Spring in In the Air

Spring is finally here and so is the time where our neighbors and friends seem to wake from a long winter hibernation. People are now in their driveways and front lawns after what has felt like years. We don’t recognize the neighbor kids who sprouted a few inches since the fall or the new family that moved in down the street. Similarly, the North Dakota State athletic program has been evolving and many things seem unfamiliar.

The Bison changed last winter, but some things remained the same. The men’s basketball team was undergoing changes with a new coach and players in new roles with the team. What remained the same were the results.

Picked to finish fifth in the increasingly difficult Summit League, the men accepted the challenge and new roles the same way the football team had this fall. The Bison were tied for the conference regular season title and went on to win the conference tournament and punch their ticket for their second straight appearance in the NCAA basketball tournament, otherwise known as the Big Dance.

While the Bison haven’t yet won the NCAA Division I basketball championship, they have, much like the football team, built a winning tradition for the program that will reap the benefits for years to come. Not only did the Bison have success that was recognized with a bid into the NCAA tournament, individual performances were awarded beginning with Dexter Werner winning Sixth Man of the Year, Lawrence Alexander earning as Summit League Player of the Year and first year head coach Dave Richman claiming Coach of the Year. All these accolades are another set of awards for an athletic program that seems to add more to its trophy case by the month.

I couldn’t help be proud of all three of the schools from the Dakota’s, since each were not picked to do any better than fourth, while watching the Summit League tournament. Honestly, it was surprising looking back at those preseason projections, especially after the way the Bison and Jackrabbits dominated during the regular season.

In fact, all three were in the tournament semifinals with NDSU taking down SDSU for the title.

The Bison women’s basketball team finished an unsatisfying campaign; however, it was a year of improvement and growth under new head coach Maren Walseth.

Walseth led the Bison to a five-win improvement from last season and the most victories in five seasons. Senior guard Brooke LeMar led the way and was chosen to the All-Summit League first team for her accomplishments. Following her were junior forward Holly Johnson, who was named to the All-Summit League honorable mention team, and freshman guard Taylor Thunstedt, who was named to the All-Newcomer Team. 2014-15 was a great start for Walseth and I believe there will be with many more highlights to come.

While we love watching football and basketball, we should not forget about the softball and wrestling teams this season. The Bison softball team is off to a great start to the season with highlights including wins over five Power 5 conference opponents.

The Bison grapplers have added another conference championship to the hardware collection and sent a school record six wrestlers to the 2015 National Championships.

As this issue of Bison Illustrated hits the stands, the focus will begin to shift back to the football team as it prepares to defend its four-straight FCS National Championships with its spring practices culminating with its annual spring game.

The Bison will have multiple practices leading up to its annual Green and Gold Spring Game on April 25. What new wrinkles will the coaching staff start to implement for its latest title defense? We will have to pay close attention to the position battles and hope for good health come April 26.

What does all this mean? It means Fargo isn’t just the home of championship football teams, but champions in all sports.

Beware the Herd!

BisonIllustrated.com

Honoring Cherished Memories

When we become fans of a certain team or university, we sometimes find ourselves rooting more for the laundry than the player. It’s not always the case but occasionally when a player leaves our favorite team we often feel disappointed or let down because we feel they left for greener pastures. However, often times when it comes to former Bison, we need our time to vent and get over the initial emotions so we can truly be thankful for the time and memories we have made with that player or coach. Sometimes these players that leave our favorite team aren’t leaving us for a different team or a better situation, they sometimes just leave us.

Life is a funny thing, one day we may think we have it all figured out, the next we are consumed by life’s day to day hustle and bustle we lose site of what’s important. As we go through life we keep moving forward and trying to be better than we were the day before. We all have our own beliefs as to what lies beyond our time on earth, some believe that all we are is only what we accomplish during our lifetime and others believe there is a life that lies beyond this one. I believe that there is more waiting for us after our time here is done. The sports world and Bison Nation both hope that to be true. Two coaching legends, Dean Smith and Jerry Tarkanian, and a local Bison standout, Tyler Jangula, all left us this month, and that has left a large hole is many fans hearts both nationally and locally.

The two coaches had hall of fame careers. Dean Smith now has a coaching tree lined with many successful coaches that once studied under him. Both Coaches lived into their early 80’s and one could say they lived very full lives. Tyler, however, has left us far too soon at only 28 years old. We often ask ourselves why, why must a young man in his prime and so loved leave us so soon. We will never know the why, just the when of his passing. I like to think of it as though there was a football game in Heaven and they needed a fullback.

