Coping with Success: Conference Realignment and The North Dakota State Bison, Part Three

This is Part 3 of a multipart series. For part one please click here and for part two here. Or just scroll down. I’m not a very prolific writer soooo they’re pretty easy to find.

Going it Alone?

Dangerous to go alone

So we’ve made the case pretty solidly that NDSU itself can succeed on the highest level. However, I think its important to note that a legitimate way to contend with the fear that NDSU can’t make it alone is to point out that they likely wouldn’t have to. As they did with the jump from D-II, NDSU would likely move up with at least one partner school. Most likely this would be the South Dakota State Jackrabbits who stepped in to fill the gap after the University of North Dakota failed abysmally at cooperating with NDSU.

An aside: There is a great deal of pettiness and bitterness inherent in the NDSU – UND rivalry. The pettiness comes entirely from the UND side. When NDSU was planning to make the DI jump in the first place, they reached out to UND as a natural companion to make the jump with, primarily for travel purposes. (the two schools are only an hour apart so visiting schools could potentially save money traveling in sports like volleyball for instance by playing them back to back in a weekend). UND unequivocally turned them down out of sheer small mindedness. The two schools had already cancelled playing each other in football years earlier on UND’s initiative, and the [name removed due to NCAA stipulations] didn’t put this mentality aside to make a positive move for their athletic department. As such NDSU partnered with South Dakota State in their initial jump up, and even though UND eventually followed suit, the “partnership” likely will not (and probably should not) be revitalized at this time. NDSU simply does not need UND at this point. UND can go ahead and keep their air of superiority because of their hockey team. If NDSU went full D1 that point would be moot anyway. Now back to your regularly scheduled article.

UND aside, NDSU has a myriad of potential partners to choose form if considering a jump from 1-AA to 1-A. First and foremost is obviously SDSU. They have been just as competitive (although not dominant) as NDSU on the current level, and there is no reason to believe they too could not survive at the top level. Even this year where SDSU is clearly having a down year in football, they were still ranked top 5 in FCS up until NDSU dominated them, and are still at top 25 team at the 1-AA level sitting at #20. And while their Sagarin rating has taken a beating recently, falling all the way to #120, they’re still a competitive program, and with the added value they bring to the table in basketball, they’re an extremely strong partner for NDSU to continue to pair with. Moreover, bringing them along for the ride would decrease any cultural or geographic qualms inherent in an NDSU move up (due to the Dakota’s isolation). Moving the 2 Dakotas as a package deal is infinitely more appealing and tenable than taking only the 1 outpost Dakota school of the North.

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However, NDSU has other possible partners too. Perhaps most readily apparent are the two Montana schools. Both are top 25 1-AA programs (Montana State #5 and Montana #13) and both have strong Sagarin resumes each landing in the top 100 (Montana State #98 and Montana #91) Geographically they would definitely fit for fans from both schools to travel between sites, and culturally there is a lot of overlap between the Dakota’s and the Big Sky state, so NDSU could easily pair with either one of them or even form a 4 team super back to entice any conference which happens to have been recently poached by DI-A conference realignment poaching.

However, this prime grouping of talent at the 1-AA level and in a tight geographic package brings to light a new question. Rather than catering to a currently established conference, could NDSU simply spearhead a conference of its own, stacked with the premier talent of the 1-AA ranks?

The Hinterland Conference is Born

Admittedly I have no idea how difficult it would be to create a conference form scratch and jump multiple schools up a level simultaneously. I can only imagine it would be incredibly difficult. However, the option does seem enticing when you break it down. First, we’ll need a name and as my sub-header has probably elucidated for you I got this shit on lock. The linchpin around which the core of our conference will form is North Dakota. The most hinterland of all the frozen hinterlands. Moreover, these schools will all come form the fringes of the American sports consciousness so it only seems right to pick a name with requisite ‘David vs. Goliath’ undertones.

We’ll start with the core we’ve already established: NDSU is the lynchpin and brings SDSU with them. The two Montana schools join up and we have a solid geographic, cultural, and competitive core to work with. Now we just need to fill the rank and file to get a real conference. We’ll shoot for between 10 and 12 member schools and we’ll primarily be pilfering the Missouri Valley Conference (NDSU’s current conference) and the Big Sky Conference (NDSU’s former 1-AA conference)

sagarin missouri valley

big sky sagarin for montana schools

First we’ll start at the top of Sagarin and the 1-AA coaches pole ranks. My first choice would be the Eastern Washington University.

eastern-washington-university

They joined NDSU this year as one of the many FCS schools to upset their FBS counterparts, except they did it against a team ranked #25 in the country at the time. And currently Sagarin has them at a respectable #78 in the nation, while the coaches have them at #4 in 1-AA. They’re not as close to the Dakota schools as the Montana schools but its certainly not unreasonably to expect NDSU fans to travel to Cheney, WA. Plus they have this sweet red field that we could compare to Boise.

