North Dakota State seemed to be blundering by leaping to the NCAA's top division, but success has followed.
North Dakota State was looking for an athletic director to take over after the 2000-01 school year. Joe Chapman, the NDSU president, had a special task for the person that he hired.
"It was part of the interview process that the new AD would have to lead a comprehensive study as to whether we should add hockey, or to move up to Division I," Gene Taylor said. "We brought in a consultant and spent a year studying it."
Taylor had spent 15 years as an assistant in the Naval Academy's athletic department when Chapman selected him from the field of candidates. As it turned out, the choice between adding hockey or moving up to Division I in its existing sports was not all that difficult to make for NDSU.
"Not really," Taylor said. "First off, we were one of only two land grant universities in the country that wasn't Division I in athletics. And, two, those folks up north in Grand Forks [North Dakota] had so much hockey tradition that it was hard to envision being able to compete for years."
North Dakota State announced in the summer of 2002 that it intended to become NCAA Division I in athletics in 2004.
"We were accused of destroying the North Central Conference, which had been a great Division II league," Taylor said. "It was never going to work. We were idiots."
It seemed more preposterous when South Dakota State announced it also was moving to Division I. NDSU is in Fargo, a city of 105,000. SDSU is in Brookings, a city of 22,000.
Fred Oien, now retired, was the SDSU athletic director.
"People were so mad," he said this week. "It still hurts me. I couldn't believe how hard people came at me."
When the announcements of the moves to Division I were made by North Dakota State and South Dakota State, the derision came from everywhere -- including from my favorite Twin Cities sports columnist.
The questions from here were the same as those being asked across the Dakotas:
Why would NDSU and SDSU want to destroy a conference that had served them so well for so long? Even worse, how could these two institutions do anything that would end the in-state rivalries with North Dakota and South Dakota?
North Dakota State had won eight national titles in Division II football -- including five from 1983 through 1990. Surely, there was no one in Bisonland who fantasized over reaching more than mediocrity in Division I-AA football.
"That's exactly the reason when people ask me about our best moments since this started, I include a game we won against Montana at the start of the 2003 season," Taylor said. "We were in our last season in Division II. Montana was rated third in I-AA and we won the game [25-24]. After that, a few people started to say, 'Maybe this has a chance to work.' "
Craig Bohl was in his first year as the Bison coach, after eight seasons as a Nebraska defensive assistant. Since then, NDSU and Bohl have consecutive victories over the Gophers (2007 and 2011), a victory over Kansas (2010) and now a football program ready for its pièce de résistance:
On Saturday, Bohl's team will play Sam Houston State in Frisco, Texas, for the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) national title. This has come after Bison believers packed the Fargodome for playoff games that are said to have brought a level of noise not even duplicated during the best games ever against North Dakota.
Down in Brookings, Oien also had an over-the-top joyous moment this winter, monitoring the Jackrabbits' 92-73 victory in men's basketball at Washington. Nate Wolters from St. Cloud had 34 points as SDSU ended the Huskies' 32-game home winning streak in nonconference games.
"We just drubbed 'em," Oien said. "It was so great."
North Dakota State has had its basketball moments, too: beating then-No. 15 Wisconsin 62-55 at the Kohl Center in January 2006 and staying close with defending national champion Kansas before losing 84-74 in the Bison's D-I NCAA tournament debut in March 2009 at the Metrodome.
There are numerous other notable moments over these eight years in Division I for the Bison and the Jacks, including this: North Dakota and South Dakota both made the transition to NCAA's top division in all sports in 2008.
Taylor was standing on the practice field in Frisco this week, talking on a cellphone, and offered this comfort to the Minneapolis sports columnist:
"Don't feel bad about ripping us when we went to Division I. You were far from alone."
Patrick Reusse can be heard noon-4 weekdays on 1500ESPN. • email@example.com
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