When we lose loved ones it gives us a time to reflect on that person’s life and what they meant to us, our family, or our community. If you are lucky enough you will have an affect on all of them. Part of the reason I got into doing a podcast where I talk to whoever will listen is that I realized that this is what I am good at, it’s my gift. I learned it after the passing of my own maternal Grandmother and knowing that I wanted, no I had to speak at her funeral. I sat at my computer and through the tears I opened up and it all came gushing out, my first eulogy. When my paternal Grandfather passed, it was the same, opening up and the words came flowing out into what would be my next eulogy.

Do I think that when we lose a loved one it will cause us to realize our true calling or ignite a passion that we hadn’t known existed? No, but in a way my podcast helps me to remember my Grandparents, and a talent that I inherited from them. When we do something that reminds us of our lost loved ones, those memories are what keep them alive inside us for as long as we hold on to those memories. At the end of every PodBash I end it the same way as Grandma ended her phone calls to us as a tribute to her. So to Tyler and others we have lost, we will talk to you soon one day. Yup, You Betcha, Mmm Hmm, Bye.

History and Tradition Spark More Than A Dynasty

While watching the FBS Playoff Championship game, I heard one of the announcers ask Head Coach Urban Meyer what winning the championship meant to him and Ohio State University. He replied with the typical sports clichés, as usual, but also referenced his team making history — referring to the first FBS Playoff Champion. Well I hate to break it to Coach Meyer, but NDSU made history two days prior to Ohio State.

The Bison became the first team in FCS history to win four straight National Championships. They not only made history, but they continued a streak of dominance associated with the premier program in all of the FCS, dare I say dynasty.

No wait, I take that back. The Bison are not a dynasty.

Before you stop reading and curse my name, read this first: They are more than a dynasty. Over the past few months I have become friends with Bison alumni and former Bison players. I had a chance to sit down and record a special episode of the PodBash previewing the championship game. We also talked about the success of former Bison players in the NFL and what it means to be a part of this Bison fraternity. The overwhelming term that is used to describe this program is “family.”

It’s an exclusive club with high expectations and even higher aspirations. The Bison family predates this magazine, the FargoDome and even predates myself. The exciting part of what I have briefly been able to experience has been listening to people talk about alumni they got to meet, the Friday walk-through they attend on the eve of the championship games, and how much it means to the alumni to be a part of the Bison family and connect with current players.

Becoming a part of this exclusive club would be something that any recruit would dream of joining. Not to mention that Bison football not only sets the bar for greatness, they are the “bar” by which all other schools are now measured.

The expectations of this program have been set so high that anything less than making the playoffs is absurd, and the idea of not having a winning record is next to impossible. NDSU’s recruiting footprint will continue to grow and they will bring in better out-of-state players, but the heart of the team remains its own local recruits.

Local players still make up over half of the roster and give this team a sense of local roots in the upper Midwest. There are those recruits that come to Fargo not knowing where it is or how to pronounce Bison correctly. It’s tricky, I know from experience. Those that do come for a visit want to stay and become a part of this special family. Some of those that come from across the country end up staying long after college and help move our community forward.

What does all this mean? It means that this team, this family, will be a large part of our community for decades to come. The Bison program means so much to this community, yet the players and coaches have the freedom to live their lives as any of us would. Just before Christmas I saw Head Coach Chris Klieman shopping at the mall with his daughter, completely uninterrupted and peacefully enjoying the day with his child. This program, the coaches and athletes reflect what this community is: hard working, humble and great.

This Bison family will continue to grow and more chapters will be written into the record books. There are many more games to win, more conference titles to clinch and more National Championship trophies to collect. As the saying goes: The strength of the Bison is the herd, and the strength of the herd is the Bison.

Creating New Memories

As the New Year begins and we transition away from one sport to another, I can’t help but be reminded of my time in college when I’d go watch my team play. It would usually start with getting people organized and going to watch the game, but as I got closer to my Senior year, and inevitably Graduate School, it involved meeting up with my sister, who would gladly hang out with big brother on a Friday or Saturday night. With my school still Division II at that time, it was always a double header each game night.

The early game featured our women’s team, who struggled during my time there, and usually resulted in sparse crowds. The featured game was our men’s team who had been successful at that time.

Due to these small crowds for the women’s game, this is when my sister and I had to be there so we could get our preferred seats – or at least my preference. We didn’t normally sit in the student only section; we’d sit center court in the bleacher section about 12 rows up. The players’ friends and family, rather than the raucous student section, surrounded us. I didn’t care. I wanted to be able to see everything that was going on the court and be able to see the three-point lines and out of bounds with ease.

We cheered our teams on, I yelled at the refs, we got to see some great college basketball and I have fond memories of time with my sister.

