, 1985 and 1986. “We didn’t let those teams down because we’ve continued the tradition of Bison Pride and setting the bar high.” This is the bedrock of Bison football – today’s teams play for those guys that came before them, something rare in all of sports. “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 Division I history, who guided the Bison to three straight championships from 2011-2013.
The other visual is how the Bison have elected to display their record-setting success. When other schools win a championship, no matter the sport, they commemorate it with a single banner highlighting that particular team and one set of players. The championship team and year stand-alone, separate from the work and sacrifice previous teams put in to get the team to that apex of success. Not NDSU. If you look towards the rafters on the south side of the Fargodome, you don’t see any individual championship banners. You only see two banners – one for national championships, the other for conference championships.
There is a tie that binds every year on those banners, everyone that wore the green and yellow, each coach that has stood on the sideline or in the press box, all those men and women on staff that contributed to this culture of excellence, all the fans that filled Dacotah Field and the Fargodome. It is yet another example of how Bison culture rests on the sum of its collective parts rather than on the work of a few individuals. It is the meaning behind the time-honored credo, “The strength of the Herd is the Bison, and the strength of the Bison is the Herd.”
Following NDSU’s 37-10 demolition of the Jacksonville State Gamecocks, during the postgame press conference, someone asked head coach Chris Klieman how the Bison have managed such a historic run of success with few equals in sports history. Klieman’s response confirmed the tie that binds the 2015 Bison to all their predecessors, that culture of Bison Pride.
“It’s amazing,” began Klieman, who, in his first two years as head coach, has won two national and conference championships, coached dozens of all-conference and all-American players, both on the field and in the classroom, in addition to coaching several NFL players, including soon to be NFL quarterback Carson Wentz, who many predict will be the first quarterback taken in this year’s NFL Draft. “It’s these guys, and it’s coach Kramer, it’s our assistant coaches, and it’s the culture. It’s all the guys that were out there on the field, the alums, those are the guys we do this for, it’s remarkable,” said Klieman, referencing the Friday practice.
“We maybe weren’t always the biggest, the strongest, or the fastest, there was just that culture of winning that was bred in you,” explained Phil Ostlie, who, like Stark, played on the 1983, 1985, and 1986 title teams. While this year’s Bison had their share of size, physicality and speed, they were often overlooked and not favored to continue the championship streak. “I mean, it speaks for itself, it’s amazing to be part of a team that’s won five,” said Wentz. The culture of winning, that effort and relentlessness, creates an inertia that overwhelms opponents. “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.
Even with a record five straight national championships, the Bison culture means the team doesn’t rest on its past successes. Instead, they have already commenced offseason workouts to begin building towards another championship endeavor. “It’s just attack the process,” concluded Klieman, describing how this culture has perpetuated championship upon championship. “For us, we’re going to attack the process, which is the offseason, get guys better and better, and win the day next year, and keep winning plays.”
Too often, culture is reduced to a buzzword, an overused simplification of how to make a championship team or a more productive and profitable business. But for those special places where culture is real, where it’s more than a buzzword, it’s not just a difference maker, it is the difference maker. It can get you through adversity and losses. It can weather injuries to all-Americans and NFL draft picks. Culture doesn’t press the panic button. It overcomes the constant turnover of senior classes that guide the way with their leadership and pass the torch to the next group. It can sustain you when most of your coaching staff departs for another school during the middle of a playoff run. It is the tie that binds, that connects generations of champions. It’s how you win 13 national championships, and five in a row. It is, quite simply, the strength of the Bison.