Photos by NDSU Archives
It was a primitive time. Okay, primitive isn’t a fair way to describe it, but to say the least, it was a different time, a different era, and although only 20 years ago it was far, far removed from where North Dakota State is today. Let me set the stage. I grew up a Bison-homer, through and through. I may not have been destined to be a lawyer, but there was definitely a future in store for me writing columns for a magazine called Bison Illustrated, even if this publication was still a decade and some change away from existence.
How deep is my homer-ism? On rainy days at Devils Lake in the summer, where my parents have a place, my brother and I will throw in VHS tapes of old Bison games we recorded as kids and enjoy the punishing option attack that grounded opponents into the dirt. My favorite is the 1990 Division II national championship where NDSU pounded Frank Cignetti’s Indiana (PA) squad 51-11. At halftime it was a tossup, the Bison leading 14-11. The commercials for a Teddy Roosevelt- inspired “Rough Rider Beer,” Site on Sound and Happy Harry’s are comically vintage. Sidebar, pretty sure we’ve watched that tape so many times I can sing the “Rough Rider Beer” song by heart … an adventurous spirit, unique and tough to tame, rugged and individual, Rough Rider was the name … go the lyrics. Anyway, the third quarter was arguably the best single-quarter performance in Bison history as the Herd outscored IUP 30-0, scoring on all five possessions in the quarter, including touchdowns runs of 44 and 66 yards, and touchdown passes of 75 and 57 yards.
In 2010, I visited with Rocky Hager, NDSU’s legendary head coach from 1987 to 1996, about that game. Hager led the Bison to undefeated seasons and national championships in 1988 and 1990, and was the defensive coordinator on the teams that won the 1985 and 1986 national titles. I asked Rocky what he remembered most about that game. You might guess it was the dominating third quarter. Or, how about that Bison defense, which limited IUP to only 143 total yards, including 10 sacks. What about Tony Satter running for 174 yards on 12 carries, setting a then-postseason record with 619 rushing yards in four playoff games. No, it had to have been the fact it was the fifth national championship in eight years for the Bison.
Nope, none of the above. What Rocky remembered most, he said with only a slight hint of humor in his voice, was that NDSU missed all six – all six! – of its extra points in the second half. We just couldn’t make one of those darn things, Hager related. Of course, Hager shared many fond memories of that game, that team, and all of his teams at NDSU, but to delve into the specifics of that game and missed extra points is, well, that’s just Bison football and the standard those teams had.
Fast-forward a few years from that December 1990 national championship game. The Fargodome opened for the 1993 season. There was no talk of Division I national championships, of beating Kansas State, Minnesota, or Iowa State, of the Dome’s parking lots filled every week with thousands of fans converging on a nationally-renowned tailgating scene. Coincidentally, 1993 was also the first year ESPN’s College GameDay began live broadcasting with a trip to Notre Dame. The thought of ESPN beaming an HD broadcast of College GameDay worldwide from a packed Downtown Fargo, in the same category of Notre Dame, exactly twenty years later with the streets overflowing in green and yellow, Bison banners hanging from buildings and crowded rooftops would have seemed alien to our state, community and university leaders. The idea of a Bison quarterback being the second-overall pick in the NFL Draft would have been scoffed at. Frisco, Texas was as hopping as Esmond, N.D. in those days when there were little fields north of campus. Heck, the thought of the Bison running an offense other than the option would have considered blasphemy – an unpardonable sin – when a guy named Clinton was just replacing a guy named Bush in the Oval Office. Comparing aerial photos of NDSU during the 1990s with campus today, in 2016, you literally get the picture of how things were versus how they are now. Who could have imagined it?
I remember going to football camp at North Dakota State in the late 1990s, practicing and playing seven-on-seven games on Dacotah Field. By that point, it had a playing surface that was little more than a concrete slab with a stretch of badly worn carpet covering it. I recall laying out trying to catch an overthrown pass on that old carpet – which is probably more accurately characterized as a ball my short 5’8” legs couldn’t quite catch up with – and getting a turf burn that scraped me like a cheese grader all the way up the side of my torso to my shoulder. It was a night that would stick with me, though, and not because of the turf burn.
That Fargodome, man, it towered over the horizon. The horizon. That night, in June 1996, as the sun was setting right behind our football game, on that same horizon, it happened to be the first-ever RedHawks game played at Newman Outdoor Field. As a history major, a North Dakotan, a sports nut and lifelong Bison acolyte, it was the coolest thing ever. History was unfolding before my eyes. What an unlimited horizon. North Dakota State, the Fargodome, a professional baseball team in a ballpark like Newman, being in Fargo – all that energy and possibilities – while we played a game on Dacotah Field, under the lights. Who could have dreamed that all happening in Fargo, in North Dakota, at NDSU?
Who could have dreamed, who dare would have dreamed, that 20 years from that June night in 1996, another brand new arena, the Sanford Health Athletics Complex, would be opening on that same horizon? Who would have guessed that our soccer team would be playing on new turf and calling Dacotah Field their home? That the Bison would be aiming for a sixth straight FCS national championship? That men’s basketball would be setting its sights on another March Madness? That wrestling would be a Top 25 Division I program? That baseball, softball, and volleyball would all have notched NCAA Tournament appearances? That track and field would have a brand new facility with Division I All-Americans and NCAA Tournament qualifiers and an Olympian in tot?
Indeed, who could have imagined that horizon? It reminds me of a quote often attributed to Robert Kennedy. “There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask, why not?” Like 1996, our horizons in 2016 are open for big dreams, for the big dreamers, for the audacious goals, for whatever we decide our future holds. The only limits we have on our future are the ones we impose ourselves. If you dare think otherwise, look at an aerial photo of campus from June 1996 and compare it to today. Then ask yourself this: Why not here, why not us, why not now? Everybody up for the kickoff, the march is on!