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Next I think we should turn our attention back to NDSU’s own conference, and a team that has been the Bison’s bane since it joined DI-AA, the University of Northern Iowa.

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This school plays NDSU hard every time they match up, and they are a legitimate football program that I personally think could compete at the next level. Sagarin (#85) agrees, and although they’ve fallen out of the coaches pole they were a top 5 team at one point this year so they get the nod to come on down. Moreover, we’ve already talked about how important Iowa ties could be for NDSU due to the geographical proximity and cultural similarities and they keep the core group of schools for our new conference rather compact so they seem like a must. And hey, they also bring 6 NCAA tournament appearances and one amazing upset to the table in basketball so this is clearly a school NDSU would like to partner with moving forward.

The next member pushes the geographic boundaries further to the limit, but they’re still a must for several reasons.

YSU_Penguins

Heck yes! First silly mascot of the article!!! Youngstown State is a top notch football program, they open up the Ohio market for future expansion (again, we’re trying to be a new Big 10 Jr. to usurp the MAC if they rudely spurn our advances right?) Again, tying back a little bit to our Big 12 argument, Youngstown state could indirectly ensure the long term viability of the conference by lending recruiting support. Ohio is probably the 4th strongest state for football recruiting behind Texas, Florida, and California so adding a connection to such a deep talent pool could benefit every school in the conference. Ohio kids might be more willing to play football in North Dakota or Montana if they knew they could return home to Ohio for 2 games during their college career and play in front of their friends and family. Plus, Youngstown is no slouch of a football program themselves sitting at #10 in the Coaches Poll and #94 for Sagarin.

Next, in order to bridge the gap from Ohio back to the Dakota’s we’d probably need to include one of the Illinois directional schools. The best candidate is probably Eastern Illinois because they currently have the strongest program of the 4 excluding Northern Illinois who have already gone 1-A.

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The panthers are currently #2 in the coaches pole only behind NDSU and #55 in Sagarin’s metrics (second highest 1-AA team behind only NDSU) making them the 2nd best football program in the state of Illinois (surprisingly behind Northern Illinois at 51 rather than the Illini all the way down at 79… way to go Big 10!) This opens up the state of Illinois to our new island of misfit toys, and in now way precludes future expansion into the state as Southern, Western, Illinois State, and Northern for that matter, would be welcome to join now or in the future.

Now our league is sitting at a healthy 8 members. You really need 10 to be a healthy and legitimate conference, and 12 allows you to split into divisions and hold a conference title game so 12 might be the number we shoot for. So while we’ve established a solid competitive and geographically united upper echelon, we have some choices for filling out the bottom of our league.

It might be best that Southern Illinois join the party right now as they’re hanging around the top 100 for Sagarin checking in at #101 and could provide rivalry fodder for the panthers and penguins. As mentioned, Illinois State (Sagarin 151) and Western Illinois (Sagarin 166) could also be options, but they might drag the reputation of the league down.

The University of South Dakota but be a nice addition for continuity’s sake but they’re struggling too at 161 for Sagarin.

Another important angle would be to strengthen the Western flank and help out Eastern Washington by expanding into Idaho. The Idaho Vandals, a WAC refugee about to drop back down to 1-AA as a result of the death fo the WAC could be an interesting target because we could throw them a life raft and keep them afloat in 1-A. They are however deeeeefinitely struggling this year hanging out at Sagarin 169. We could also look into their fellow WAC victims New Mexico State (also struggling) but they would really throw off the geography too much and be too stranded to likely thrive in our conference so they remain a second tier choice. To continue on the Idaho route we could also look to add Idaho State (Sagarin 201) just to give Idaho and E. Washington some more opportunities but that would easily be the weakest team in the conference.

However, very few conferences really remain solid top to bottom. Even the SEC juggernaut is routinely criticized for benefiting from the weakness of their basement dwellers. The conference would either need to lure away a current 1-A school or two or simply cope with adding a lesser team. My personal choice would be to go with the 2 Idaho schools (to justify the E. Washington entry) to get us to 10. Then add the admittedly unprepared University of South Dakota to shore up and justify the Dakota center, and then Southern Illinois simply because they are currently the strongest of the remaining Illinois schools (the others could be added later) and shore up the Eastern flank. That would put us at 12 schools, 8 of whom would be in the top 100. This is a conference that could easily grow together and become a viable competitor with conferences like the MAC, Conference USA, and Sun Belt, and would probably be better than them more often than not.

