IOWA CITY, Iowa — They’re coming, folks.
North Dakota State’s esteemed fan base, the green-and-gold, smaller-division equivalent to Nebraska’s red-tinted traveling horde, is en route to eastern Iowa even as this sentence is read. They’re rolling eight hours southeast to watch their beloved Bison invade Kinnick Stadium on Saturday.
You can almost hear the rumbling of hooves as the engines fire on their caravan.
North Dakota State has won five consecutive FCS national titles. The Bison own the junior Division I football circuit the way Iowa wrestling once destroyed nearly every opponent. They never lose when it matters, and their fans always win the pregame tailgate.
This week, the Bison way has permeated the discussion among Iowa fans. The Hawkeyes have their own partying reputation, from sending more than 40,000 fans to each of their three major bowl games under coach Kirk Ferentz to drinking Indianapolis’ biggest bars out of beer 20 hours before last year’s Big Ten championship game. So both fan groups are just as likely to tip their beverages in admiration as engage in smack talk.
But the Bison party starts way earlier than Saturday’s 11 a.m. local kickoff. On Friday night, the North Dakota State Alumni Association holds a pep rally at the Coralville (Iowa) Marriott, the same hotel complex with which the season-opening, all-Hawkeye FryFest was held. The Coralville Marriott rests along the Iowa River to the east and overlooks the Hayden Fry Way on the west. Fans by the thousands expect to descend upon the Bison Nation Pep Fest, which costs $10 in advance and $15 at the door. There’s a 60-minute radio show, featured speakers and three hours worth of live entertainment.
Bison supporters successfully rented Iowa City West High School’s parking lot for its Saturday tailgate starting at 6 a.m. local time. West High is the largest area high school and located 2 miles from Kinnick Stadium along Iowa City’s main party road, Melrose Avenue.
This doesn’t happen for Iowa State or Iowa’s Big Ten border rivals. Sure, there’s more vitriol and organized chaos attached to the other games, but North Dakota State’s pilgrimage has intrigued Iowa fans as much as it has energized their Bison counterparts.
“It’s fun to go to these bigger schools to see something different,” said Nick Killoran, a West Fargo, N.D., insurance company owner and operator of The NDSU Tailgating Crew on Facebook. Killoran’s group includes about 50 people, a bus and other vehicles.
“How can we amp it up, per se?”
Gene Taylor blends the rare gifts of intellect, personality and leadership that evade many, if not most, college athletics administrators. As North Dakota State’s athletics director from 2011 through 2014, Taylor ushered the program through a transition from Division II to Division I-AA (now FCS). The move had its doubters, yet they had faith in his leadership.
North Dakota State totaled five national titles and led Division II in attendance its final five seasons. But Taylor believed upward mobility was in the school’s best interest. To consummate the program’s change, Taylor married the Bison to television. By 2011, 10 Bison games were on local or national television networks. The combination of better competition and exposure vaulted North Dakota State from overlooked regional power to national brand.
“People thought we were nuts,” said Taylor, now Iowa’s deputy athletics director, about putting every game on television. “Why would you do that? Once we did, they started attending and then they saw us winning and it became this passion that grew and grew.”
“They had such a good thing going at the D-II level,” Killoran said. “But clearly the people that had all the information knew what they were doing. It’s not only been a great success for the university, but for our community and our state as a whole.”
If one big-boy moment stood out for the Bison, it was in 2006. North Dakota State lingered midway through the NCAA’s version of purgatory. As it transitioned from Division II to Division I, the school was unable to compete in the postseason for five years. Partway through a 10-1 campaign, North Dakota State played its first game at Minnesota in 69 years. Only a blocked 42-yard field-goal attempt on the game’s final play preserved a 10-9 Gophers’ win. Instead of creating angst with a squandered opportunity, the loss solidified both the realities and possibilities facing the program.
“That was a time when I realized it tipped the scale,” Taylor said. “There were 30,000 fans down there. It was almost like a big bowl game.”
Since that 2006 loss to Minnesota, the Bison are unbeaten against FBS programs. FBS opponents trampled by the Bison include Kansas, Minnesota (twice), Iowa State and defending Big 12 champion Kansas State in 2013. Every win was away from Fargo and only the Kansas State victory in hindsight was considered a major upset.
So, how in God’s green earth did Saturday’s game at Kinnick Stadium get scheduled? And, in Iowa’s case, why?
Taylor and Iowa athletics director Gary Barta developed a friendship over the years. Barta, a Minneapolis native, played quarterback for the Bison in the mid-1980s and capped his playing career with a D-II championship in 1986. Taylor frequently asked Barta about pairing up on the field, and in 2011, they agreed to a game in 2016 for $500,000. That still was before North Dakota State became North Dakota State.
“People would say, ‘Why would you play North Dakota State?’ ” Taylor said. “You have nothing to win and a lot to lose. We played Kansas State and beat them, beat Minnesota a couple of times, but this (Iowa) will be the best team that North Dakota State, in terms of Power 5 schools, will have played.”
