At a certain point, it’s tempting to think that North Dakota State is so far ahead of the field, that we’re so dominant, that we don’t need to change anything we’re doing. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? What other university outside of Alabama or Ohio State has had ESPN’s “College GameDay” twice, and the network’s flagship show, “SportsCenter,” in town three times in the last few years? Who else won five straight national championships, in any sport, and was agonizingly close to a sixth trip to Frisco, Texas, for a shot at a six-peat? Jon Gruden doesn’t visit too many places to talk football, yet he was here in Fargo last spring to watch NDSU practice. The face of the revered Monday Night Football franchise came here not for any marquee game, but to watch practice and learn how Bison Football ran our operation. And yes, of course, there’s Carson Wentz, the biggest thing in Philadelphia since Ben Franklin. The Eagles are tapped by many news outlets, including this one, for big things this year.
We’ve went an entire paragraph and didn’t even mention the brand spanking new facilities at the Fargodome and the Sanford Health Athletic Complex, the renovations taking place at the home of Bison softball at the west end of campus, and the fact NDSU is funding the full cost of attendance for every sport across the board. Light the cigars, crack the champagne, and let’s raise a toast to this gilded age of Bison Athletics and North Dakota State! Why shouldn’t Dean Bresciani, Matt Larsen, Chris Klieman, Darren Mueller, Tod Brown, Dave Richman, Roger Kish, Don Larson, Stevie Keller, and Mark Cook, and every other coach, student athlete and person associated with this well-oiled machine kick their feet up and revel in the high times, even if just for a little bit. Well, let me tell you why. The biggest threat to NDSU’s sustained run of success and dominance won’t come from another university, or another team knocking on our doors. It will come from within, and that’s why you’ve heard about it so much from all those coaches and university leadership. It can be summed up in a single word–complacency.
Winning conference championships is a tough business, let alone winning national titles, and multiple ones at that. Being a top-flight university is difficult, staying there more so. Getting to the top of the mountain is a grind. Staying there is tougher. NDSU, as an athletic program and university, is the target. Our competitors know they have to keep pace with NDSU, and the reality is, there are even folks within our own state that don’t much like the fact NDSU keeps winning, and winning and winning.
For us, it’s a never-ending race. As it should be. One of my favorite Biblical exhortations comes from Hebrews 12:1. If you’re a runner, you know the exact verse I’m talking about. “And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” And run we shall! One of the key reasons NDSU has been so successful and grown to what we have since the days when Old Main was surrounded by wheat fields and barns is because we refuse to rest on any laurels. We haven’t let up. There’s no reason to start now.
If we let off the gas pedal even just a little bit, we will soon find ourselves staring at the backs of the competition, rather than being out front of the pack. One of my favorite coaches and leaders of all-time is former Buffalo Bills head coach Marv Levy. Levy led the Bills to four straight Super Bowls in the 1990s and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2001. Levy cautioned against letting experience morph into complacency. “Experience should be a plus as long as it doesn’t become complacency. If you say, ‘We’re not going to change; we didn’t do it that way before,’ then you’ve become too old,” said Levy. If you think NDSU is immune from this, you’re wrong. The biggest of giants can be toppled by complacency and not pushing the envelope.
Remember Kodak and its iconic advertising campaign that become a cultural phenomenon—a “Kodak moment.” The global conglomerate film and camera maker was one of the most recognizable brands with one of the most recognizable products in the world. Notwithstanding, the world and the market didn’t care. It never does. Kodak, as the world knew it, ceased to exist in 2012 as one of the greatest disruptions ever to hit the market, the digital revolution, washed over them, swamping them into near extinction. Except, the digital revolution and technology boom was not some unexpected cataclysmic event for Kodak. Do you know who built one of the first prototypes of the digital camera, and did so long before Apple’s iPhone turned the world on its head? You guessed it. Kodak. A Forbes article from last January on the fifth anniversary of Kodak’s demise notes that, “It is not that the company could not have saved itself by responding to change. The tragedy is that Kodak invented the change that eventually killed it.” One of the first prototypes of the digital camera was built by a Kodak engineer in the mid-1970s, when a tempo offense meant lining up with only one tight end. Kodak was content to rest on its past accomplishments and legacy product, it’s film line.
And why not? Kodak was one of the highest grossing companies in the world, and literally in every home in America and expanding its reach across the globe. It wasn’t broke, so why reinvent the wheel. Well, because someone else always will. If there’s one consistent theme throughout our history it’s that the market will be disrupted, that new ways of doing things will emerge. In today’s world, it’s Moore’s law on steroids as events happen faster than they ever have. To draw a parallel to college football, seemingly half of college football ran the veer, wing, or option offense through the 1980s and into the 1990s. Today, only a handful of stalwarts like Georgia Tech still run the option attack, and “tempo” has become common parlance. Soon enough, tempo will be replaced by something else, and that something else replaced eventually by something else, maybe even the option.
According to a July 2016 article in Harvard Business Review, Kodak’s demise was rooted in its stubborn refusal to fully embrace the digital revolution and clinging desperately to its core film business. Management at Kodak buried the digital camera and ignored its disruptive potential, in other words, its ability to reinvent an entire market. Borrowing from Levy’s wisdom, Kodak became complacent, failing to leverage its decades of experience, talent, and resources, refusing to adapt to the new reality – the film business was nearing the end of its shelf life and not even Kodak could save it. Even as it acquired an online photo-sharing site in 2001, years before Facebook and Twitter were an omnipresent presence in our lives, Kodak plunked a single toe in the waters, using the site to push printing photos, while others jumped in headfirst.
The halls of the early twenty-first century are a graveyard of sorts littered with stories like Kodak’s. As Scott D. Anthony surmised in his cautionary postmortem in the Harvard Business Review, “Kodak remains a sad story of potential lost. The American icon had the talent, the money, and even the foresight to make the transition. Instead, it ended up the victim of the aftershocks of a disruptive change.”
As we embark on another year, we need to guard against falling into complacency and our own Kodak moment. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it is not a formula that breeds championship success. Championships don’t come easy. Being a top-flight university doesn’t come easy. We need to fight for it. It is critical, as supporters and advocates for NDSU, that we stay ahead of the curve. It is critical we step up and do our part to support our university and athletic programs. Whether that’s contributing to Team Makers, showing up to cheer on NDSU at home or on the road, or simply being a voice in support of the university’s mission and goals, we need to avoid complacency. We need to continue pushing as hard as we ever have.
After all, the strength of the Herd is the Bison, and the strength of the Bison is the Herd. Everyone up for the kickoff, the march is on!