Klosterman, ND native and ESPN writer: Bison football should move up to the big-time division
Wyndmere, N.D., native Chuck Klosterman worked for The Forum from 1994 to 1998 and is currently employed by ESPN.
NEW YORK -- Three weeks ago, I watched the North Dakota State-Kansas State football game from my apartment in Brooklyn.
This was mildly amazing for multiple reasons (the biggest being that I was casually watching a regular season Bison game on national television in prime time, a reality I could have never imagined when I used to listen to an ultra-conservative AM broadcaster named Ed Schultz explain the veer option prowess of Jeff Bentrim in 1985). It's a little crazy that NDSU defeated a Big 12 opponent who'd been ranked No. 1 in the nation less than nine months ago.
However, what's even crazier is that I wasn't particularly surprised. This is the fourth year in the row the Bison have defeated a FBS program. It's now irrefutably clear the gap between an elite FCS school like NDSU and any mid-major Division I program is less than razor thin. So when I returned to North Dakota the following week, I expected to face an avalanche of conversations about how NDSU should try to jump to the next level of collegiate athletics.
But that's not what happened.
Instead, I encountered the diametric opposite: Time and again, I found myself talking to people who insisted this notion was an utter impossibility. These arguments, for the most part, were reasonable. But I was still surprised by this. I was surprised more people aren't intrigued by the idea of NDSU attempting to break into Division I, particularly since that goal is so plausible.
And I don't write this as some naïve pro-Bison sycophant. (I attended the University of North Dakota and hated NDSU the whole time I was there.) I write this as someone who closely follows both NCAA college football and the overall welfare of North Dakota. There has never been a better time for NDSU to openly (and aggressively) lobby for this evolution. It is not an unrealistic dream.
What follows is a list of all the arguments I heard against the possibility of NDSU jumping to the next level. Here again, I want to note these sentiments aren't terrible. But they're not airtight, and they're definitely worth reconsidering.
"The Fargodome isn't big enough."
When NDSU traveled to Manhattan, Kan., to face KSU, they played in front of 53,000 people. That dwarfs the Fargodome's typical crowd of 19,000. But there's cache with a diminutive venue. There's an intimacy that creates a different kind of value. If Duke University wanted to build a basketball arena that seated 25,000 people, they could do so in 10 minutes - but the fact that Cameron Indoor Stadium seats less than 10,000 makes it the most meaningful hoop arena in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
If the fear in Fargo is a football stadium with only 19,000 seats will not earn enough revenue to keep the program afloat, raise the ticket prices. I don't see any lack of interest by the community, and the improved D-1 product would be worth more to the consumer. I'm sure some fans already think ticket prices are too high, but those are the same kind of people who complained about ticket prices in the '70s. Inflation exists. Prices go up.
"The Fargodome might be big enough for us, but not for whatever conference NDSU hopes to join."
This might be true. It's possible that a conference like the Mountain West might look at the Fargodome and decide it's simply not a big-time facility. (Although Utah State plays in the Mountain West, and the capacity of their outdoor stadium is a comparable 25,500.) NDSU might need a new venue (or at least the blueprint for a new venue) to make this happen.
But has there ever been a better era to construct a first-class stadium in North Dakota? Has the economy ever been stronger? There's a 3.2 percent unemployment rate! North Dakota's economy posted a growth rate of 13.4 percent in 2012. Texas was second - at a rate of 4.8 (Oregon was third at 3.9). And - yes - I realize that the overall population of a state matters more economically than the percentage of growth. But this is pretty unprecedented. If there was ever a time for North Dakota to make a bold move, the time is now.
"Sure, North Dakota is economically solvent - but it's all oil money from out west. Those people will never support a stadium in Fargo. They hate Fargo on principle."
Is there a prejudice against Fargo in the rest of the state? Totally. But this problem is intangible, and it's something that can be overcome. It's an idea, and ideas can change. NDSU's football program needs to be seen by the rest of state the same way the state views UND's hockey program. It has to be framed as an extension of the region as a whole.