While this option is obviously the farthest along the pipe dream line, it remains in question whether any of NDSU’s options for moving up are fully viable (whether this is because of leadership immobility or external circumstances),The fact remains, however, that there are options and logical solutions for an NDSU program willing to make the leap and jump up to 1-A. The only matter is an infrastructure and leadership willing to capitalize on current success and take a leap of faith into greener pastures, rather than playing it safe and holding firm to the status quo. NDSU can, and should move up now. And if they don’t act now they may lose the greatest leverage they will EVERY have toward moving up. There are a million options out there and the only questions is whether the decision to do so is right.

I know what I believe, but maybe I haven’t convinced anyone else. In any event, I’d like to leave you with a short article written by an idol of mine Chuck Klosterman earlier this football season that I stumbled upon while writing my own leviathan response to this issue. He makes a lot of the points I make only more succinct and better, but he also adds a lot of other important angles, trying to counter the primary arguments against NDSU moving up. (the argument I found most intriguing was were he references the current economic boom happening in ND due to the oil boom in the western half of the state).

NDSU has a chance to do something special for the people of North Dakota in a state that constantly exists on the margins of American society. In the long term something like this could really put North Dakota on the map nationwide and make them exist in the national consciousness. (and perhaps more importantly we could finally one up the Mount Rushmore having bastards in South Dakota!) I just hope the leadership realizes that and does right by the fans and the people of North Dakota.

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Coping with Success: Conference Realignment and the North Dakota State Bison, Part Two

This is Part 2 of a multipart series. For part one please click here. Or just scroll down. I’m not a very prolific writer soooo they’re pretty easy to find.

Our Little Baby is All Growns Up:

We’ve already talked about why now is the moment NDSU needs to act in terms of making the leap to bigger and better pastures. But I want to slow down for a second and explain just how drastically NDSU Football has outgrown its surroundings.

First off, lets start with the quick and easy. NDSU is the best team in NCAA Division 1-AA football right now. Nobody denies that. (26/26 on first place votes).

11113 d1aa rankings

Theres no question that NDSU is at the top of the 1-AA ranks, but a simple coaches poll like this doesn’t tell us just how dominant NDSU is and just how overmatched their competition is. For that we need to get a little bit stat nerdy. Enter the Sagarin metrics. For those of you who don’t know, Jeff Sagarin is the Michelangelo of college football ranking metrics. He’s the man when it comes to computer college football rankings and helps work on the BCS’s own computer ranking systems (though his own system is slightly different, and I believe better. Although its still flawed in small ways, but nothing is perfect.) Lucky for us Sagarin ranks all D1 football programs together whether they’re 1-AA or 1-A so we can get some especially interesting comparisons. So let’s take a look at what Jeff has to say about NDSU 8 games into their attempted 3-peat. Don’t worry… we don’t need to scroll down because NDSU is not only in the top 50, they’re #37 overall. (these pictures are gonna be a little small so please click on them to get the full size view)

Sagarin NDSU #37

Not only is NDSU 18 spots ahead of the next closest 1-AA competition (Eastern Illinois #55) these numbers put them above a staggering number of quality 1-A programs. For one thing, it puts them above traditional Mid Major Football darling Boise State(#38). It puts them ahead of both an undefeated Northern Illinois (#51) team and undefeated Fresno State(#52) (both likely to be this years BCS party crashers as long as they finish out their slate undefeated). But it also puts them ahead of some MAJOR traditional powers. Tennessee, admittedly down from their traditional success but still an elite SEC program is ranked #44. They’re ahead of an Iowa team (#42) that almost beat undefeated Ohio State last weekend. Ahead of big brother Minnesota (#59) and even Craig Bohl’s alma mater (and the school that fired him, sending him to NDSU) Nebraska (#46). NDSU is not just good, they’re good no matter who you compare them to. This NDSU team could hop into any D1-A program this year and compete, even a BCS conference. I’m not saying they’re run the table there, but this team would have no problem winning 6 games at the 1-A level this year and making a bowl game. There simply is no gap between NDSU and the upper division.

Where to Captain?

Set a course for the stars Lieutenant…

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So where should NDSU look to land if they make the jump? Where is the right fit for the Lord of the Plains, the Mighty Buffalo? After all, when we left off yesterday we had determined it would take a perfect fit to get the “visionaries” in NDSU’s Athletic Department to agree to a move, even in the face of insurmountable evidence. Well, we need to consider a few factors, primarily geography (and the ability of fans to travel to road games) and competitive balance within the division (we’ll have our new best friend for life Jeff help us out with that). So I’ve pulled together a few conferences currently in existence that I think would represent the best fit for NDSU athletics. (again, football is going to be the primary deciding factor in these moves supplemented minimally by basketball, because as stated before conference realignment is all about football money). And we’ll move from the most plausible to the least plausible.

