In the past several months, North Dakota State University has proven it can compete with the big boys.
The football program scored another signature road win at defending Big XII champion Kansas State, marking the start of a 15-0 campaign and third consecutive FCS Championship. The basketball team was crowned Summit League champion before securing the school’s first ever NCAA Tournament win over the University of Oklahoma.
If you can beat them, maybe you should join them. How would the Bison fare in the Big XII?
The KSU win was no fluke. In recent years NDSU scored wins at Colorado State, Kansas and Minnesota. The Bison have become a top-25 caliber football program. In the final 2013 Sagarin ratings NDSU ranked 17th – among all Division 1 FCS and FBS football programs, between 16th ranked Ohio State and No. 18 Wisconsin.
Based on Sagarin’s projections, the Bison would rank third in the Big Ten, fifth in the Pac-12, sixth in the SEC, fourth in the Big XII and third in the ACC.
And then there is the schoo’s incredible fan support. Bison fans flocked to Toyota Stadium in Dallas for the FCS Championship game in each of the past three years. Their travels have been documented on infrared via a “Bison Tracker” from Fargo south to Frisco, Texas, with many queued up en route at Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport.
Bison Nation was also heavily represented at Spokane, Washington for the opening rounds of the NCAA tournament, and further proved big-league passion when ESPN’s GameDay program visited Fargo in September.
Competing even at the Division I levl is relatively new at NDSU. The football team played in Division II through 2003 and the basketball program made the NCAA Tournament in its first year of eligibility in 2009.
Recent coaches include Tim Miles (basketball 2001-07), Craig Bohl (football, 2003-13) and Saul Phillips (basketball 2007-current). Miles is now at Nebraska, Bohl recently left the school for the University of Wyoming while Phillips is expected to be hot property for a number of basketball openings.
Frankly, I don’t know if Bohl trading Fargo for Laramie is even a lateral transfer.
If NDSU were to consider FBS football or an upgrade in basketball, it will not come overnight. The Bison compete in the Missouri Valley Conference in football, with several conference foes also competing in basketball and other sports. The Missouri Valley is still smarting from the loss of Creighton, so NDSU as a future basketball member is a solid possibility.
Two obvious obstacles stand in the way of Big XII membership. First, a move to FBS status would mean a scholarship increase from 63 to 85. Then, to remain in compliance with Title IX, one to two women’s sports would have be added.
Currently NDSU has seven men’s and seven women’s programs. Baseball is included, although home games are obviously limited given Fargo’s climate. Surprisingly there is no hockey program, a signature sport at the University of North Dakota.
In comparison, the University of Oklahoma has nine men’s and 10 women’s programs. Nebraska offers nine men’s and 13 women’s programs. Iowa State has six men’s and 10 women’s sports.
NDSU could probably go FBS in football, add two women’s sports, and be fine.
The current football venue does not pass BCS-level muster. The Fargodome opened in 1992 and is a premier FCS venue with a capacity of 19,000. Its cost was $40 million with Fargo residents approving a 0.5 percent sales tax increase to get the building made.
To play in FBS, a minimum capacity of 30,000 would be needed and preferably 50,000 to play in the Big XII. With the roof in place, it is impossible to add another deck to the Fargodome. A new stadium would cost much more than the current venue. Minnesota’s TCF Bank stadium cost more than $300 million to build. A 50,000-seat indoor facility could approach $500 million. Voters may balk at additional taxes and finding enough deep-pocketed donors would also be a challenge.
Enrollment is another factor. Currently around 15,000 students attend NDSU, about the same as Baylor. Washington State has a main campus enrollment of 21,000 while Boise State has more than 22,000 students. NDSU’s current enrollment is similar to the University of Montana, another FCS football power.
I could see the Bison moving up to the Missouri Valley Conference by the end of the decade. If the school decides to take on FBS football, it would likely be in a conference like the Mountain West where it would still use the Fargodome.
What we know now is the “Bizen” are on the rise, a likable program and a real life version of the “Mighty Ospreys.” If the school bolsters its athletic portfolio, it will be a process done gradually.