Horns Up: Inside the Greatest College Football Dynasty
I really enjoyed reading this book. However, unless you’re a fan the NDSU ‘Bison’ football team, this book can’t hold much interest to the general reader. Even a sports fan, football fan, NDSU fan will glaze over when Kolpack gets to the details. But if you are a fan, those details are very interesting.
Kolpack’s theme is how did the NDSU ‘Bison’ get to be so successful in such a short time- moving up to Division IAA from Division II football? Kolpack jumps around in the book. I’ve notice that sports writers like to do this. (Jeff writes for the Fargo Forum) I found it distracting at first, but soon got use to it. (Do newspaper writers learn to write different than other writers?)
Kolpack wrote this book as follow up to “Bison Football: Three Decades of Excellence” by his father, Ed Kolpack (also of the Fargo Forum). Jeff’s brother Dave Kolpack (AP Sports) wrote the forward. So Jeff Kolpack was in a perfect position to write the book and knew all the behind-the-scenes stories. Jeff, like myself, like probably every ‘Bison’ fan, has a theory as to the success of the NDSU ‘Bison’ football team. Not surprisingly Kolpack has a list of ten items that is almost identical to my list, only I would combine a bunch of these. (see below)
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- Culture. The ‘Bison’ were successfully in Division IAA in part because they were successful in Division II. The school has always stressed defense, and a strong ground game. They also stress teamwork- like all teams do- but they also prefer to develop talent rather than recruit it. Something Coach Bohl had to learn himself.
- Recruiting. Minnesota has no Division IAA teams. So NDSU has a vast recruiting area. An area that other teams tend to ignore. NDSU also recruits players that need time to develop, so they often grab diamonds in the rough that other teams overlook.
- Geography. There are no professional teams in North Dakota.. in any sport. It’s a long way to Minneapolis, Denver, Kansas City, or Winnipeg. The ‘Bison’ are the premiere sports team for hundred of miles in any direction. This forms a strong fan base that plays into #10, #8, and 2.
- Tradition. Kids see ‘Bison’ football on television or listen to it on the radio. They read about it in the paper. And it’s more than just the winning, it’s what they see when they make a junior or senior visit in High School. They want to be a ‘Bison’ player and enjoy the sense of family that has been the hallmark of Bison Pride since coach Darrell Mudra took over the team in 1963.
- Physicality. See #1 and #7.
- Coaching. NDSU has had a string of outstanding coaches since Mudra. Ron Earhardt (When on to coach the Patriots), Jim Wacker (TCU), Don Morton (Wisconsin), Earl Solomonson, Rocky Hager, Bob Babich (Bears), Craig Bohl (Wyoming), and Chris Klieman. The assistant coaches were just as good with many becoming head coach. The continuity is part of the tradition. A certain kind of coach is drawn to the type of football NDSU plays, see #1 and #5
- Jim Kramer.. is the strength and conditioning coach. He gets the players to buy into the incredible work required to become a ‘Bison’. He trains them to play all 60-minutes. So when the opposition starts to flag in the fourth quarter the ‘Bison’ are still going strong.
- Institutional Leadership/ Team Makers. Murda also helped Team Makers raise lots of money for player scholarships, facilities, and equipment. They act as business cheerleaders and helped smooth any issues between the school and city. See #9.
- Fargodome. The NDSU ‘Bison’ use to play outside on Dacotah Field. All those playoff games late in November and December were seen at the time as a home field advantage, but sub-zero temperatures were pretty brutal on the fans. Fargo and NDSU got to the size that an indoor dome was possible thanks to #3, #4, #8, and #10. The dome made a move to Division IAA possible. And as the ‘Bison’ succeeded, the dome filled up with fans and soon was its own secret weapon. The home field advantage where the opposing offense can’t hear.
- Media-mania. See #3. All the media for miles around cover the Bison football team. It’s the only game in town. The media feeds the fans and the recruiting, which causes even more success, which in turn brought more media, including ESPN, who seem to have a love affair with the NDSU ‘Bison’. The media landscape has changed. There are more outlets. The rapid expansion of streaming has made FCS football (Division IAA) almost as accessible as FBS football (Division IA), bringing even more fans into the ‘Bison’ fold. This in turn brought the IAA players to the attention of the NFL. With quarterback Carson Wentz going to the Philadelphia ‘Eagles’ as the #2 draft pick, it brought even more attention to NDSU.
Excerpts from the Book
I was shocked. I thought Fargo changed when it built the Fargodome that opened in 1993. It really changed when I saw Mick Jagger walk on stage on the dome on Feb. 17, 1999. As a resident of Fargo, that’s probably when I canceled my flight from going nowhere. The plan was to come back here, cover college football, and then move on to cover some program like Nebraska. As it turned out, it all happened before my very eyes. Right place. Right time. The big acts that came through were pretty regular in the years since.