The Big 10

This would be a dream scenario for the Bison. Fan’s in Fargo primarily consider themselves part of the Big 10 umbrella (even more so now that Nebraska has moved from the Big 12 to the Big 10) so for the fan’s its a natural fit. Geographically, you could have instant COMPETITIVE rivalries with the Golden Gophers (aka traditional whipping post of NDSU football with the only blip being a lucky last second come behind victory in 2006 when NDSU was still fielding a fully DII roster) Iowa, and Wisconsin. And Nebraska really isn’t that far either considering how well NDSU fans traveled all the way to Manhatten Kansas this year. And NDSU already plays teams on a yearly basis from Illinois and Ohio. So the fit is there in terms of fan mentality and regional identity. Its more or less PERFECT geographically. Moreover, the style of play for NDSU would fit the slower paced, power running and mauling defense that is traditionally the Big 10’s MO. They would certainly make a hell of a lot more sense than who the Big 10 is ACTUALLY adding next year in Rutgers and Maryland. Those school could not POSSIBLY be further from the Big 10’s traditional fanbase, and even fans of those schools don’t seem to fully embrace the move. In all the x factors this really is a match made in Heaven for NDSU, and really should be for the Big Ten as well. Let’s take a at the numbers and see how NDSU would fit in this year.

Big 10 Sagarin 103113

We’ll throw NDSU into the “Legends” division, because as we’ve already stated that is their geographic ideal situation and its the less competitive division, meaning we could expect a quicker rebound from NDSU after moving up. As it currently stands NDSU would be the 3rd best team in the “Legends” falling only behind Michigan State (#19) and Michigan (#35) which is definitely understandable. But its way closer than you would think. NDSU and traditional power Michigan are neck and neck. I don’t think NDSU could consistently beat Big Blue, but if they played 10 times this year on a TRULY neutral site I’d say NDSU could win 3 of them. Michigan is down and NDSU is at an apex. That will change over time but RIGHT NOW NDSU could compete at the top of that division. Moreover, even when we look at the conference as a whole, NDSU would rank 5th overall in the 13 team league (12 actual members plus NDSU would make 13).

But let’s also take a look at Rutgers and Maryland once more, the two schools the Big Ten is nonsensically adding next year. Rutgers has an abysmal ranking (by NDSU’s standards) of #72 overall and Maryland, even after a quick start and a top 25 ranking this year is all the way down at #63. Both a far cry from NDSU’s #37. So had the Big 10 chosen to look in its own backyard and added NDSU, not only would they have found an expansion team which fit their mores geographically, culturally, and stylistically, THEY WOULD ALSO HAVE BEEN ADDING A BETTER TEAM!!!

Now, obviously the Big 10 added those two schools for financial reasons, not necessarily football reasons (they wanted access to both the Washington DC and New York City TV markets for the Big 10 network) and NDSU brings much less to the table economically, but as a pure football decision, NDSU and the Big 10 would have been a match made in Heaven.

The Big 12

But if not the Big 10, there is another nearby BCS conference that would make sense for the Bison. The Big 12 got brutally raided in the conference realignment shakeup losing Texas A&M and Missouri to the SEC, Nebraska to the Big 10, Colorado to the PAC-12, and almost losing Texas either to the PAC-12 or to independence (which would surely have sunk the conference a la the old Big East / current AAC). However, they didn’t go under (thanks entirely to Texas staying) and pulled the traditional Dutchman in the Dike by adding the West Virginia Mountaineers. But let’s take a little look and see if NDSU could have been a better fit.

big 12 sagarin ndsu

First off, the team the Big 12 tried to stop the bleeding with, West Virginia, makes absolutely no sense geographically. They are off on an island and have NOTHING to do with the Big 12 culturally (Texas football dominance), but do have ties stylistically (Dana Holgorsen plays an undeniably Big 12 style game with his wide open spread offense, and he also came with Big 12 ties. WVU also started the season last year highly ranked, making them look like a strong addition to shore up the lines last year). However, that addition and the geographic misfit look a lot worse this year while WVU is hanging out at a spectacular #69 ranking, and outside of wrecking Oklahoma State’s season they might as well have not played at all this season. NDSU, on the other hand, would fare a little better standing at #37 which would put them as the 7th best team in the ten member, divisionless Big 12. However, the Big 12’s numbers may be inflated. They have taken a lot of flak in the past for backloading their schedules so that they can raise their rankings early in the year and improve the chances one of their members makes it to a title game. Moreover, #32 overall is Kansas State, a team NDSU has already beaten this year and Texas Tech is certainly looking a lot more suspect after their loss last weekend. So it isn’t out of the question that NDSU could be the 5th best team in the Big 12 at least this year (surely getting blown out by Baylor, beaten down by Texas, and losing to the two Oklahoma schools). So NDSU could at least be competitive in the Big 12.

kstatenoooThis kid is well aware the NDSU could compete in the Big 12.

