Football’s Other Dynasty

Ever heard of the Clemson Tigers? How ‘bout the New England Patriots?

The former recently won their second college championship in three years. Nothing to sneeze at even if it’s not quite what the latter has been doing these past 18 seasons. 9 Super Bowl appearances and 6 wins in that time. Chances are you’re as sick of those stats as you are of Maroon 5 but, unlike Adam Levine, expect Bill Belichick and Tom Brady to be back again next season. And maybe the year after that too. Sure, Father Time is undefeated but he’s yet to set foot in Foxborough. Even when he does it will be hard dismantling the culture of greatness New England is accustomed to.

Ever heard of the North Dakota State Bison? 

This time the question isn’t as jokey because the answer isn’t so obvious. In fact, unless you’re reading this from the Upper Midwest or are a true college football fanatic, chances are you haven’t. And yet, no college program has built a culture of winning like the Bison (pronounced Bi-zen). Not Clemson, not Alabama, not anyone on the FBS-/I-A level.

Yes, North Dakota State “only” plays at the FCS/I-AA level. Yes, at best that’s considered a “mid-major” grouping. But it’s still part of Division-I. The lower of two Division-I subdivisions to be exact. It’s not as major as FBS/I-A football, and certainly not as major as the “Power-5” conferences inside the FBS world. Still, it produces NFL talent, schedules games against FBS teams and (through Fordham, Columbia and Wagner) is the absolute highest level of college football competition found in New York City. Not that the highest level of FCS has ever been played in New York City. For that you have to go to Fargo where the Bison have dominated like nobody else. In total they’ve won 7 of the past 8 FCS national championships. That’s seven of eight if you need it spelled out.

Aside from 7 of 8 chips, the Bison have also gone 9-3 against FBS teams over the past 13 seasons. Perhaps most impressively, they’ve won 6 out of their last 7 against Power-5 conference teams. Mathematically, even Clemson and Alabama could have only done one game better. From Fargo, an overlooked college football haven, Matt Larsen, the school’s athletic director over the past five seasons, agreed to a conversation about his school’s incredible gridiron run.   

