BROOKINGS, S.D.—South Dakota State had not won a North Central Conference football championship since 1963. It had been in the NCAA Division II playoffs once, in 1979, and lost 50-7 at Youngstown State.
The Jackrabbits did pop up with a 42-30 upset of North Dakota State in 1993, a victory in which Adam Vinatieri kicked the extra points.
“I recruited Adam,’’ John Stiegelmeier said. “It was so long ago that you hand-delivered letters of intent, and I did that with Adam.’’
Stiegelmeier was an assistant to Mike Daly at the time. Daly resigned after six winning seasons – outstanding by South Dakota State’s standards – and was replaced by Stiegelmeier for the 1997 season.
The Jackrabbits defeated UC-Davis on the road in Stiegelmeier’s first game, then went 3-6 in the North Central: wins vs. St. Cloud State, North Dakota State (a so-so Bison team) and Morningside and losses to North Dakota, Mankato State (the last season before changing to Minnesota State), South Dakota, Nebraska-Omaha, Augustana and Northern Colorado (Division II national champion).
South Dakota State remained in the North Central for another half-dozen seasons, withg non-conference opponents such as Wisconsin-Stout, Winona State and Wayne State.
Three weeks before the 2003 season opener vs. Northwest Missouri, in mid-August, the South Dakota State administration announced that it was joining North Dakota State in a move to Division I athletics (and to what has become known as FCS football).
Fred Oien was the SDSU athletic director. He gathered the coaches for a meeting in advance of the announcement. Stiegelmeier remembers this cheery message:
“The athletic director told us, ‘It’s a statistical fact that when transitions like this take place, half of the head coaches are going to lose their job within five years.''
At that moment, five seasons might have seemed optimistic for Stiegelmeier. In his seven seasons as the head coach, the Jackrabbits were 29-30 in the North Central Conference. And now they would be moving up a level – from 36-scholarship football to the tougher-brand of 63-scholarship competition.
“Stig had to pick up his game,’’ said Dana Dykhouse, a former Jackrabbit and big-money booster. “And he did.’’
Stiegelmeier, 62, will be entering his 23rd season as SDSU’s head coach on Thursday night. Rather than Wisconsin-Stout, as was the case in his second season in 1998, this opener will be against the Gophers at TCF Bank Stadium.
Stiegelmeier’s team faced the Gophers once previously: a 16-13 loss on Nov. 14, 2009, late in the first season at the on-campus stadium. The Jackrabbits also have played at Iowa State, Nebraska (twice), Kansas (twice), Illinois, Missouri and TCU since 2008.
“I was told by other FCS coaches early-on that you had to have the guarantee games on your schedule,’’ Stiegelmeier said. “It’s great for the budgets, and the players enjoy the challenge.’’
The contract for this game vs. the Gophers was signed in 2012 and South Dakota State will receive $425,000. That’s low by today’s standards. Three more scheduled visits to Nebraska and another to Iowa in the 2020s will provide much-higher returns.
The Jackrabbits are 1-8 in the money games against teams from Power Five conferences – the victory coming at Kansas, 41-38, in the 2015 opener. Three years earlier, Kansas defeated the Jacks, 31-17, a game that’s infamous in SDSU’s football lore for Zach Zenner’s 99-yard run on his second carry of the season.
Stiegelmeier has called Zenner the best combination of athlete and scholar that he’s had a chance to coach. The Zenner family from Eagan has a special place here:
Younger brother Sam gave up football and remains a Jacks’ track standout; Abby Zenner graduated as a star swimmer; and younger sister Emily is ready to start a swimming career in Brookings.
Zenner was brought back by the Lions last season and re-established himself as a valuable running back. Vinatieri is 46 and still kicking for the Colts. Dallas Goedert is a tight end with Philadelphia and Brian Witzmann is a veteran offensive lineman with Cleveland. Receiver Jake Wieneke had a stay in Vikings’ camp in 2018 and is now with the Montreal Alouettes.
Stiegelmeier has been around for all of this because, as Dykhouse suggested, he “picked up his game,’’ from so-so in the Division II North Central to contending status in FCS and the rugged Missouri Valley Football Conference.
“One major factor that helped us when we moved to Division I was that the original plan was to phase in the added scholarships from 36 to 63 over a period of seven years,’’ Stiegelmeier said. “The scholarship donations and other revenue came in to a point that it took only three years to get to 63.’’
FBS teams such as the Gophers are allowed to issue 85 scholarships, and they all must be full rides. FCS teams also can have 85 players on scholarships, but at the cost of 63 full scholarships – meaning they give out partials to a significant percentage of a roster.
The Jackrabbits always had relied on all corners of South Dakota, plus southwestern Minnesota, northwest Iowa and Nebraska in D-II recruiting.
Once Stiegelmeier and his expanded staff had a better brand of football to offer to more players, they were able to improve recruiting results in the Twin Cities and make strong connections in the Chicago area, Florida and Arizona.
The Jackrabbits played a pieced-together schedule in 2004 and 2005, were in the wide-ranging Great West Conference in 2006 and 2007, and found this current, outstanding home in the Missouri Valley Football Conference in 2008.
South Dakota State has been in the FCS playoffs for the past seven seasons. They have reached the semifinals two years in a row, losing to James Madison in 2017 and North Dakota State in 2018.
They have an 8-7 playoff record since 2012 – and 0-4 of that is against North Dakota State. All those games have been played in Fargo due to seeding.
The Jackrabbits had the upper hand in 2016 after winning in the regular season at NDSU, then lost at Illinois State and wound up back in Fargo for the playoffs (and a 36-10 loss).
Stiegelmeier is big on community service for his players, as is his Gophers’ opponent, P.J. Fleck, on Thursday, although “Coach Stig’’ is a much more spoft-spoken promoter of his program.
I was in his office for 30-some minutes last week and he’s an interesting man. One guess on a key to his ability to turn the Jackrabbits’ mediocrity in Division II into success in FCS:
He’s a devoted reader of people.
I know this: Coach Stig was reading his visitor more thoroughly than I was reading him.
I could envision him making a recruiting visit, taking in everything in a quiet manner, and leaving with an accurate view as to whether this would be an athlete to have a solid four or five-year run on South Dakota’s eastern prairie.