Furthermore, they’ve made a habit of playing Big 12 teams in the recent past in addition to Kansas State, so the geographic connection, although definitely worse than the case in the Big 10, wouldn’t be horrible. If the Big 12 added a second school (either from the 1-AA ranks with SDSU or one of the Montana Schools or even grabbing a Mountain West Team such as Colorado State) in addition to NDSU, thus bringing their members back up to an ACTUAL 12, they could also hypothetically split into two 6 team divisions. Taking Colorado State as our hypothetically partner then you could have a Big 12 composed of a North Division consisting of NDSU, Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State, Colorado State, and West Virginia (… dammit WVU… screwing everything up…) and a South of the 2 Oklahoma schools and the 4 remaining Texas schools. In such a system I see no reason why NDSU couldn’t contend for a Big 12 North crown consistently. All of those schools ebb and flow rather violently throughout history, and NDSU’s consistency could easily keep them in the top three of such a configuration year in and year out. The travel to West Virginia would frankly be impossible (so would the Texas teams in large part) but everything else is more than do-able and you could even create a legitimate rivalry with Iowa State.

So it wouldn’t be perfect, its not a stylistic fit, but given just a few dominoes falling at the right time, NDSU could grow into a culturally assimilated Big 12 team (especially with an Iowa State rivalry) and be consistently competitive in the Big 12 (especially if you consider the inroads it would provide into the fertile Texas football recruiting grounds. And by fertile I mean like octo-mom levels of fertility. Seriously. Ever seen Friday Night Lights? So much football talent in Texas…TIM RIGGINS!!!!) And it could be a win for the Big 12 too as long as NDSU proves competitive. They could help shore up their numbers, getting back to a 12 team conference and hopefully increase their stability as they move forward in this unstable time of conference realignment.

tim-rigginsfuture NDSU Fullback Tim Riggins

However, I think we all know that there is approximately a -72% chance that NDSU could hop straight into a BCS power conference straight from DI-AA so let’s take a look at some more logical and/or viable solutions.

The Mountain West

With the absolute  annihilation of the WAC (NDSU’s true best case scenario / ideal match of a conference… once upon a time) the Mountain West is probably the best case (and perhaps most realistic) option for NDSU at this time. However, the unfortunate reality is that its honestly not that realistic, as the fit isn’t nearly as obvious as it would be in say the Big 10.

On the positive side, NDSU already has a relationship playing several MWC teams in football (beating Colorado State and only losing to Wyoming on a last second field goal [as an aside… Wyoming brings infinitely less to the table than NDSU and yet they have been competing at the DI-A level for decades now… just to put this absurd debate in perspective… seriously I can’t come away from this point… WYOMING HAS BEEN DOING THIS SINCE THE 1960s FARGO!!! PLEASE REALIZE THAT THIS IS POSSIBLE]), and they already have relationships with some Mountain West schools in the non profit sports so I don’t really see this being a difficult change across the board.

Geographically the shift would be difficult but manageable. Playing the California teams is a stretch, but Fargo’s airport has direct flights to LAX anyway, and again the smaller sports already fly to California to compete on a regular basis so there is no reason the football/basketball team or the fans couldn’t do so. Traveling to Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah is do-able so its not that big of a stretch.

Stylistically the MWC is very diverse so even if there isn’t the same appeal as the Big 10 there certainly isn’t a detraction. The MWC shouldn’t have any problem accepting a hard nosed, consistent defensive team like the Bison (perhaps even to replace the loss of a similarly minded TCU team to the Big 12).

Moreover, competitiveness is probably NDSU’s strongest argument. During the Boise State/TCU glory years, the argument was made repeatedly that the MWC deserved BCS automatic qualifier status over conferences such as the inferior Big East. The conference has maintained the elite football status even after losing members such as TCU and BYU, and yet our old buddy Jeff would have you believe NDSU could immediatel be the class of the MWC. NDSU’s #37 ranking would put them at #1 in the MWC, one spot ahead of #38 Boise State.