Well, we gotta start with your name obviously…  
Sure, obviously.
Sounds about as North Dakota as you can get. But you’re actually from the New York City area, right? 
Ha, yeah, although I think most spell Larsen with an “o” around here. And yeah, I was born in Kingston, about 90 minutes north of the city so, sorta close. My dad worked for IBM so we moved around a bit. First Raleigh, then Austin, but we were back in Kingston in time for junior high and high school. From there I went to Stony Brook where I played wide receiver. 
Stony Brook was still a D-II when you got there?
Actually they were still D-III. But they had already announced that they were making the jump to I-AA. The NCAA has a minimum 5 year process for schools in transition to DI so I was there for the start of it. Two years as a D-III, two years as a D-II, and then, after graduation they put in three more years before finally getting to I-AA.
And you stuck around with the program after graduation.
I did. I was fortunate to stay at Stony Brook as a graduate assistant in the athletics department. I had a dual role as an assistant football coach (wide receivers) and an assistant in the athletic facilities office. After two years as a graduate assistant I realized two things: 1 – I didn’t want to stay in coaching and 2 – I really enjoyed the administrative side of college athletics and felt I could have a greater impact in an administrative role. I was fortunate because Stony Brook had just created a new position, Assistant Business Manager/Ticket Manager, as part of the transition to D-I so I applied and ended up being hired into the position.
You were there during the Jim Fiore scandal in 2013. His #metoo type story was well publicized locally in Newsday and Kate Fagan covered it nationally for ESPN. And you know Fagan specifically lists you and Donna Woodruff as the first to try to get Fiore removed.
She did?
Yeah, you do know her from Around the Horn, right?
Oh yeah, but wasn’t aware of that part of her story.
Well, according to reports, you and Woodruff were sorta the early whistle blowers against what was going down. Admirable considering how incredibly stressful the work situation must have been, but less than a year later, and after all your time at Stony Brook, you suddenly left for North Dakota State. Woodruff departed a few years later too. So my question is, was there any blowback from the school against you guys for doing the right thing? 
No, not at all. Stony Brook treated me well. I can’t speak for Donna, who’s now the AD at Loyola-Maryland, a fine Patriot League school, but I think it says a lot about Stony Brook to have groomed two Division I AD’s. So, for me at least, whatever came afterwards was not an issue. I was treated well but other opportunities presented themselves.   
By other opportunities you mean North Dakota State obviously….
How did that present itself?
My first introduction to NDSU was in the summer of 2013. I was working with Carr Sports doing a feasibility study at NDSU. I spent four days in Fargo evaluating all aspects of NDSU athletics. At the time, I got a first time look into the community and fan support that NDSU is blessed with. It also was my first visit to Fargo. I was pleasantly surprised by the vibrant community that fully embraces its college athletics program. 
Wait, before we get into fan support, what’s Carr Sports?
Carr Sports Associates is a consulting firm started by Bill Carr. He was Steve Spurier’s center down at Florida back in the ’60s and later went into coaching and then became Florida’s AD. He was Houston’s AD too before starting his group. So while at Stony Brook we hired them to assist us in some strategic planning. Our first project was at North Dakota State. We toured their athletic department and worked closely with their staff while evaluating their program. So I got to know them well and when Gene Taylor stepped down as AD one of their staff members asked if I was interested in applying for the AD position.
Oh okay, so by then you already knew your way around Fargo?
Yeah, I did. My wife was a little nervous though. She’s from Mahopac and other than four years as a student-athlete at Boston College she had only lived at home before we married. So between Mahopac, BC and Long Island she had only known the Northeast. 
Guessing she had the fish out of water feel in Fargo?
I did too but at least I knew what to expect. But yeah, there’s no deli food here. I miss the good cold cuts, pizza, bagels. Not to mention the diverse ethnic restaurants. Whenever we go back to New York we rush to our favorite Chinese, Japanese, Italian places.
Just to name a few I’m guessing.
This is definitely more of a meat & potatoes type place.
Maybe that’s the secret to North Dakota State’s success?
Ha, I guess you can say that. 
Well, I mean, Carson Wentz aside, other FCS schools have put more skills guys in the NFL even though you have all the rings. Maybe it’s that you don’t go for all the frills and just keep things basic.  
We do run a basic pro-set. We’re one of the few programs that still keeps the quarterback under center. For us everything starts at the line of scrimmage. Just about everyone on our offensive and defensive linemen could have been preferred walk-ons at FBS schools but we kept them home thanks to an awesome culture of success. Even before this run at the FCS level, North Dakota State had already won close to a dozen championships as a D-II. Over the past 97 years we’ve had three losing seasons. The fans are incredibly loyal. Outside of Minneapolis there’s no pro-teams in the area, just the colleges, so the entire state follows us. Because of that support, area kids (North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota) grow up wanting to play for us. Many of them stay home and give us great depth to build off every year. We really do have FBS-level lines and talent.  
And a bunch of I-A/FBS wins. Aside from all the FCS championships and a ridiculous 31-2 playoffs record over the years, you guys have racked up some serious wins against FBS schools since moving up from D-II.
9-3 in total and we’ve won 6 out of our last 7 against Power 5 Conference teams. One of the more memorable ones was beating the University of Iowa, ranked #13 at the time, at Kinnick Stadium. What was almost more impressive than the win was the 15,000 Bison fans in attendance.
Even within the Big Ten there are certain schools that couldn’t bring 15,000 to Iowa, so that’s pretty impressive. But now that I think about it, all of those FBS contests were on the road, correct?
All on the road but all well represented by our fans. 
Any thoughts on moving up to FBS and maybe joining the MAC?  
Now that’s the question I get asked the most… 
Hey, that’s what every ND State fans wants to know. Words-words-words, this is the part they’ve skipped to.
