Fargo Is Football Central, Don’tcha Know?

North Dakota State has built the greatest college football dynasty of the 21st century. Don’t believe it? Then transport yourself across the soybean fields to the place where they tailgate harder than most teams play, and win more than any team in the land


October 3, 2016

Bleacher Report

The thrill of anticipation hung in the morning air like some unseen cosmic force. By 9 a.m. Saturday, the line was out the door at Sandy’s Donuts and Coffee Shop on Broadway Street in downtown Fargo, everyone dressed in gold and green, including a golden retriever and a toy poodle swaddled in sweaters of the North Dakota State Bison football dynasty.  

Carson Wentz, the rookie quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles who played on four national championship teams with the Bison, walked among the 10,000 tailgaters outside the Fargodome. A native of Bismarck, Wentz spent his off weekend hunting in the Dakota wilds—he bagged a buck with a bow and arrow. And on homecoming Saturday, as he mingled with fans before the Illinois State game, he was treated like a conquering hero.

“Carson is just one of us who is doing amazing things,” said Kylie Pulczinski, a 30-year-old engineer who grew up in Greenbush, Minnesota, but is a lifelong Bison fanatic. “They made a big deal in Philadelphia that he shot a deer. We’re like, ‘Doesn’t everybody shoot deer?’”

Fans at Soldier Field hold up a "Bison Pride" sign during an NFL football game between the Chicago Bears and Philadelphia Eagles in which former North Dakota State quarterback Carson Wentz led the Eagles to a 29-14 win Monday, September 19, 2016. (AP Images)

By 10 a.m., under a blue sky and with the temperature in the 60s, the parking lots were perfumed with the smell of deer sausage and bison burgers. The cold beer never ran dry.

“I grew up a North Dakota State fan because there is a mystique here that is hard to define,” said Sean Fredricks, who played linebacker for the Bison from 1993 to ’97, as he stood close to several former players under a tent in the parking lot. “I was recruited by Minnesota and Wyoming, but I wanted to come here because we just play physical football. We don’t follow the national trends and play the spread; we run it and we stop the run. It doesn’t change and it’s not complicated. Our style is smashmouth like Alabama’s and our fans are like Nebraska’s. They come from all over the state.”

It is not a stretch to say the Bison are a point of pride to every North Dakotan, not just to the 14,500 undergrads here at North Dakota State. There are no other major college teams—let alone powerhouses—within state borders, outside of the University of North Dakota's men's hockey team. The closest professional franchises are in Minneapolis, which is a three-and-a-half-hour drive and seemingly a world away from Fargo, the most magical new capital of the college football universe.

This is what magic looks like: Since 2011, North Dakota State has won five straight national titles at the FCS level and compiled a record of 75-5. Not even Nick Saban and Alabama can match the success of the Bison: The Tide have only won 67 games and three FBS national titles over this same span.

"It doesn’t change and it’s not complicated. Our style is smashmouth like Alabama’s and our fans are like Nebraska’s."

— Sean Fredricks, former Bison LB, at tailgate

And it’s not as if North Dakota State has simply gorged on prairie-land cupcakes. Since 2010, the Bison—who can only offer 63 full scholarships instead of the 85 free rides that FBS schools can—have beaten Kansas (6-3), Minnesota (37-24), Colorado State (22-7), Kansas State (24-21), Iowa State (34-14) and most recently Iowa (23-21) on September 17.

Trailing 14-7 at halftime last month in Iowa City, the Bison dominated the then-No. 11 Hawkeyes in the second half in front of 70,000 at Kinnick Stadium. They won when kicker Cam Pederson drilled a 37-yard field goal on the last play of the game. The win was not a fluke. And—let’s be honest—it wasn’t even an upset.

“That game unfolded like every other North Dakota State game,” said Jeff Culhane, the play-by-play announcer of the Bison Radio Network. “They just wore Iowa down and beat the Hawkeyes at their own game. It was the biggest crowd the Bison had ever played in front of and they just took care of business as usual. There were 10,000 Bison fans there, and by the end of the game, they just kind of overtook the stadium with the ‘Let’s Go Bison’ chant.”