What a stroke of luck and a lot of credit goes to building the dome.
It was the brainchild of Bob ‘Goose’ Johnson, the longtime superintendent of the Fargo Parks. Goose was a good friend of my father and a regular in dad’s Poker Club that met once a Monday.
It starts with culture.
And nobody was more important in the rise of the dynasty than Jim Kramer. Certainly, Bohl was the architect. Taylor and the university presidents and the boosters provided the support and the resources. But if I were to name a dynasty Most Valuable Player, it would be Kramer. I’m pretty sure most every player would, too.
“He’s the heart and soul of who we are, plain and simple,” Jensen said. “I could sit down and talk about him for hours. He’s the reason why we keep the championship tradition. He instills the hard work ethic that NDSU athletes have. We have a chip on our shoulder because of Jim Kramer. We win in the fourth quarter because of Jim Kramer. He’ll never accept any of the credit – he never wants anything to do with the credit – but in all reality it all goes to him. He’s the MVP 100 percent.”
Of course, Kramer would just as soon gouge his eyes out than listen to a compliment.
“I try to let it go in one ear and out the other,” he said. “I guess there’s a sense of pride with that, too. OK, how do I keep that up? Obviously, I’ve been a big influence on these young men but I have to make sure if it’s that big of an impact, there has to be a positive influence even when I have to be negative with it. I Want to make sure I’m having the right influence.”
Bohl hired him from the United States Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo. Kramer also had stops in football hot spots Northern Iowa, Georgia Tech and Appalachian State. He instilled a no-nonsense, discipline-oriented mentality on the players. After NDSU won its first national title in 2011, a few players were wearing their championship T-shirts around the Bison weight room – and that didn’t sit well with Kramer. He made them take them off and it wouldn’t surprise me if he burned them.
There was to be no resting on your laurels in Kramer’s army. When it comes to this dynasty, his contribution was more than most people ever knew. His value in the 2014 coaching change was immeasurable because the players didn’t see much change from the day they got back from Frisco until the first day of spring football when the position coaches were back in front of them. In that time frame, from the second week of January until late March, it was Kramer who was their coach. The same Kramer who was their weight training coach in the previous seasons.
Kramer came aboard the same season NDSU started a Division I schedule and over the years, he was a staple while other assistants came and went. And make no mistake, Kramer may not be listed officially as a Bison assistant coach, but he had as much to do with the creation of the dynasty as anyone.
Klieman, “Culture to me is the way guys do things on and off the field with great pride, great work ethic and always putting the team first and themselves second.”
1963 Darrell Mudra, “decided they had enough of losing.. convinced Fargo that it could produce a winner by raising more funds.” Team Makers
1964 The Bison finish the season 10–1 beating Western State (CO) in its first post-season bowl game.
1965 The Bison win their first National Championship.
1993 Bob ‘Goose’ Johnson Fargo Park Board pushes the Fargodome.
2002 NDSU University President, Joe Chapman pushes for a move to Division IAA.
2006 NDSU AD Gene Taylor, gets the Bison an invite into Gateway Conference. (Now the MVFC)
Former Bison basketball coach Erv Inniger helps fund an increase from 36 to 63 scholarships with help by Pat Simmers (Team Makers). Susan Bala (Fargo Racing Services) is indited cutting off funding from this source. ($99 Million)
2003 Head Coach Craig Bohl (Asst. coach from 1984) is selected over current asst. coach Gus Bradley (Jaguars). 2003 Jim Kramer joins the team.
2007 Tim Brewster (Bronco TE coach) is named Head Coach for the U of M ‘Gophers’. Brewster recruits heavily outside of Minnesota leaving star players like Steve Walker and Tyler Roehl available. NDSU starts recruiting heavily from MN, WI, and ND.
2009 Fargo Police cause a “Season On The Brink”. After the 2009 season Bohl starts to look for midwest coaches on their way up, rather than FBS coaches on the way down. He found more stability and better players.
2010 Brock Jenson was recruited out of Wisc as Quarterback and Tim Polasek out of Iowa as an assistant coach.
2012 The Georgia Southern playoff game reached 111 db in the Fargodome; yet was dead quiet when the Bison were on offense.
2013 Craig Bohl goes to Wyoming. Chris Klieman, “He polished me for this career. I owe everything to him (Bohl)”. Jim Kramer, “Craig is so intense and focused, too bad it has to be like that.”
2015 Carson Wentz goes #2 in the NFL Draft.