"So that's your brilliant plan for the Bakken oil reserve? To build a big football stadium? That's what you want to give back to the culture?"
I fully understand that criticism. If the citizens of North Dakota decided to take the tax windfall from those oil fields and build a mammoth natural history museum on NP Avenue, no one would support it more than me. But think about utility: Is there anything in the state more galvanizing than its love of sports? Is there any recreational activity more central to the experience of small town life? Outside of the weather, is there any conversation topic that's more universal?
"The F-M TV market means nothing to the NCAA."
Television dictates everything about college football, so this is indeed a hurdle. (The only reason Rutgers and Maryland are joining the Big Ten in 2014 is so that conference can directly tap into New York and Washington, D.C.) But modern college football finds its audience through performance. I will sit in Brooklyn and watch any decent game in the Mid-American Conference or the Sun Belt - I don't need to live in Ohio or Arkansas in order to care. Part of what makes college football so superior to its pro equivalent is the way it's a regional obsession presented in a national context. ESPN's "College GameDay" is in downtown Fargo for an obvious reason: The isolated, frigid otherness of North Dakota is a cultural positive, not a marketing negative.
"There simply aren't enough local blue-chip athletes."
There aren't - so you recruit nationally. Obviously, that won't be easy. But do you think it's "easy" to convince a kid from south Florida to move to Lincoln, Neb.? What about convincing a kid from northern California to attend school in Lubbock, Texas?
"The Bison are peaking right now. But what happens when they go 6-6?"
That's exactly what everyone (including me) said when NDSU left Division II in 2004. It seems like transitory hubris. And you know what? We were all wrong. I'm sure people in Idaho asked the same question when Boise State moved to Division I in 1996. In the years since, the Broncos have won 79 percent of their games. What history has shown is that sustained excellence in football has the potential to translate levels of competition. It's a gamble, but a good gamble. Imagine the long-term payoff if NDSU somehow became the Boise State of the Big 12.
"What about NDSU's lower-profile sports?"
What about them? They've already proven they can compete at men's basketball. Smaller sports can adopt change faster than major ones.
"This kind of move is harder than you think. You can't just say 'I want this to happen.' It's more complicated than that."
I realize it's complicated. It might be impossible. But the first step in any complicated evolution is making the philosophical decision to try. It's not going to occur accidentally. The alignment of college football is currently in a state of disarray - teams are leaving and entering major conferences at a rate that is almost impossible to track. In 10 years, the Southeastern Conference might not even be connected to the NCAA.
But that chaos works to NDSU's advantage. Chaos creates unpredictable opportunities. If I'm the president of NDSU, this is the message I would loudly and endlessly give to the rest of the country: "We are ready to do this. If your conference wants a competitive, stable football program, we will come to you. We will work within your terms. We will play anyone, anywhere. We just want to be involved in the games that matter most." Put the concept on the table and see who wants to engage.
"Why should NDSU even pursue this? Why don't they just stay where they are and dominate FCS forever? What's the upside to playing better teams?"
This, along with the stadium issue, is the argument I heard most often. And though I understand the premise, it's the sentiment I disagree with most. You know, there's a lot of hypocrisy in college athletics, and it's hard to think of an organization more corrupt than the NCAA. The system is bad. But within that bad system, what is still good? I'd argue it's the unadulterated pursuit of excellence. That should always be the goal of any sports program.
And if that's the espoused goal, you must face the best competition you have the potential to defeat. It's not excellence if you only destroy the destroyable. Those wins mean very little. Failing against the best is better than succeeding against inferiors. If you're a sprinter from a Class B town who never loses, you must go to track meets with Class A competition; if none of those kids can beat you, you need to go to track meets in Minneapolis; if none of those kids can beat you, you need to find someplace where they might.
Never self-impose a glass ceiling. This is true in sports, just as it's true in life. You have to go for it. Every other option is the same as a tie.
Klosterman is the best-selling author of eight books, including the recently released "I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined)." In addition to ESPN, he is currently employed by The New York Times. He has also written for SPIN, Esquire, GQ, The Washington Post, The Guardian and The Believer.