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The North Dakota State Bison gather at a game against the Iowa Hawkeyes at Kinnick Stadium. North Dakota State later won 23-21. (USA Today Sports Images)

Immediately after the final kick sailed through the uprights, the North Dakota State players stormed the field. But after just a minute of celebration near the point where Pederson had made the field goal, the players sprinted to the opposite end of the field to slap the hands of the North Dakota State fans. Even North Dakota State coach Chris Klieman cut short his on-field postgame interview and ran like his shoes were on fire to join the party with the green-and-gold faithful.

“People think of the movie Fargo when you tell them about living here. They think of the accents and the wood chipper, but that’s not Fargo at all,” said Culhane. “[Country singer] Blake Shelton was just here. There are lakes everywhere. But the best entertainment are the football games. ESPN College GameDay has been here twice. I’ve worked in Lincoln, Nebraska, and Morgantown, West Virginia, and these fans in North Dakota are as passionate as any.”

“What makes this whole thing go are the fans,” said Pat Simmers, a senior associate athletic director who played offensive line for the Bison in the 1970s. “We pride ourselves on our North Dakota work ethic and toughness, and our fans are the same way. We’ve only had three losing seasons in 53 years and we’ve won 13 national championships since 1965. Looks like we’re doing something right.”

Kyle Gradin certainly would agree. A 61-year-old farmer who lives in Washburn, North Dakota—250 miles from Fargo, population 1,300—Gradin spends most fall Saturday afternoons in his red combine on his family’s 100-acre soybean field. Dressed in steel-toed work boots and a heavy work shirt with a pack of Basic Lights in the breast pocket, he’ll tune the combine’s AM radio dial to the Bison Radio Network as kickoff nears. Then, snacking on corn nuts and slowly moving across the dusty soybean field, he’ll be transported away by the rise and fall of the Bison crowd noise crackling out of his radio.

“The Bison make us so proud to be North Dakotans,” said Gradin. “On Saturdays, the world kind of stops in the state for football.”

✦ ✦ ✦

The magical Saturdays begin on Friday nights for Klieman, the head coach of one of the greatest college football dynasties of the 21st century. He climbs into his black Cadillac and steers down 17th Avenue, past the John Deere office building and a cluster of green-and-gold-clad fans. Standing in a hard wind that rarely stops blowing in Fargo, where the moonscape land is as flat as an ironing board, the fans swig out of a plastic bottle containing liquid fire they call apple pie—Everclear, apple cider and cinnamon. It’s the kind of stuff that warms the body through frozen Fargo winters, which often last from October to April.  

The coach continues westward on 17th until, in the Dakota darkness, he sees them: hundreds of RVs from all across the high plains stretched out in a line for more than a mile, waiting for the parking lot gates to open at the Fargodome.

Kickoff for his team, top-ranked in the FCS, is still 30 hours away. Yet Bison fans from North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska and even Manitoba, Canada, were already on campus, their RV low beams forming a river of lights.

"People think of the movie 'Fargo' when you tell them about living here. They think of the accents and the wood chipper...but the best entertainment are the football games."

— Jeff Culhane, broadcaster

“Nothing gets me more fired up than seeing all the RVs on Friday nights,” said Klieman. “It could be 10 degrees below zero out there, and that line will still be there. I get goose bumps every time.”

Last Friday night, the seventh RV in line belonged to Jerry Schatzke, a 47-year-old plumber from Fargo. He arrived at just past noon. “The people of this state see ourselves in the Bison team—they don’t quit, they’re tough and they just keep fighting while keeping their mouths shut,” Schatzke said. “That’s how we all are in North Dakota.”

“We also tailgate harder than most teams play,” added John Kahne, a 38-year-old sales rep from Fargo who was fifth in line.

The stories of the Bison fans’ collective drinking ability are legendary in Fargo. The FCS national championship game is held in Frisco, Texas, which has become something of a second home to Bison Nation. On the eve of the January 2012 FCS national title game, NDSU officials held a pep rally at the Marriott at Legacy Town Center in Plano, Texas, not far from the site of the final between NDSU and Sam Houston State.

