It was time for a change. Perhaps it was a year or so overdue. The simple truth is that the North Dakota State women’s basketball program was not progressing to where it needed to be. Where does it need to be? It’s not much of a secret for those of us that remember the pre-Division I days. Attendance at the Bison Sports Arena would regularly top 5,000 for women’s games with Amy Ruley’s teams outdrawing the men and competing for conference and national championships on a yearly basis. If you’ve watched the PBS documentary on the NDSU-UND rivalry in women’s hoops, “When They Were Kings,” a game Sports Illustrated wrote about in the 1990s, the well-trained eye can spot two young Swany brothers sitting near the court representing in their flat-brimmed Bison hats (at least the older twin,anyway)at a time when flat-brimmed hats were lamer than those Cable ONE “common sense” commercials.
In one of the strangest twists in all of NDSU’s Division I move, it was widely assumed the women’s basketball team would be competitive at a very high level before any other team. Unfortunately, no team has struggled more than the once proud Bison women. The fact is NDSU needs to be competing for Summit League championships and NCAA Tournament appearances. And we weren’t. We weren’t even close. We have continued to lose ground to South Dakota State and have watched South Dakota, who joined the Division I party several years after we did, far surpass us. Talk about a Sputnik moment. There is a missile gap on the northern plains of women’s basketball and NDSU is outgunned. We have a lot of catching up to do.
We have high expectations at NDSU. No sport is immune. Our fans and boosters are a demanding group and they aren’t shy about it. They have no qualms about calling out a coach, face-to-face, on everything from play calling to playing time. Check out a Q&A session at the weekly Team Makers luncheon every Thursday and you’ll hear a few folks professing armchair quarterback to our coaches. Or tune in to KFGO’s call-in shows during the week, particularly after a close Bison football game. I recall one knucklehead telling then head coach Craig Bohl last fall during his weekly call- in show with Scotty Miller that he needed to throw the ball to the tight end in the flat more. Right. The two-time defending national champion, on the way to a third championship, needed Joe Bob in Row DD of the FargoDome telling him how to run his offense. Pretty ballsy, but many fans think the price of admission gives them that right nowadays.
The Division I successes, which have been numerous and well catalogued on a local and even national level, have raised the profile of NDSU athletics. Our fans expect to see our teams, whether it’s women’s basketball, football or volleyball, competing for onference championships and NCAA tournament appearances on a yearly basis. I’ve been on this planet for 30 years. For most of those years, and going back as far as I can remember, I’ve been closely following and coming to Bison games. I’m a fan and less of a critic because of my connection with NDSU athletics over the years. My law firm office looks more like a dorm room with all the Bison memorabilia decorating the walls and bookshelves. I even have two lignite coal Bison guarding the green and yellow nameplate at the front of my desk. While not a critic, and while I would never presume to give a coach advice on anything other than a good book or decent IPA, I’ve been around the block long enough to know that if you don’t win and produce championships at NDSU, your tenure will be a short one.
Winning pays the bills, puts butts in the seats and keeps the Q-rating sky-high. It’s also the single largest factor, rightly or not, in how we measure our coaches. Coaches get paid a lot of money to win, not to be saints. Some coaches are jerks, engaging in all kinds of tomfoolery, see Bobby Petrino, but get numerous shots at big ticket jobs because they rack up the wins. Those high expectations, expectations of championships, conference and national, are how we measure ourselves here. Some schools throw around words like “tradition” and “excellence” without much to back them up. NDSU has a track record, the banners and the trophies, across the board in all sports that fit the Webster dictionary definitions of those words to the letter. Every single coach at NDSU knows that and strives for that gold standard.
So, as we move on to a new era, looking to perhaps turn back the clock in women’s hoops, remember this. No one feels those expectations more than our coaches. They live those expectations. I don’t. You don’t. When the game ends, particularly after a loss, you go home. You might complain about a loss because you think you know better, but you don’t. You don’t agonize over what went wrong, spend the wee hours of the night pouring over tape and generally being miserable until the next win. It’s not easy. For every hour you see them on the field or court, there are ten hours you don’t see. Athletics is one of the only jobs where you can give 150 percent, work 16-hour days and still not get the results you want. Can you say that about your job?
No one is more disappointed than our women’s basketball coaching staff in how the last few years have went down. They’re good people. They’re good people with families, they’ve been devoted to NDSU, their athletes are devoted to them, and they’ve probably lived with the uneasy, gut-wrenching knot in their stomach all season that they would be looking for new jobs after this year was finished. I will never personally attack a coach for their won-loss record. I tip my hat to our women’s coaching staff for their effort, and for their heart. They deserve that much. I wish them the best moving forward and hope they all land on their feet. Because while winning is an important thing at NDSU, we also have class. We treat people with respect. And if there’s one lesson I’ve learned in my years as a Bison, it’s that above winning and losing, you comport yourself with class and treat others with respect. That’s just as much a part of Bison Pride as the banners on any wall. Everyone up for the tip-off, the march is on.