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NDSU could slide right into the mix in the “Mountain” conference with little difficulty geographically or competitively. While the geography doesn’t mesh quite as well as it would playing schools like Minnesota and Iowa its certainly  not difficult, and I have no doubt that NDSU coudl compete immediately in what has become the single best “mid major” football conference in DI-A. I’m honestly not sure what else to say here because this just makes too much sense to hammer on… The MWC has even become a competitive (if slightly overrated) college basketball conference which NDSU could compete in and eventually earn the chance to receive even an at large NCAA tourney bid, not just a single seat conference champion slot as is the case in the Summit. Moreover, while the MWC appears satisfied with its current 12 team format there is no reason to believe continued realignment will not result in further pilfering of their ranks by BCS AQ conferences, giving them added incentive to buttress their current formation with up an coming DI-AA teams like NDSU. An invite from the Mountain West Conference would be mana from Heaven for NDSU, and there is absolutely positively NO reason why the NDSU Athletic Department should not be calling Craig Thompson ever. single. day. and serenading him with Peter Frampton songs.

I LOVE YOU CRAIG!!!!!!!!!!!!! I LOOOOOOOOOOOVE YOU!!!!!!!

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Get your shit together Gene Taylor and work on your falsetto dammit!!!

The MAC

If, however, the MWC bid couldn’t materialize (The appear to be incredibly satisfied with their current 12 team construction) the MAC could be a legitimate backup plan for the Bison. Again, the fit, albeit stretched, is there geographically, and by extension culturally (the MAC being somewhat of a Big 10 Junior). NDSU has no problem playing teams as far east as Ohio, and the stretch to Massachusettes and New York can’t be any more painful than the streches to Texas or California would be. NDSU would be right at home in the MAC’s West division, and, big surprise, they could dominate this conference competitively.

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Noone in this conference is really even that close to NDSU this year. Even BCS hopeful (and repeat challenger in that department) Northern Iowa likely wouldn’t stand up to NDSU in this particular year. Again, I feel like there isn’t much to say with this conference in terms of convincing people of its viability. The only problem anyone could have would be the occasional trips to MA and NY, but those likely would only happen once every 4 years. Seriously. There is no reason for NDSU not to fit in the MAC. So if Mr. Thompson isn’t a fan of Frampton maybe we could hit the MAC maybe we can just direct our love toward the MAC? C’mon Jon Steinbrecher… you know we’d be good to you…!

Just give us a chance!

Coping With Success: Conference Realignment and the North Dakota State Bison, Part One

Making the Leap

ndsu first title

I don’t think North Dakota State has ever been in a better place in terms of athletic success. Their football program is coming off of back to back national championships at the 1-AA level and is driving toward a 3-peat. The basketball team took at share of the conference regular season title last year and looks poised to win it all this year, and head to the NCAA tournament for the second time in school history and first since 2009. Fan morale and program prestige have never been higher. Hell, college game day was even in Fargo this year!

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However, the program is also at a crossroads. NDSU has succeeded so completely and so quickly since their move up to Division I sports in 2004 that I can’t help but hope for more, both for the continued success of the school athletically, and as a reward to the fans. In less than a decade of division 1 sports NDSU has seemingly attained every goal of a Division 1AA school, winning multiple football championships and making it to the big dance in basketball (along with numerous conference championships in the non-revenue sports). Moreover, as part of the stipulation for moving up from Division II, NDSU had to sit out of post-season play until 2008. So in only 5 years of post season eligibility, NDSU has won 2 football championships and is on pace for a 3rd consecutive. They have made an NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament appearance and look to be favored to make their second appearance this year. For all intents and purposes they have maxed out at the 1-AA level, and if the Athletic Department has any desire to continue to improve their product, rather than stagnate, they need to strongly consider moving to Division 1-A immediately. On top of that, they have made it their personal vendetta on the football field to beat 1-A schools year in and year out. Not only is NDSU the biggest fish in the 1-AA pond at the moment, they’ve already shown time and again they wouldn’t even be the little fish in lake that is 1-A football.

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NDSU’s stock cannot possibly get any higher, and as such the school is at the peak of its potential leverage when bidding to enter a new conference. Moreover, with the constant chaos and turmoil stemming from the restructuring of football conferences at the top collegiate level, conferences are constantly looking to strengthen themselves in order to buttress the walls and prevent pilfering of their choicest teams from their stronger neighbors, or are desperately looking to close the breaches opened by teams jumping ship for greener pastures. So, NDSU has a valuable product to sell, and the market is buying. Seems like a match made in Heaven right?

But wait… theres more.