Ha, yeah, I get it but it’s tough. We enjoy where we are and our expectations are to compete for national championships. That would be hard to do against P-5 schools. The Fargodome is maybe the best and loudest facility in FCS but a new, FBS-level dome would cost at least $300 million. Even just adding 23 extra scholarships for football and at least 23 more for Title IX requirements would be tough. We already have the highest ticket prices and most expensive seat licenses in FCS, so where’s that extra money come from? Also, we’re already an anomaly at the FCS level in terms of operating budget and funding. While most FCS programs are heavily subsidized by the institution, NDSU generates nearly 70-75% of our operating budget. For us to make the move and achieve the level of success at the FBS level, we would need to nearly double our current operating budget of $25 million.
And that’s not even taking into account how much more expensive things will be when/if all the P-5 schools decide to split.
Yeah, I can see them leaving in 5 to 10 years. Texas just became the first athletic department to pull in $200 million in annual revenue so they’re already in a different world.
Which will be even more should they and Oklahoma ever leave for the PAC-12.
Yeah, the super conferences are gonna get bigger and bigger and then who knows?
You really think they’d leave? 
Down the road, yeah. The divide is just too big.
Let’s say that happens. Do you then see the rest of the FBS merging with the top FCS conferences to form a brand new NCAA sponsored Division-I?
I do.
Meaning you’d be on the same footing as the current group of FBS schools that are not in the P-5.
Okay, so maybe this isn’t the right time to make the jump to a non P-5 FBS conference. Maybe some more clarity about the future of the FBS is needed first. But why haven’t you scheduled any FBS schools lately? Iowa was the last one, right?
That’s the toughest part of the job for my staff. Iowa was ranked 13th in the county when we beat them and since then it has become increasingly difficult to schedule FBS teams. We finally got Oregon for 2020, Arizona for 2022 and Colorado for 2024 but we’ve struggled getting Midwest teams to play us. And I don’t blame them. If I was them and we were winning 6 out of 7 on the road I wouldn’t want to play us either.
Facts! Okay, but what about the SEC? They seem to often schedule FCS teams, right?
A lot of SEC teams do go up against SoCon teams but they do so at the end of the year. Right before “Rivalry Week.” So you’re talking about week 10 of the season. For us that wouldn’t work. By week 10 we’re trying to secure a conference title and prepare for the playoffs. If we could get an SEC team in the first three weeks of the season, yeah, but not right before the playoffs. 
Not even for Alabama?
Not in week 10. No.
But you, as the single best FCS school of this era wouldn’t want a chance at (until Clemson wins more titles) the single best FBS school of this era? That would be an awesome showdown, especially if you were both coming off titles. It would bring so much publicity to not just North Dakota State but all of the FCS. The network talking heads would finally have to do some research and figure out what FCS is before describing this David vs. Goliath type encounter. You’d say “no” to all that if Alabama only offered a week 10 date?
Ehhh… Alright, so let’s say never say never.
Speaking of publicity…
By the way, we’re getting some good out-of-state publicity right now. We’re opening the 2019 season against Butler in Minneapolis at Target Field and are on pace to get 40,000 fans for that one. Many of our grads do live in the Twin Cities but that’s still pretty good for a different state. 
Minneapolis is cool. I’ve gone running on the Greenway, taken the light rail and Target Field is beautiful. I also appreciate a place that has a Bronx Park and a Brooklyn Park in the area. But, speaking of publicity, what about a contest back East?  
Funny you should mention that. We’ve only played one game on the east coast and that was back in the ’80s during the D-II playoffs. But now we’re in the middle of a home-&-home against Delaware so we’ll be heading out there a few weeks after the Butler game.
Okay, but I was thinking more like New York City. Would you be open to taking on Fordham?
I would love playing Fordham. At Yankee Stadium even more so. 
Absolutely. In fact, I just ran into (Fordham AD) David Roach while at the annual NCAA convention down in Orlando and he’s a good guy. Military too, right?
Yeah, Marines.
Yeah, well he’s a really good guy. I met him back in 2011. He was at Colgate at the time and was working with the NCAA while overseeing a playoffs game for us. I think he started as a swimming coach down at Tennessee, then went to Colgate as an AD.
Brown, then Colgate, then Fordham.
That’s right, I forget the order but yeah, I’d love to get together and play Fordham. Our fans would love it too. To get to come to NYC and all it has to offer? Not to mention a game at one of the world’s most famous stadiums. If we could schedule it on the same weekend as a Philly-Giants game at the Meadowlands, so our alumni could see Carson Wentz play, then that would be about as good as it gets.
Do you have open dates?
For 2021 and 2023 we do!
And we’ve already addressed that your fans have no problems hitting the road.
For FCS, the best. By far. Every year we get over 20,000 for the championship game down in Frisco (a Dallas suburb). We get about 18,000 going down with tickets and then at least another 3,000 more who just want to be part of the festivities and enjoy the weekend. It’s amazing how committed they are. 
Fordham played Holy Cross at the Stadium a few years back and got over 20,000 but that was against a rival. Not sure how they’d draw against a non-rival.
Well, we’d bring in 10,000 for sure. 
Minimum. Like I said, our guys travel.
So to summarize… Your fans will follow the team around anywhere and your program rocks. You have a culture of success that’s tough to top. You have little competition up in Fargo and are able to keep area kids home. Your style is kinda/sorta unique in this day and age of spread offenses. Still, jumping up to FBS is a long shot since you don’t even know what the FBS will look like in 5 to 10 years. Week 10 against Alabama is a long shot but uhm, to quote, “never say never.” Oh, and it’s abso-friggin-lutely to a Yankee Stadium matchup versus Fordham.
Yup, you got it.
Sounds great!
Thank you!
…And thanks to Matt Larsen for some insight into North Dakota State football. They’re certainly not well known in New York but facts say they’ve been the most dominant pigskin team of this era. Again, they do it at the mid-major college level but it’s hard to argue with seven out of eight. They truly are, even without groups like Maroon 5 “performing” at their games, this era’s other football dynasty. They win, even against Power 5 schools, their fans travel and if Fordham is up to the challenge, they have no problems bringing their rodeo to Yankee Stadium for the 2021 season. That would obviously be the best way for New Yorkers to see that the mid-majors can play too. 
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