Five straight national championships. Going back to when Rutgers and Princeton played the first college football game in November 1869, nobody had ever won five national titles in a row. With constant turnover of players and coaches, injuries, so many quality teams, and the sheer unpredictability in the way a football bounces, no one had come close—not Knute Rockne’s legendary Notre Dame teams, the Alabama squads led by Bear Bryant, or the great Oklahoma teams of Bud Wilkinson and Barry Switzer. A handful of teams notched repeat championships, most recently the University of Southern California under Pete Carroll in 2003 and 2004 and Nick Saban’s Alabama teams in 2011 and 2012.
With their rich traditions and championship pedigrees, these are the Top Gun members of college football, the best of the best, the elite of the elite. Quite simply, they are the gold standard of America’s game. Notwithstanding, the NCAA does not recognize a single FBS program as winning three consecutive national titles. Only one other FCS program, Appalachian State, has won three-straight. By going back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back, in over a century of the modern college game, North Dakota State’s five-peat is literally in a category all by itself.
So, where do we start when describing what NDSU achieved in winning five straight titles? The numbers are an easy place. Five-straight national championships. Six-straight Missouri Valley Football Conference titles. Seven straight years of making at least the FCS quarterfinals. The winningest program in Division I with an 83-7 record since 2011. The 33-game winning streak from 2012-2014, and an equally astounding 22-straight playoff victories from 2011-2016. A 6-0 record against FBS competition, including wins over Iowa, Kansas State, and Minnesota. The banners in the south end zone of the Fargodome have needed updating every year for the better part of a decade.
Or the names, how about the names. The numbers blur together after awhile, but the names could fill the space of an entire article. The foundations of these great teams, led by all-time greats like Carson Wentz, Brock Jensen, Joe Haeg, Kyle Emanuel, Billy Turner, Marcus Williams, Ryan Smith, C.J. Smith, Zach Vraa, Grant Olson, Travis Beck, John Crockett, Colten Heagle, Christian Dudzik, Adam Keller, and Cole Jirik, etc., etc. It feels like a disservice to stop with this handful of players when many, many more are just as deserving, and like the aforementioned guys, will one day end up in the Bison Athletic Hall of Fame.
What about the national exposure? ESPN’s “College GameDay” coming to downtown Fargo twice, along with the network’s signature show, “SportsCenter,” broadcasting an entire show live from the dome in 2015, have showcased everything great about NDSU and Fargo, opening eyes in the process. Since 2013, ESPN and ESPN2 have televised 14 Bison games nationally. America’s modern-day John Madden, Jon Gruden, the energetic analyst for Monday Night Football—and a national brand himself—gushes about Wentz on a weekly basis, helping to grow NDSU’s brand and cementing his popularity among Bison faithful. The number of column inches written about NDSU grows by the year, with everyone from ESPN, Sports Illustrated, to Bleacher Report coming to Fargo to tell our story. The Fargodome is widely recognized as one of the best atmospheres in college athletics. Tailgaters Magazine has picked Fargo as one of its Top 15 tailgating destinations the last two years, ahead of the likes of Clemson, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Texas, Florida State and Nebraska. The Huffington Post puts NDSU even higher on its tailgating and game day atmosphere list, ranking it No. 4.
The passion this championship run has unleashed has put Fargo and North Dakota on the map. As a recent Sports Illustrated article explained, “That passion is derived from the Bison’s unique grasp on North Dakota. Like Cornhuskers fans in Nebraska or Alabama and Auburn’s annual battle for supremacy in the South, North Dakota natives live and die with Bison football.” On fall Saturdays, everyone from the guy driving combine in Benson County to the truck driver on Highway 2 hauling a load from Devils Lake to Grand Forks tuned into 1660 AM, to the crew at Star City Golf Course in Velva, North Dakota, watching the statewide NBC broadcast, to the thousands tailgating in the west lot, come together for the Bison.
Anish Shroff, ESPN’s play-by-play announcer that regularly calls Bison games, has endeared himself to the community and state by telling our story to the masses. In December, following the semifinal loss to James Madison, Shroff felt compelled to write 12 paragraphs on his Facebook page detailing how special of a place NDSU and Fargo are in the college football landscape. Shroff, who has observed college football from the sport’s greatest heights, wrote: “North Dakota State is a part of Fargo’s connective tissue. They are to Fargo what the Packers are to Green Bay – right down to the color scheme. This was more than just civic pride in success. This was a cultural phenomenon,” Shroff concluded, “If you’re a college football fan, the Fargodome is a bucket list item. … But do spend some time in Fargo. You’ll meet some of the best fans in America. I know I have. All this is meant to say thank you for the kindness and hospitality you’ve shown me over the last few years.” You’re always welcome in Fargo, Anish.
You need to understand, guys like Shroff don’t normally write about any communities and schools, let alone with such heartfelt sincerity and appreciation. That is the point – our dynasty, this run of championships, goes beyond the numbers. It has grown into something much bigger, much more important. Shroff nailed it. NDSU is to Fargo, to the state of North Dakota, and to our region what the Packers are to Green Bay, what the Red Sox are to Boston and New England. The Bison are part of our DNA, part of the connective tissue and civic pride binding us together. Look around today when you go to work, pick up your kid at school, when you’re shopping at the grocery store or hitting the gym. You’ll see all types wearing NDSU gear showing their Bison pride. Every time I workout at the YMCA/Scheels Family Wellness in south Fargo, I get the biggest smile seeing so many people sporting the Bison logo.
The Bison have brought people, have brought us, together. The Bison have given us something to be proud of, something to cheer, something to celebrate. That pride, Bison Pride, runs deep, going beyond the championships, elevating above the individual wins and losses. Looking back on the last five years, NDSU has done something few teams in the history of sports have done. They’ve transcended their sport. They’ve created something bigger than the game. The trophies, banners and accolades are important, but that is the legacy created by these teams. They have transcended sports and have become part of who we are. Next year, and the year after that, and the year after that, the story of Bison Football will continue to unfold, and we’ll be right there every step of the way, cheering our team.
Everyone up for the kickoff, the march is on!