Simmers, the associate athletic director, called the hotel before the rally. “You can’t have enough beer,” he told a Marriott employee. “You don’t understand us. Please, you can’t have enough.”

Some 5,000 fans showed up. By 9 p.m., the bar ran out. When a beer truck arrived with reinforcements, Bison fans bought cases of Bud Light straight off the truck. The bar ran dry again at 11. Another truck soon arrived and the party spilled outside onto the parking lot, lasting into the small hours of the morning.

The Plano police were astonished; North Dakota State fans were the nicest darn drinkers they’d ever seen. They were so polite and well-behaved—their Midwestern friendliness was as real as the small mountain range of empties rising from the garbage cans—that the extra officers on hand for the event left the rally early. This dynasty doesn’t need police protection.

“We later got a letter of apology from the hotel,” Simmers recalled. “They said they just didn’t understand.”

✦ ✦ ✦

Fans celebrate with members of the North Dakota State Bison after the upset over the Iowa Hawkeyes September 17, 2016 at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa. (Getty Images)

Klieman has a straightforward approach to recruiting that is in sync with the strong work ethic of North Dakotans. “We want players who love the grind,” said the coach, who is 32-3 in his three seasons at NDSU. He targets kids in the upper-Midwestern states who in many cases are FBS prospects. For this year’s graduating high school seniors, he’s already secured commitments from a half-dozen players who attracted interest from FBS schools such as Wyoming and Northwestern. Winning all the time, it turns out, is seductive to 17- and 18-year-olds.  

One current player who embodies that allure is senior defensive end Brad Ambrosius. A native of De Pere, Wisconsin, located a few miles outside of Green Bay, Ambrosius was recruited by Air Force, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Northwestern. But soon after he stepped onto the snow-covered North Dakota State campus for his recruiting visit in December 2012—it was 15 degrees below zero outside, making his breath come out of his mouth in white puffs—he fell hard for the school. Why?

“Because this is a mini-Green Bay,” said Ambrosius, who had 9.5 tackles for loss last season. “The fans know everything about you and it’s like they’re all your best friends, telling you hello at the grocery store and other places. There is just no other school in the country like this.”

The mini-Packers continued to churn along with ruthless efficiency on Saturday against Illinois State, a team that beat Northwestern 9-7 in early September. In front of 18,907 at the Fargodome,  sophomore quarterback Easton Stick threw for 256 yards and three touchdowns as the Bison dismissed the Redbirds 31-10. On Sunday, NDSU received 46 votes and finished 29th in the AP poll, the fourth straight week the Bison narrowly missed cracking the national Top 25 for the first time in history.

“We are not satisfied, not by a long stretch,” Klieman said. “We’re not ready for this run to end.”

Neither are the fans who were still in the parking lot after Saturday’s win improved the Bison to 4-0. They toasted their team’s latest triumph and reveled in their own little slice of college football paradise.

“I'm a regular hard-working guy just like most of the North Dakota State fans,” Kyle Gradin said last Thursday night at a Fargo watering hole. “And when the team does something special—and they've done it over and over—well, it makes us all feel special here.”

He paused, taking a long draw on his cigarette.

In a cloud of smoke, he wondered aloud, “Isn't that what football should really be all about?”

Correction: The original version of this story reported that Carson Wentz shot a deer with a crossbow. The weapon he used was a bow and arrow. The original version also did not acknowledge that the University of North Dakota men's hockey team, which won the NCAA title in 2016 and has attendance figures approaching that of some NHL teams, qualifies as a major college team in the area.

Lars Anderson is a senior writer at B/R Mag. A 20-year veteran of Sports Illustrated, Anderson is the New York Times best-selling author of seven books, including The Mannings, The Storm and the Tide, and Carlisle vs. Army. Anderson, also an instructor of journalism at the University of Alabama, lives in Birmingham, Alabama, with his wife, April, and their son, Lincoln. Follow him on Twitter: @LarsAnderson71

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