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Schnepf: North Dakot State Bison football hopes its ‘remarkable story’ continues

FRISCO, Texas -- Tom Burnett has been involved with college athletics for more than three decades and he's never witnessed anything like what North Dakota State's football program is doing.If NDSU wins today's FSC national championship game over ...

FRISCO, Texas -- Tom Burnett has been involved with college athletics for more than three decades and he’s never witnessed anything like what North Dakota State’s football program is doing.
If NDSU wins today’s FSC national championship game over Jacksonville State (Ala.), it will mark its fifth straight national title. That’s unheard of. No other college football team has done this - unless you count Yale’s six straight unofficial titles from 1879 to 1884. It was a time when the game was played mostly on the East Coast, there were no forward passes and touchdowns were worth two or four points.
“To do this in Division I football is probably one of the more remarkable things that any of us are ever going to see,” said Burnett, the commissioner of the Southland Conference that is located here in Frisco and has been the host conference for the FCS championship game since it moved here in 2010.
“To see a program do this at such a high level, it’s almost like they are programmed for this regardless of maybe a stumble or two during the regular season. It’s almost a shrug of the shoulders that we expect them to come back. They are a remarkable story.”
David Wrath and Mike Van Diest call it remarkable. They should know. They were involved with college football programs that won four straight national championships.
Wrath is the longtime sports information director at Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill., which won NCAA Division III titles from 1983 to 1986. Van Diest is the longtime head coach for the Carroll College football team in Montana that won NAIA national titles from 2002 to 2005.
“Wow, what we did was really special,” Wrath said. “But at the time, it was week to week. Every week we got better. We didn’t fool anybody. We had good athletes and we let them play.”
Local fans should remember Augustana’s run that culminated in 1986. That’s when Augustana beat Concordia College of Moorhead in the semifinals, 41-7.
“That might have been the best game we ever played,” said Wrath, whose team returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown, returned a punt to set up another touchdown and recovered a fumble to take a quick 21-0 lead. “That team was incredible. We had 42 interceptions that year. Our defense limited opponents to 2.7 yards per play and 0.8 yards per carry.”
That team had a group of seniors who had a 49-0-1 record. During Ronald Reagan’s two terms as president from 1981 and 1988, Augustana nearly went unbeaten. Sounds similar to the NDSU program that has produced a 70-5 record in the past five seasons.
This was also back in the day when the Division III playoffs had only eight teams.
“Our margin of error was really slight in those days,” Wrath said. “We knew we had to pretty much go undefeated during the regular season just to get into the playoffs. Our kids certainly took on the mindset of one game at a time.”
Augustana won its games with a power running game. Sound familiar?
In Helena, Mont., Carroll College made its run at the NAIA level with a lot of players Van Diest figured could play at the FCS level - much like NDSU has players who could very well play at the top level of college football.
“We developed an attitude and an expectation and it wasn’t a cockiness,” Van Diest said. “Like North Dakota State, they don’t act like a bunch of arrogant jerks. It’s just a class program.”
Van Diest is well aware of NDSU’s success. He coached at Wyoming with Brock Spack, whose Illinois State team nearly beat the Bison in last year’s national championship. And he has become good friends with Joe Glenn, whose South Dakota team beat the Bison in the Fargodome this past season.
“I watched them on TV when they played at Montana,” Van Diest said of NDSU’s season-opening loss at Montana back in August. “That’s a tough place to win.”
And it wasn’t easy for Van Diest’s teams to win in the Frontier League.
“I think what we did in the regular season prepared us so much for the playoffs,” Van Diest said. “It’s like every week is a playoff game in our conference.”
Sound familiar? Throughout its amazing run, NDSU has claimed five titles in the Missouri Valley Football Conference - considered by many to be the toughest league at the FCS level.
But, eventually, all good things come to an end ... right?
It did for Augustana in 1987, when it suffered a second-round 38-36 playoff loss to Dayton - which now competes at the FCS level. And it came to a crushing halt in 2006 for Carroll College when it lost in the quarterfinals.
“At some point, it does come to an end,” Van Diest said. “But before it does, everything was just kind of a golden moment. It still seems surreal.”

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