Swany Says: Why Not NDSU? Bison Can Be The Next Gonzaga

In the spirit of March Madness, Swany lays out how North Dakota State can become the next mid-major giant.

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Photo By Nolan P. Schmidt

Walter Isaacson is one of America’s best historians and authors. You’ll never read a book of his and walk away disappointed. I keep a handful of page-turners on my shelves at Vogel Law Firm in downtown Fargo, to share with colleagues who ask about books. I’m an unabashed book nerd, and, for the record, a good beer aficionado, that’s working on four or five books at any given time. Libby loves the fact we keep books piled up all over our house. 


So what in the name of Isaacson or Einstein do books have to do with the Bison? Well, dear reader, I’m glad you asked. A few years ago, Isaacson wrote a bestselling biography on Steve Jobs, aptly named “Steve Jobs.” If you haven’t read it yet, do yourself a favor and grab it. We could use many words to describe Jobs – genius, visionary, revolutionary, jerk, myopic, hard-charging, and leader. Jobs revolutionized not only technology, but the way we live our lives with the smartphone. In fact, he changed the way, and how, we view the world. Once Jobs had an idea for something, whether it was iTunes or the iPhone, katy bar the door, batten down the hatches, and get the hell out of the way, because it was getting done. 

A familiar refrain from his youth, to his early days at Apple, and his second stint at the company, the one where we got iTunes, MacBook, iPhone, etc., were folks telling Jobs that he was foolish, out of his mind, and whatever he had in mind wouldn’t work. Jobs would barrel through anyway, corporate niceties and tactfulness be damned, saying things like his oft-repeated quote, “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.” Amen, brother. Let’s talk about being bold and changing the world, or at least the landscape of college basketball. With that in mind, I ask you this. Why not us, why not North Dakota State?

If you had told anyone even remotely connected with NDSU, or college football, in the early 2000s that by 2020, the Bison Football team would have roads wins at Iowa, Kansas State, Iowa State, Kansas, Colorado State, and Minnesota, would have hosted ESPN’s College GameDay twice and SportsCenter once, be traveling to Oregon for what college football experts are already billing as one of the most intriguing games of the year, and would have won eight FCS titles in nine years, they would have told you that you were crazy. Good thing Gene Taylor, Craig Bohl, Joe Chapman, Matt Larsen, Chris Klieman, Dean Bresciani, Pat Simmers, and Matt Entz didn’t listen to the limitations others placed on them. NDSU Football turned itself into one of the premier college football programs in the sport. 

Now, what if we, as a fan base, who travel thousands of miles to watch the Bison football team play, invested and committed to our basketball program with the same passion and fervor? After all, this is a team that’s made the NCAA Tournament three times in the last six seasons, won two games in March Madness (Oklahoma ’14 and North Carolina Central ’19), and has appeared in four of the last six Summit League Tournament championship games. For good measure, this team also has road wins against Wisconsin, Marquette, and Notre Dame since moving to Division I. There are bona fide mid-major hoops studs on these teams that went on to play professional ball, guys like Ben Woodside, Brett Winkelman, Taylor Braun, Trayvonn Wright, Lawrence Alexander, and Dexter Werner. There are today’s electric playmakers in Tyson Ward and Vinnie Shahid, who could carry this team back to the NCAA Tournament this month. There’s a lot to cheer for. 

Notwithstanding, let’s call a duck a duck. Our fan base has been lackluster in supporting the basketball program, more content to cry about leg space at an arena (which must be addressed) than putting our collective drive into a program that has the potential to be one of the top college hoops destinations in mid-major basketball. Just think, what if we supported basketball like we do Bison Football. What if we filled the Scheels Center like we do the Fargodome, students brought the same energy they bring to the Dome to the SHAC, and we made it one big family-friendly party? I’ll tell you what would happen. ESPN would be in Fargo several times each winter covering Bison hoops and telling the story of how 5,700 fans turn that place into one of the loudest, most exciting environments in college hoops. Think I’m wrong? ESPN has been to the Fargodome multiple times every year for the last decade for football, brought its two biggest shows to Fargo, and its personalities regularly gush over the Bison on their platforms ranging from Twitter to television.  

Don’t tell me this can’t be done. Don’t find a way to say “no,” we can’t do that because you’re lazy, or don’t believe. We’re NDSU. Let me say that again. We. Are. The. Bison. The Strength of the Bison is the Herd. Nobody can tell us we can’t do something because we have done it! We’ve gone from a regional Division II school to a nationally recognized DI research institution. If we can do it for football, you’re damn right we can do it for basketball. The only ones in our way are us. If we packed the Scheels Center with 5,700 every home game, we’d be the next Gonzaga within the decade. The Bison would be making March Madness on an annual basis, ranked in the Top 25 poll consistently – like Gonzaga – and we’d hit critical mass, just like the football program. We’d start attracting recruits the basketball equivalent of Jabril Cox, Trey Lance, Christian Watson, and Dillon Radunz.  

Gonzaga plays in a 6,000-seat arena in Spokane, Washington. The Bulldogs are in the West Coast Conference, not the Big Ten, SEC, or ACC. Their undergraduate enrollment is 5,119 students. They’re currently slated as a No. 1 seed in March Madness, made the Final Four in 2017, and have been in the Elite Eight three times since 2015.  Spokane isn’t any nicer than Fargo. I’ve been there. It rains a lot, it’s not super warm, and literally has one of the worst crime rates in America, with its residents having a one in 13 chance of becoming a victim of either violent or property crime. Yet, they’ve made 20 straight NCAA Tournaments, winning at least one game in 17 of those trips.  

How did Gonzaga do it?  They have incredibly passionate fan support, for starters. Those 5,119 students, and fans from the local area, fill the McCarthey Athletic Center for every game.  It became cool to cheer for the Bulldogs. They became a story, outside of Blue Blood Drive, without any of those inherent advantages, were an upstart winning games, knocking off the big boys, and doing it with some style. They were easy to cheer for because they weren’t Duke, Kansas, North Carolina, or Kentucky. Wouldn’t you know, guess who came calling for the Zags. ESPN did. Then CBS showed up. On any given night in the winter, you can flip on your TV and see them running up and down the court with flare to a packed house. In the last 20 years, Gonzaga refused to accept any limitations imposed by outsiders. Now they’re a Top 10 college basketball program year after year.   

If a program like Gonzaga can do it, so can NDSU.  In terms of mid-major basketball, this program and team, its players and coaches, have done their part.  We are a sleeping giant, and as fans, it’s time we woke up and did our part. I guarantee you this, fellow fans, and Bison students, if we fill the Scheels Center, before long, NDSU will be right there where Gonzaga is. When that happens, in addition to our annual trips to Frisco every January, we’ll have somewhere warm to fly to, and drink all of their beers, in March.

Let’s take a page from Job’s book and be crazy enough to change the college basketball world. 

Everybody up for the tip-off, the March is on!

Swany Says: Why Not NDSU? Bison Can Be The Next Gonzaga
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