I’m sure many of you have fond memories of Bison basketball, especially with the recent success of the program. This season starts a new chapter in those memories with a new coach, new key players, and, for now, a new home.

The Bison Sports Arena is being renovated, so the men’s and women’s basketball teams have found separate homes in Scheels Arena and the Bentson Bunker Fieldhouse, for the next two seasons. It may not be their normal home court but these will be memories for the players and fans that future teams won’t have.

The key in these memories is to continue the positive wave that has been overflowing in the Bison community. Last season marked the second time the men’s basketball team advanced to the NCAA tournament by winning the Summit League tournament.

During the NCAA Tournament we saw the Bison upset Oklahoma in the first round before falling to San Diego State. It was a great season for the program, but now the team is young and will need time to grow together. With only one senior and two juniors on the team, this team will grow together for the next few years while adding talent.

Head coach Dave Richman is the man in charge after being promoted to the position after Saul Phillips left for Ohio University. Don’t worry, Bison fans, let’s look at what happened last time a successful coach left the program.

Phillips took over for Tim Miles, who had a 58 percent winning percentage (99-71) in six seasons with the Herd. Phillips took the helm and guided the team to a 61 percent winning percentage (134-84) in seven seasons. That’s 35 more wins in only one extra season, and also, two NCAA tournament appearances!

The future for the Bison men’s basketball team is looking very bright.

With new facilities on the way, an established system in place that keeps consistency in the program with the promotion of Richman, the willingness to schedule big time opponents, and young talent to develop into a mid-major power.

Be thankful, Bison fans, Scheel’s Arena may be cool with the ice under the court, but the Herd is just getting warmed up!

Success Breeds Success

As a kid growing up in northeast South Dakota, I was raised firmly in the middle of the North Central Conference or as we called it, the toughest Division II conference in the country. To the south was South Dakota State University, Augustana and University of South Dakota, and to the north was the University of North Dakota and NDSU. Being a South Dakota kid, my allegiance was to my home state and even though SDSU was closer, I fell in love with USD.

My first memory of Bison football was back in 1986, when the announcer passionately said after the Division II playoff semifinal game, “Bring on the Bison!” The following game was my first real introduction to who this juggernaut of a football program was and would still be to this day. My Coyotes fell in the National Championship 27-7. It was never close, and the programs haven’t been close since.

The Bison don’t just have USD’s number, they are dominant against everybody. In the past 52 seasons, the Bison have come put above .500 in 49 of them. They have 11 National Championships and the last three consecutive FCS titles. And the Bison don’t show any signs of slowing down and are the team to beat in the Football Championship Subdivision. Let me clarify that. They are not just the best team in the state, region or conference; they are the premier program in the FCS.

What makes the Bison so dominant? It’s as simple as this: winning breeds winning.

Since that first taste of the Bison dominance, every year they simply reload and never rebuild. The worst season they’ve had in recent memory was during transition from Division II to the FCS Division. Even when they had they went 3-9 in 2009, it was short lived. Prior to being eligible to participate in the FCS playoffs, during the five-year transition phase, the Bison managed to have two one-loss seasons. One season ended as the ranked team in the FCS and a win over the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers in 2007.

The Bison have a winning program that brings better recruits to campus. The recruits fall in love with the program, the atmosphere and the fans. The program has been so successful that ESPN GameDay has not once, but twice come to downtown Fargo to broadcast their show. The success has even spilled over into other programs. The men’s basketball team made its second appearance in the NCAA tournament, which included an opening round upset win over Oklahoma.

The area has received publicity from the Bison football team, basketball team and even indirectly from FX’s new series “Fargo.” Fargo will even be hosting the NCAA Regional hockey playoffs this spring at Scheels Arena. All positive signs that are pointing in Fargo’s direction.

I’ve read in the past where people joke: “Fargo is a real place?”

Yes, it is a very real place with real people with a very real football program. Just ask a number of the region’s FBS schools. Some student athletes may not want to venture to a small town in the chilly upper Midwest, but the fact is, Fargo isn’t that small and it’s an oasis on the prairie.

This community is growing exponentially with new neighborhoods popping up almost overnight and the most popular and trendy shops and restaurants not far behind. Once student athletes come to Fargo, they love it and are loved by the fans, which creates a perfect match that continues to grow this programs dominance. Some players simply come to the program as walk-ons because they want to be part of this special program. They spend seasons practicing, imitating the current starters’ every move, in hopes of duplicating their success once their number is called.

To get to a point where players are willing to wait multiple seasons to get their chance shows how special this program has become and how the depth of this team continues to grow.