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NDSU is in a great position right now, but if they wait even one year to take the plunge, this leverage will collapse like the proverbial house of cards. For all intents and purposes, the only sports that matter here [in that they are the only sports in most schools that ever turn a profit] are men’s basketball and football (and honestly for conference realignment the only sport that matters is football because of its astronomically disproportional profit margins, even in relation to basketball). Well, as already stated NDSU is in great shape on both fronts right now, but give it 12 months and the whole picture looks a lot more dismal.

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We’ll start with that basketball team I’m so high on. Ever argument for why this team will potentially be the most fun team to watch and most successful men’s basketball team in school history, can be spun on its head to point toward a disastrous rebuild that may be forthcoming. This team will be successful because of its veteran leadership. Six seniors returning to contribute big minutes for the team. The full starting lineup (4 seniors and 1 junior) will return from last year’s near championship team. This guys will be able to accomplish a lot this year. But you know what seniors can’t do? Play next year. Losing 6 seniors and 4 starters is not the way to make a bid for a conference championship or an NCAA tournament berth. Unless you’re John Calipari. Then it doesn’t really matter. But there ain’t no John Wall or Anthony Davis coming to NDSU. Not now, not ever. After this year’s run (which is sure to be an amazing ride) NDSU is looking at a minimum of 3 years rebuilding its basketball team. Maybe two if they pull the ol’ Soviet Olympic strategy and fill everyone full of HGH and steroids, but outside of that some rough years are ahead.

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Football has a similar, if not as drastic, problem. Craig Bohl has built an incredibly stable and successful program on the backs of a conservative, run oriented West Coast Offense, and a top notch defense. But he’s not going to coach forever. Every season he gets 1 year closer to retirement, and uncertainty for the NDSU program that he has made so great. Moreover, he might not even finish his career at NDSU. Personally I’m skeptical that he would leave at this point in his career, but it doesn’t stop me from getting the chills when the Nebraska rumors start flying.

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So as long as Bohl is there the program will survive no matter which conference or division they’re in. But it won’t always be on this level. Its not every year you have a chance to win your third consecutive national title. The football team will be losing some key seniors of its own this year. Namely, senior quarterback, anthropomorphized buffalo man, and potential Patron Saint of ball throwing Brock Jensen.

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There is no question when Brock leaves this team will take a step back. But its not just him. Billy Turner (the key to NDSU’s O Line) Ryan Smith (star receiver and Wes Welker impersonator) Marcus Williams (maybe the best defensive player in NDSU’s history and a sure fire NFL prospect at DB) Sam Ojuri (star RB and potential hobbit) Grant Olson (LB and viking god of tackling)… the list goes on and on. This NDSU team is senior laden and can’t help but take a step back next year. Maybe Bohl works some voodoo magic and gets them back into the playoffs and makes a deep run, but theres not another undefeated season on the books for next year’s squad.

So as the burgeoning economist in me elucidated, NDSU has a product to sell to D1-A football conferences right now but twelve months from now will it be the same story? Will we look like as appealing? Probably not. Now, you could say this pending step back could discourage potential suitors from taking NDSU this offseason BUT DAMMIT I WANT TO BE SOMEBODY’S NEXT DAY REGRET!!!! NOT A “Thank goodness I didn’t…”!!!!! But in all seriousness, a postseason freeze will likely be in effect whenever NDSU moves up and these deals, once signed, often move slow as molasses so its entirely possible that once NDSU is fully integrated in their hypothetical new conference. For me the more pertinent issue is being an appealing enough product while the negotiations are taking place. NDSU has a lot more leverage today than they will November 1, 2014, and THAT is what they need to capitalize on.

Does the Motivation Exist?

player_GeneTaylor2009NDSUDirectorofAthleticsColor“But I don’t understand… what could possibly be gained from improving our revenue sports???”

Certainly the fans would be in favor of this. Theres another problem though. In all likelihood the NDSU Athletic Department has no interest in moving up. I get the impression these guys are perfectly happy sitting where they are right now. Men’s NCAA basketball berth every 4-5 years. Beat up on lesser competition in football at 1-AA and play the Cinderella darling once a year when they beat a big school on the road. Complacency is plastered over these guys like vomit on a freshman dorm in August. That may seem harsh, but I promise you its not. The NDSU brass is notoriously conservative and have shot themselves in the foot with this upward trajectory before.

In 2004 while seeking out conferences to land in for their DII to DI-AA leap, NDSU got a pleasant surprise. They had a tentative offer to join not just another D1-AA conference, but the Western Athletic Conference. A Division 1-A program.

