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

Making the Leap

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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.

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