This isn’t your grandpa’s Fargo. It sure isn’t the version portrayed by the Coen brothers in their 1996 cult movie hit of the same name. The real Fargo, N.D., home of North Dakota State, metro population 225,000, is a thriving economic and cultural powerhouse on the banks of the Red River.
Oh, by the way, it’s also home to a pretty good basketball team, one that is emerging as a mid-major powerhouse.
Despite falling short to Gonzaga 86–76 in the NCAA Tournament, the Bison gave the Zags all they could handle, and then some. After pushing their lead to 18 with 14:58 remaining, it looked like GU was going to run NDSU out of the gym. The Bison didn’t come to Seattle, Wash., though, for a blowout, and stormed back. NDSU cut the lead to six on two separate occasions. In the process, Dexter Werner became an overnight sensation, trending globally on Twitter for a performance that will go down in school history.
The Bismarck native schooled GU’s posts, for that matter, the entire Zags’ defense, including a pair of 7-footers, to finish with 22 of the most memorable, and loudest, points in recent tournament history. While the Bison didn’t pull off the upset, there we were, on a national stage, going toe-to-toe, punch-for-punch, late in the second half with a team that many have going to the Final Four. Make no mistake, Dave Richman and his staff are building something special in Fargo.
While some in the national media can’t resist moving beyond the woefully inaccurate stereotype painted by the Coen brothers, for those of us living in the real Fargo, we know who we are, and we know there are some big things happening.
“There might be a perception nationally of Fargo, we don’t really care about that,” said Bison coach Dave Richman, himself a North Dakota native from Wahpeton, a quick 40-minute drive down I-29 from Fargo. “Our perception is we’re going to get tough-minded, selfless individuals that care way more about the team than they do themselves and then just work.”
Consider that perception a reality. The Bison are as selfless and tough-minded as you’ll find in college basketball. Who else is lifting weights, without complaint, in an old grocery store and practicing in a warehouse while their new arena, the Sanford Health Athletics Complex, is under construction. This recipe of selflessness and toughness had a team with a single senior, albeit one of the best in program history in Lawrence Alexander, and a bunch of underclassmen a possession or two away from toppling a perennial Top 10 national power.
For the second straight March, our basketball team let the rest of America know there’s more, much more, to NDSU and Fargo than a wood chipper and cold weather. So New York Times, Sports Illustrated, CBS, and anyone else tempted to bust out a “yah sure, you betcha,” pay attention. This basketball team has taken on the persona of its community, a community as vibrant as any you’ll find in this year’s tournament brackets.
According to Forbes magazine, Fargo is the fourth fastest-growing small city in the United States. Livability.com, a website dedicated to showcasing America’s best places to live, ranked Fargo as one of the Top 100 Best Places to Live, and placed the city in its lists of Top 10 Best Cities for New College Grads and Top 10 Best Downtowns. Do an internet search and you’ll see that Fargo is in more Top 10, 50, and 100 lists of places to live, work, go to college, and raise a family as anyplace in the country.
Here’s a sampling of what Livability had to say about the crown jewel of the Peace Garden State. “The hub of one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the country, Fargo, N.D., provides new college graduates with a booming job market, affordable housing and amenities for an active lifestyle. It’s also considered one of the safest places to live in the U.S.,” adding that, “newcomers are often surprised by the city’s thriving entertainment scene” and “the area’s many parks, trails and golf courses.” They concluded with this high praise, “Fargo is becoming more of an ‘it’ spot every day.”
Forbes and Livability are just a few of the many taking notice of a new Fargo, a Fargo that shatters the misconceived perceptions and stereotypes raised by the Coen brothers. The Coen brothers’ Fargo is about as close to reality as Kabul, Afghanistan is to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Men’s Journal named Fargo one of their “Best Places to Live” for, among other things, low taxes, low unemployment rates, clear air and quality of life. These articles universally praise downtown Fargo’s coffee shops, bars, restaurants, art galleries, and places like the iconic Fargo Theatre that line its busy streets.
The story is getting out. It’s become so cool, one of ESPN’s biggest shows, College GameDay, has broadcast its show from downtown each of the past two years. Last September, ESPN’s Chris Fowler told the Associated Press that he, along with the rest of the GameDay crew, knew they’d be returning to Fargo as soon as their inaugural trip ended.
This is how the show’s executive producer, Lee Fitting, described Downtown Fargo. “This is a combination of ‘College GameDay’ meets Wrigley Field meets Champions League soccer intensity,” Fitting said after the 2013 show. “To see the people on the balconies and hanging out of windows and on the rooftops was something that we never get to experience.”
This support is not unique to Fargo. It permeates the rest of North Dakota and the Red River Valley. “There’s a tremendous attitude and selfless attitude within our Bison Nation, within Fargo, the state of North Dakota, the Red River Valley, the F-M area is just tremendous in the support we get,” Richman explained. “And the resources that come from that support, that help us get to it.” Richman is referring to the team’s new state-of-the-art practice facility, training center, and, of course, the $50 million renovation to their arena, scheduled to open the fall of 2016.
The headline of a recent Forbes story sums things up, “No Joke: It Couldn’t get Much Better in Fargo.” Thanks to the region’s thriving technology, industrial, agricultural, health care, and energy sectors, “North Dakota leads the nation in virtually every indicator of prosperity,” and boasts “the highest rates of net in-migration, income growth, and job creation.” In 2014, wages rose an astounding 8.9 percent, twice as much as Texas and Utah, who shared second place honors among states. The national average for increase in wages, if you’re curious, is 1 percent.
As this story gets out, and it’s getting out, any perceived disadvantages the Bison have in recruiting will quickly become advantages. “Stick around,” concluded Richman. “The old saying: those who stay will be champions. In the recruiting game, to the kids, and I was just telling my father this the other day – we’ll promise you two things: it’s going to be a lot of hard work, and it’s going to be a lot of fun.” That mixture of hard work and fun in Fargo has worked pretty well. “You can see those efforts being rewarded by back-to-back NCAA Tournaments.”
And if you don’t believe me, you’re more than welcome to visit. In fact, maybe you should before next year’s tournament. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the real Fargo.