Photo by Hillary Ehlen
There are a lot of things that impress me about this North Dakota State football team. But the play on the field and the national championships, as impressive as they are, are only part of that. Truth be told, as I grow older and more appreciative of what this program has done, the championships take a backseat to the manner in which those championships were won. To win that many national championships, to win seven straight Missouri Valley Football Conference titles, and to establish yourself as one of the most dominant teams across the spectrum of athletics, business, politics, you name it, raising championship banners can’t be the panacea. It’s a goal, sure, but it’s not a Machiavellian “end justifies the means” sort of thing. There’s more to it, more than meets the eye.
“It’s really hard to do what we’ve done,” said Bison head coach Chris Klieman after defeating Sam Houston State 55-13 in the semifinals on Dec. 15, clinching another trip to the FCS national championship game in Frisco, Texas, almost exactly one year to the day after falling to James Madison in last year’s semifinal. “To do it how we’ve done it these last three weeks, those were three dominating performances on both sides of the ball. That’s fun when your guys are executing on such a high level.”
There it is. That was one of the most telling quotes from the postgame press conference, particularly the last part about executing on such a high level. Forget the outcome and focus on the process, how the Bison got to the outcome.
It’s about how the Bison did it, the way they executed on such a high level to get to their sixth national championship game in seven years. It wasn’t so much about Sam Houston State, Wofford or San Diego as it was about NDSU. For the vast majority of coaches and teams, for really all but a few, it would be entirely about the outcome, the 42-point win against a very good Bearkats team that finds themselves making deep playoff runs on an annual basis. Not for NDSU. The greatest competition the Bison see isn’t wearing another jersey sitting in a different locker room. It’s in the mirror. That isn’t grandstanding, braggadocios or self-serving. I’m not saying the Bison are so superior to everybody else they simply sit back and admire their own feats. Just the opposite, it’s a burning intense focus where our coaches and players compete against themselves each day to make sure NDSU is the best team it can be, of maximizing every single repetition at every single weight-lifting session, at every single practice, etc. and always building on that so by the time game day arrives, the result takes care of itself.
That is what impresses me most about NDSU and what this team has accomplished more so than any banner or single game performance ever could. I love the winning. Who doesn’t? I’m as proud of the championships as the next person, the big wins over Iowa and Kansas State and the appearances on ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPN’s “College GameDay.” But it’s the culture, the genuine commitment and dedication, the way this team goes about its business that is astonishing. That is what excellent organizations do.
A parallel is Nick Saban’s Alabama teams. NDSU is often called “the Alabama of the FCS” because of its sustained success. There’s another reason, though, that escapes notice and links NDSU and Alabama. It’s the process and belief-system they share, the stuff we don’t see on the Road to Frisco.
We see the outcome, but it’s the process that dictates the outcome. There is a sign in Alabama’s football complex. It doesn’t tout conference or national championships. It preaches the process. “Don’t Come Back Until You’ve Improved.” There’s a similar sign in NDSU’s locker room that reads, “Start Strong, Finish Stronger.” Both signs are about the process, not the outcome. We see the Bison outscoring opponents 135-26 in three playoff games. What we didn’t see were all the hours Easton Stick and Tre Dempsey spent in the film room watching tape and leading their team the last 12 months. We’ll never fully comprehend the hours and physical pain and mental toughness that went into Nick DeLuca and Nate Tanguay rehabilitating their knee injuries to get back on the field. Likewise, you see our coaches on Saturdays, but for every hour you see them on the sideline or coaches press box, there are 15 more spent in offices building a game plan and teaching the game to our guys. Process dictates outcome, not the other way around. How this program handles its business day-after-day, year-after-year, without the slipping that can come with complacency or boastfulness from being so dominant is a case study in organizational excellence.
The culture, Bison Pride, is intertwined and inextricably linked to the process. Take for example Bruce Anderson’s performance against Sam Houston State. He was asked at the postgame press conference, “what do you see when you look at those rushing stats?” The question was justified and probably on everyone’s minds. Anderson was minutes removed from one of the most dominant performances from anybody in college football this year on national television. He had five touchdowns, rushed for 183 yards on only 17 carries, scoring three times on the ground while averaging 10.8 yards per rush, and added two receptions for 54 yards, both catches going for touchdowns. Each touchdown covered at least 23 yards. Pat yourself on the back, young man, that was a heckuva football game.
Nope. That’s not the Bison way, that’s not Bison Pride. Anderson genuinely deflected the credit to his teammates. His response is part and parcel of the process and how it’s led to so much success. The first words out of his mouth were, “I see Seth had a great game, he was balling, Seth was balling,” said Anderson, referring to his backfield teammate, Seth Wilson, who ran for 194 yards on 24 attempts. “We ran hard and made it happen, credit to the Rams up front, they got them displaced, the gaps were huge, I mean you could drive a truck through them.”
Anderson could’ve basked in the spotlight and enjoyed the adulation after the biggest performance in his career. Instead, it was about his teammates and the team. That impresses me more than any championship banner.
How about Dempsey, the senior captain, who was asked what it meant to get back to Frisco. “Everybody thought we lost last year and it was over. It’s not over,” began Dempsey who, like Anderson, focused on the team. “This team is a championship team, and we had that championship mindset, and there’s no way we weren’t getting back there and winning it. That’s our mindset going into this next game, becoming the champions again and defending it next year again.” Did you hear that? He didn’t say “I” once. It was all about “we.” Spoken like a team captain and true leader. That impresses me more than any trophy.
Stick echoed Dempsey and Anderson. When asked about his individual performance this postseason and how Klieman said Stick deserved the chance to play for a national championship, Stick addressed what Klieman meant to the team instead of talking about himself. “I’m really excited for this team to go down there and get a chance at it. We’ll get back to work and see what happens.
But for coach to say that, he means a lot to me, means a lot to this team. I really appreciate him. I love coach.”
The play on the field speaks for itself. The Bison are playing in their sixth national championship game in seven years. NDSU has been the most dominant team in college athletics this decade. That didn’t happen by focusing on the outcome. It’s about the process — a tireless dedication and commitment to getting better each day, every day, year after year, so the rest of us can enjoy the fruits of those labors down in Frisco. Few organizations operate on that level, and it’s to be admired. I appreciate that more than the banners and trophies and commend this team for it. That’s Bison Pride, that’s the strength of the Herd.
Everybody up for the kickoff, the march is on!