Photo by Paul Flessland
It’s hard to imagine how far NDSU football program has come in 50 years. Going from the doormat of the North Central Conference to the kings of the FCS has been an uphill battle. The fight to bring NDSU to relevance in the college football landscape was inspired by a young and small coaching staff with big ideas. Prior to the first home game of the 2015 season, one of those coaches was honored along with his players, when the first national championship football team was celebrated at the 1960s reunion.
Carl “Buck” Nystrom is a college football legend. With his booming voice and short but intimidating statue, he, along with head coach Darrel Mudra, is credited for establishing the current foundation the football program stands on. Before the FCS titles and Division II dominance, there was a ragtag group of tough college kids running their way into the national spotlight on the humble fields of an ag school in North Dakota.
“We had nothing,” announced Nystrom to a crowd of 1960s graduates. “I’m not trying to be derogatory and I’m not trying to be negative. I’m only telling the truth and the facts. Our facilities were small. We had a combination with the ITC building. Our equipment was lousy, we had a negative campus between our students and our instructors, and we had a community that was down on the program. So we went to work.”
Mudra and Nystrom went to work and were 3-5 in 1963 during their first year at NDSU. It wasn’t the start they were looking for, but they instilled an attitude that would eventually culminate in a combined 21-1 record in 1964 and 1965. The Bison would win two North Central Conference championships, two bowl games, one national championship and in 1965, they would snap their 12-game losing streak to UND.
“We didn’t have a lot of stars. There are not a lot of stars on a football team, there’s only a few,” Nystrom said. “Most of us are journeymen, trying to get the job done. We only had a couple stars, but we had a lot of guys who would come to work and they didn’t mind bringing their lunch bucket and they didn’t mind taking their flashlight and going home late at night. That’s how we got it done.”
Mudra, who couldn’t make the reunion because his illness prevents him from travel, left for the Canadian Football League after the 1965 season, and Ron Erhardt took over a good team and an established culture. The Bison would win national championships in 1968 and 1969 under Erhardt.
Two of the three captains on the 1965 championship team were in attendance and spoke to the crowd. Linebackers Gene Gebhards and Ardell Wiegandt returned to honor lost teammates such as Lowell Lindermann and ones who were in the crowd, including quarterback Terry Hanson and running back Ken Rota.
Their time on stage was also spent telling stories from the past like the one Wiegandt told about former Bison defensive lineman Walt Odeegard.
“I remember one game, and I played right behind him because I was a linebacker. Walt was getting his stuff knocked back off the football, and I said, ‘Walt, what’s the matter with ya?’ He looked at me and said, ‘Nothing.’ So the next play I kicked him right in the butt. He yelled and hit that line of scrimmage so hard he knocked the guard back, the tackle back and hit the running back causing a fumble. And who got the fumble? I did.”
The former players ended the weekend by watching the football team’s Friday night walkthrough before their home opener against Weber State.