BROOKINGS, S.D. – John Stiegelmeier was one week away from the start of his 32nd season as a South Dakota State football coach. He was an assistant for nine years and will open his 23rd as head coach against the Gophers on Thursday night at TCF Bank Stadium.
The Jackrabbits will receive a $425,000 guarantee for what’s become a traditional early road game against an FBS opponent.
Stiegelmeier was in his corner office at the Dykhouse Student-Athlete Center, which opened in 2010 as a facility to house the Jackrabbits football team. There is an office wall facing the football stadium that is all glass.
“This is proof there are miracles,” said Stiegelmeier, as he took in the view on a gorgeous blue afternoon on the prairie.
The proof was not as strong for the first five seasons after Stiegelmeier and his team moved into this building, since the view featured Coughlin-Alumni Stadium, a facility dating to 1962.
The Jackrabbits played the 2014 and 2015 seasons as a portion of the old stadium was being demolished and, in September 2016, the new Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium — sparkling, with suites and holding close to 20,000 — opened with a price tag of $65 million.
Thus, Stegielmeier’s current view is greater proof of miracles for Coach Stig, a very religious man.
South Dakota State had announced Aug. 15, 2003, that it would move to Division I athletics starting in 2004-05. This put the Jackrabbits on the same time line for Division I as North Dakota State, which had announced its intentions a year earlier.
“Why are those two schools breaking up the North Central, the best Division II conference in the country, to be nobodies in Division I?”
That was a popular sentiment by followers of such things in the Twin Cities — including Minneapolis sports columnists.
“That was a popular sentiment here, too,” Dykhouse said. “We were out in the public, holding meetings and explaining what moving to Division I could mean to the university as a whole, and at first, the reactions of the audiences was 95 percent negative.”
Dykhouse played football at South Dakota State in the late ’70s. He became the CEO of First Premier Bank in Sioux Falls, an institution started by T. Denny Sanford. They have done well.
Many South Dakota entities have benefited from Sanford’s philanthropy, including South Dakota State. The seed money for the football stadium came from Sanford and Dykhouse. The huge fieldhouse, with an indoor practice field surrounded by a 300-yard oval track, opened in 2016 as the Sanford-Jackrabbit Athletic Complex.
None of these things existed when Dykhouse, as a Jacks-loving booster, and then-athletic director Fred Oien were trying to sell their Division I vision to the public.
“The North Central was not where Division II was heading,” Dykhouse said. “Smaller schools with smaller budgets were joining. They wanted to reduce football scholarships [from 36], shrink everything.
“That’s not the potential we saw for this institution, athletically or academically.”
A cost-cutting Division II was not the way North Dakota State saw its future, either. Rivals though they are, SDSU and NDSU were joined at the hip in taking the plunge into Division I.
North Dakota State’s domination in FCS football — seven national titles in eight seasons — gives the impression from a distance that South Dakota State has been left in the wake of the mighty Bison.
“I don’t know if I’d trade the 14 NCAA appearances we’ve had in the Division I women’s and men’s basketball tournaments, compared to their three or four [four], for their football success,” said Justin Sell, SDSU’s athletic director since 2009.
“Especially, when you consider that we’ve had a good run in football, just not good enough to beat them in the playoffs.”
The Jackrabbits ended an eight-game losing streak vs. NDSU with a regular-season win in Fargo in 2016, then slipped up and wound up in Fargo for the playoffs (and a 36-10 loss). They beat NDSU 33-21 in 2017, then lost to James Madison in the semifinals. The Jacks were 10-3 in 2018 with tremendous senior Taryn Christion at quarterback, and two losses were to NDSU — the second in Fargo in the FCS semifinals.
Advice: Don’t feel much sympathy for the Jackrabbits.
They have Aaron Johnston entering his 20th season as the women’s basketball coach, builder of such a program that Notre Dame, Louisville and Oregon, among others, have traveled here to play in front of large crowds at Frost Arena.
“We were fortunate that we were really good when we made the transition to Division I,” Johnston said. “We had won the Division II national title in 2003.
“Shannon Schlagel was a great player for us in Division II, and just as great against Division I teams. Megan Vogel came in from St. Peter [Minn.] and was tremendous. The transition is easier when you’re really good.”
Johnston’s team still was that way last March, upsetting Syracuse on its home floor in the second round and reaching the Sweet 16 for the first time.
The men’s team won a fifth Summit League regular-season title in seven years, went to the NIT, and then coach T.J. Otzelberger left for UNLV. It wasn’t because of a lack of commitment from South Dakota State.
Sell walked a visiting reporter through Frost Arena (circa 1973) and into a players’ lounge with a wall of trophies representing basketball success. There are two doors on the back wall.
One leads to a gigantic practice area and court for women’s basketball, the other to a twin area for men’s basketball. There are first-class locker rooms attached. And SDSU isn’t finished.
Frost Arena is going to be redone completely. Simultaneously, the wrestling program headed by former Gopher Damion Hahn will be moving from an old-time sweatbox to a practice facility intended to make the Jackrabbits a national contender.
“We’ve spent $117 million on new athletic facilities in the last decade and this is going to be another $40 million,” Sell said. “What we say here is, ‘It’s a Big Ten commitment with a mom-and-pop feel.’ ”
To keep that South Dakota feel, women’s equestrian — with 30-plus participants that assist in Title IX requirements — remains a varsity sport.
“Most of the schools we compete against are in the Big 12,” Sell said. “As Fred Oien, my predecessor as AD, said, ‘It’s an expensive sport when you have to feed the equipment.’ ”