Moreover, this wasn’t the WAC of today that has schools like Denver fleeing like refugees and praising Heaven when NDSU’s own Summit League throws them a life raft and agrees to take them in. No. This was the WAC at the height of its power. When June Jones was taking Hawaii to BCS games and making Colt Brennan look like a Heisman winner. This was the WAC where Fresno State would play “anyone, anywhere, anytime”. This was the WAC which would started the Boise State perennial BCS hopeful who would famously beat “Big Game Stoops” in a BCS bowl game. This WAC had a football pedigree second to none outside of the power conferences. Tradition, prestige, current success. This was a conference schools would BEG to get in to (and Denver actually did… oh how the times change) and NDSU had a free invite sitting on the table AS A DIVISION ONE SCHOOL!! THEY COULD HAVE MADE AN IMMEDIATE DOUBLE LEAP OF DIVISIONS AND PLAYED DIVISION ONE FOOTBALL AS EARLY AS 2008!!!!!!

Nowadays, conference realignment has absolutely annihilated the WAC. For all intents and purposes they no longer exist as a legitimate conference, primarily because of the split of the football schools in 1998/99 to form the Mountain West Conference. So maybe you’re saying “AHA! Proves you wrong, Rick! If NDSU HAD gone to the WAC they’d be sitting on top of its deserated corpse right now, beating up on the likes of Seattle University! But to that I say *Lee Corso Voice* Not. So. Fast. Mister.

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Where they in the WAC NDSU would likely have been cherry picked by another conference before the collapse for their football prowess, or worse case scenario they could have simply gone independent for a few years while they tried to find a fit. However, none of this really matters, because as previously mentioned the NDSU brass, in their ultimate wisdom, turned down this offer and decided to stick to a lower division.

I have a feeling that a major motivation here was financial viability, but that, I think, is bullshit. A rising tide lifts all ships. Theres simply more money available at the top level ESPECIALLY in football. During Athletic Director Gene Taylor’s tenure,  during which time NDSU made its jump from DII to DI, NDSU’s athletic budget has tripled from $5million to $15million. Schools like Wyoming (a D1 and Mountain West school I feel is in almost every way comparable to NDSU) are working with around a $27 million budget. (link is old but its the best information I can find for free. Please no pitch forks and torches) In the grand scheme of things that isn’t a huge leap to make when you consider half of Wyoming’s budget (along with NDSU’s and all smaller college sports schools) comes from subsidies. With that in mind the $12 million gap only looks like a $6 million dollar gap which over time would disappear and easily be surpassed with conference football revenue (ever increasing with football television contracts) and gradual increase in fan support over time.

I really do think the fan support is there to support this team financially. I know its small, but these people are ferocious when it comes to their football. They’ll drive to Kansas, they’ll fly to Frisco Texas, they will follow their team anywhere. I know its a different story traveling for 1 primetime game a long distance away versus traveling similar distances for half your games but the fan base will grow. Its already moved up leaps and bounds from the DII days so I for one am not willing to discount the ability of the fanbase to increase its support for the teams they love. Plus, its highly unlikely that NDSU would make the jump alone anyway (they didn’t in 2004 and had they gone to the WAC they wouldn’t have either). South Dakota State is NDSU’s legal-life-partner-in-the-state-of-Massachusetts-and-scattered-others-but-definitely-not-Utah in this whole affair, and its likely any more NDSU made would be matched by SDSU for the betterment of both schools. Moreover, if you could convince the two Montana schools to come with you as well you would negate the vast majority of the geographic/travel issues. (I realize this means we’re dealing with the financial concerns of other institutions as well but SDSU, and the two Montana schools are no slouches in their own right. These schools are very much comparable to NDSU) But I’ll have more on that later.

And as far as losing money for the non football / basketball sports… who cares? They’re losing money right now (and for that matter they’re already technically at D1 anyway losing that money) so who cares if they keep losing money with a conference shift? Football’s profits WILL increase. Its actually impossible for them not to. Athletic conferences have a socialist format wherein all teams share league-wide profits and television money (thats what all this conference realignment bullshit has been about anyway, isn’t it?) so being in a bigger league can’t help but increase the profits of the Bison. And its not like that problem would be unique to NDSU. NOBODY turns a profit on volleyball or track or anything besides football and basketball. Moreover, only a handful of schools ever turn a profit in college sports anyway so I feel like that point is moot. As long as a program can shore up its budget enough to maintain operating costs at its current level there shouldn’t be a problem, and NDSU could easily and quickly get there in my opinion if Taylor and the NDSU brass would step up their game and make a real effort at it.

Personally I don’t think the brass has any willingness to do so, but maybe with the right fit, they’d realize that now, and only now, is their best chance to capitalize and make a move up.