By – Joshua A. Swanson
Another football season means another set of championship expectations for North Dakota State’s football team. How many other sports teams, any sport, any level, anywhere on the planet, are expected to go out and not just win their conference, not just make the playoffs, but to win a championship? It’s not just competing for a championship. We’re talking about finishing every season raising the FCS Division I national championship trophy on the stage at Toyota Stadium and adding a year to the banner hanging from the rafters in the Fargodome. Back-to-back-to-back-to back-to- back-to-back… like Pi, as in 3.14159…, it never stops, it goes on, and on, and on. Most fan bases would be satisfied with just one championship, one ring commemorating the year their team was the best of the best. Most fan bases don’t have the issue of their team being so damn good each year. Every year, Bison fans expect a national championship like most folks expect the stoplight at the intersection to turn from red to green.
Ask a Minnesota Vikings or Northern Iowa fan. This isn’t a shot at either of those teams—the Vikings or Panthers. Both have had tremendous teams over the span of decades; each has rich traditions in their own right without winning a championship. When you think “FCS powerhouses,” who has a richer tradition, Eastern Washington, Montana State or Northern Iowa? I’d say Northern Iowa, despite the fact they have never won a national championship. Ask Bison Nation what team presents the biggest challenge year in and year out to NDSU. It’s the Panthers in a landslide.
As a Vikings fan, I know how excruciatingly close the purple and yellow have been. Oh, to just make a Super Bowl. Forget the Lombardi Trophy—what I wouldn’t give to cheer for the Vikings in a Super Bowl. (Note to employers and schools that if that happens, roughly 80 percent of your employees and students will be sick that Monday.) Fargo would be one giant Frisco, Texas on Super Bowl Sunday. And you thought the Marriot Legacy in Plano, Texas had problems staying stocked with beer that first FCS championship.
1998. 19-freaking-98. Denny Green’s clock management, Gary Anderson and that damn dirty bird celebration. It still makes me cringe and that was 19 years ago. It’s so bad, the former hit CBS comedy “How I Met Your Mother” did an episode making fun of Vikings fans and “1998!” Twelve years later, when the New Orleans’ hit squad took out the Brett Favre led Vikings in the 2009 conference championship, I didn’t watch the Super Bowl. I didn’t listen to ESPN Radio or watch “SportsCenter” for at least three weeks.
Can you imagine your excitement if the Vikings made the Super Bowl this year? They don’t even have to win it. I’m talking if they just made it to Super Bowl LI (that’s 51 for the Roman numerally challenged) set for February 5, 2017, at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas. This city, state and region would be a combination of euphoric, distracted and delirious. Viking Fever would take hold. We’re going to the Super Bowl! Skol Vikings! We’re going to the Super Bowl! In early fall 2017, babies across the region would start sporting names like Teddy, Harrison and Anthony.
Contrast that with your disappointment if the Bison don’t win a sixth straight FCS championship. It is to the point where, in all likelihood, a deep playoff run wouldn’t be enough for the majority of the fan base. The only way the season can be considered a success for many is if NDSU does something never done, again, in college football history and wins a sixth straight championship. Only one team has even won five straight. How many Bison fans were bummed, legitimately, say- it out-loud disappointed last year when “SportsCenter”–yeah, the biggest sports program on the planet–showed up in town instead of “College GameDay?” Very, very few college football teams outside of Tuscaloosa, Alabama get the kind of love NDSU does from the World Wide Leader in Sports.
The expectations game–when NDSU made the decision in August 2002 to move to Division I, every single Bison fan, alum, Fargoan, and North Dakotan, from Joe Chapman to John Hoeven, from Phil Hansen to Josh Duhamel, to the crotchetiest of the crotchety NDSU haters in the state legislature or State Board of Higher Education, if told the Bison would have a Division I football championship–as in just one, not five, but one–by 2016, that would have been considered a smashing success. How bad must Chapman or Gene Taylor want to sit back from Colorado and Iowa and say “we told you so” to those haters and doubters that piled on NDSU when we made the leap to DI? The fact they never would doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t just smile at the thought, you know, that ear-to-ear, it hurts smiling this big kind of smile. And now? Yes, indeed. And now.
Like Northern Iowa, Montana is an FCS powerhouse. The Griz were the FCS gold standard when NDSU moved to Division I. The Griz only have two–we’re in the ridiculous realm eight years removed from the first season when NDSU was eligible for the FCS playoffs that “only” needs to be used as a qualifier when discussing other teams’ national championships–as if that is somehow a pittance of national titles. Oh, you have two national championships. You poor, poor thing, come inside and we’ll get a pot of soup on the stove. I know how stupid that sounds. But, like a January 2016 Bleacher Report article surmised after the Bison won their fifth straight, what else is left to compare it to?
The Wednesday before the home opener against Charleston Southern, a friend of mine, Ty Hegland, was hosting the afternoon show on 790 AM KFGO. He had me on as a guest and asked what the expectations were for this team. I was left speechless for a moment. That seldom, if ever, happens. I almost always–okay, Ma Swany, I always– have something to say. How do you realistically talk expectations for the Bison football team? I don’t know. I seriously don’t know, as a fan, how you talk expectations because as a fan, I expect the Bison to win a sixth straight championship. Sure, the Bison start the year as the No. 1 ranked team and favorite to win another title, but those lofty expectations every single year defy what should be reality. Is there a reality that exists where NDSU doesn’t win the national championship? Outside observers and other teams’ fans must think we’re real armpits (to substitute for another body part). Yet, that is reality for Bison fans. That sort of thinking would have been considered an alternative universe not possible back in 2002, or even back in 2008. Yet, here we are.
Expectations, then? Forget expectations. Enjoy the journey. Revel in the tailgating. Take time to celebrate how special this program and university are. But just for the heck of it, go ahead and book your hotel room and flight to Frisco for early January. It’s much more likely the Bison will make that annual pilgrimage to Frisco/Plano than booking a once-in-a-lifetime flight to Houston in early February to watch another team from the northland playing in Texas. Everybody up for the kickoff, the march is on!