For Craig Bohl, the eureka moment came when he looked into the Fargodome crowd during the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs. The North Dakota State coach had become accustomed to seeing students standing up at Bison football games, but Bohl noticed that legions of older fans -- who used to yell at the young ones to sit down -- were now leaping to their feet alongside them.
Grant Olson experienced a similar feeling when the sophomore linebacker saw a huge display of Bison football gear at a sporting goods store, then greeted the excited Christmas shoppers who recognized him. Cornerback Marcus Williams felt it, too, when he realized during a game that he couldn't hear over the roar of the crowd.
Thousands of those frenzied fans will be in Frisco, Texas, north of Dallas, on Saturday to watch the fourth-ranked Bison play No. 1 Sam Houston State in their first appearance in the NCAA's FCS title game. Thousands more will wish they were at FC Dallas Stadium, where all 20,086 tickets were snapped up in three days.
The school received 8,000 requests for the 4,600 tickets it was allotted. NCAA officials said they were shocked by the demand, but Bohl -- who estimated NDSU could have sold more than 10,000 -- was not. A 13-1 record, a share of the Missouri Valley Conference championship and three playoff victories on their home field have driven interest in the Bison ever higher as they pursue the biggest prize of their rich football history.
"We set a goal to win a national championship, and it was a realistic goal," said Bohl, a finalist for the Eddie Robinson Award as FCS coach of the year. "The atmosphere at our games has been truly electric. Even those 70-year-old grandpas are standing up. This is a great thing for our football program and our institution. It's January, and we're still talking about NDSU football."
Olson, a Plymouth native who played at Wayzata High School, said it felt strange to have football practice over the Christmas break. But this is what he and his teammates have been aiming for since December 2010, when the Bison lost to top-ranked Eastern Washington in overtime in the FCS quarterfinals.
NDSU won eight national championships between 1965 and 1990. In 2004, the school moved from Division II to Division I FCS (then Division I-AA), and it became eligible for postseason play in 2008. Though the Bison made history with their first FCS playoff appearance last season, they found no satisfaction in a season that ended with a 38-31 defeat to the eventual champion.
That drove the players to push themselves harder, beginning in the offseason. NDSU won its first nine games -- including a 37-24 victory over the Gophers at TCF Bank Stadium -- and rose to the No. 1 ranking for two weeks until a 27-24 loss to Youngstown State on Nov. 12. In three playoff games, the Bison have outscored opponents 85-21, and they are 6-0 against ranked teams after crushing Georgia Southern 35-7 in the semifinals Dec. 17.
"After the Eastern Washington game, every single person looked at themselves and said, 'If I had made one more play or done one thing differently, we could have beaten them,'" Olson said. "We got so close last year that we knew a little bit extra would get us there. Because we'd been there, everyone knew what it took to win."
NDSU's quick success in the FCS ranks has begun drawing some players from beyond its traditional recruiting territory. The majority still come from Minnesota (36 this season) and North Dakota (19), but the Bison have four players from Arizona, three from Texas and two from California. Several of their best skill players were recruited from outside the usual area, including top running backs Sam Ojuri (suburban Chicago) and DJ McNorton (suburban Houston) and leading receiver Warren Holloway (Houston).
The Texans are particularly excited about playing in their home state against Sam Houston State. The undefeated Bearkats lead the FCS in scoring with 39.1 points per game, with a rushing offense powered by running back Tim Flanders. The sophomore ran for a school-record 287 yards in a semifinal victory over Montana and has 22 TDs this season.
The Bison counter with the top scoring defense in the FCS (13.2 points per game). Their superb secondary is anchored by Williams, a Hopkins graduate who has seven interceptions this season, and Colten Heagle, who returned from an injury to record 15 tackles in the semifinals against Georgia Southern.
Though the Bison will miss the noisy Fargodome -- where they averaged 18,143 fans this season, 10th-best in the FCS -- several thousand backers followed them south. The rest will be with them in spirit, something the players already feel.
"A lot of people and former players are telling us how proud they are," Williams said. "We're honored to be here. We want to win this not only for us, but for all those guys and the city of Fargo."