When asked directly about the upside for playing North Dakota State, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz quipped, “We probably have to have a scheduling meeting.”
“We’ll let other people worry about perception,” Ferentz said. “Their top 40, I would say, probably is as good as anybody’s.”
Barta, who became Iowa’s athletics director in 2006, said scheduling the game had more to do with North Dakota State’s stature and the their traveling fans than his personal feelings. With estimates of 7,000 to 10,000 Bison fans in attendance, Barta suspects, “This will be the most fans any opponent has ever brought into Kinnick Stadium in many years, if not since the time I’ve been here.”
“There will be a lot more fans here Saturday than there were from the Iowa State contingent,” Taylor said.
The annual Iowa-Iowa State game was sold out last week.
Nostalgia and warm greetings will be commonplace on Saturday. Barta still donates to his alma mater. Taylor openly wept at his departure news conference in 2014. North Dakota State coach Chris Klieman was raised in Waterloo, Iowa. He attended Iowa football camps in the 1980s and quickly recalled then-assistants Barry Alvarez, Dan McCarney, Bill Snyder, Bob Stoops and Ferentz as instructors. Klieman said their guidance inspired him to become a coach.
Klieman played college football at Northern Iowa, then coached there in two stints along with Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa. North Dakota State leading rusher Lance Dunn graduated from Waterloo West, which competes in the same high school conference as the Iowa City public schools. Bison redshirt freshman linebacker Jake Brinkman attended Iowa City Regina.
No one will experience the range of emotions quite like Taylor. He built the Bison into a powerhouse. He hired Klieman to replace Craig Bohl, who now coaches at Wyoming. In his first fall at Iowa, Taylor faced North Dakota State men’s basketball in a nonconference game. But this is entirely different.
“Once the game gets started it will be fine,” Taylor said. “But it will be different walking into the stadium seeing those guys across the way.”
“It will be interesting to see if he’ll have an NDSU shirt on underneath his Hawk shirt,” Klieman said, half joking. “I know he won’t, but it will be good to see Gene.”
Bison fans still revere Taylor, two years after leaving Fargo.
“(Iowa fans) have got a gem,” Killoran said. “He’s genuinely a great guy. We were not happy when (Iowa) stole him away.
“I’m sure it will tug at him a little bit.”
Barta, a proud alum who attended the Bison’s 2015 FCS championship in Frisco, Texas, was clear his interests lie with Iowa.
“There is absolutely zero split loyalty on Saturday,” Barta said.
ESPN’s College GameDay twice has aired live from Fargo, the same number of visits to Iowa City. The Fargodome seats about 19,000, and nearly every one is full on game days. According to the U.S. Department of Education, North Dakota State football pulled in about $4.6 million in 2014 revenue, ahead of a handful of FBS programs but without the benefit of FBS television income or seven-figure guarantees.
Discussion swirls at Fargo bars like the Herd and Horns about whether the Bison could make the jump to FBS. Maybe the Big 12 is unrealistic, but what about the Mountain West or American Athletic Conference?
“It would be interesting to see,” Taylor said. “I think they could compete in a lot of conferences.”
“It’s a heated debate at the local pubs for sure,” Killoran said. “For me it’s really difficult. I’m OK with being a big fish in a small pond versus a little fish in a big pond. Winning cures a lot of things but if you’re a .600 football team, it’s hard to get the following we do right now. The unknown scares me, but it scared me going from D-II to D-I.”
This weekend, their goal is to win respect on the field and among Iowa City establishments, like they do annually in Frisco for the FCS title game. Bison fans take over the town and in several cases, they drink it dry.
“They’d run out of beer,” said Taylor, recalling a pep rally at a Frisco hotel. “They were bringing in beers on cases and people were just taking them off and buying them from them. I walk out and there’s a bunch of police officers and I did my thing, and I was going back to the hotel and thanked them for being there. He said, ‘You know what? You’re the nicest drunk people I’ve ever met in my life.’ He said, ‘We actually sent a lot of our officers home because we knew there wasn’t going to be any trouble.’ I thought it was a pretty nice compliment.”
“The mayor from Frisco loves it when the Bison win because of what we do for the local economy,” Killoran said. “We come in and eat all their food, we drink all of their booze and then we go home without breaking anything.”
Iowa City provides the Bison entourage with their greatest challenge. The Big Ten West favorite Hawkeyes rank No. 13 nationally, won 12 games last year and feature several NFL prospects. Iowa also has landed in Playboy Magazine’s top-six party school countdown in each of the last five years. But that status also provides a figurative barometer for which the North Dakota State faithful to measure.
“As a fan, it’s a whole other level when you talk about Iowa Hawkeye football versus Minnesota Gopher football,” Killoran said. “Let’s call a spade a spade. The Hawkeyes were in the Rose Bowl. It’s a big deal.
“I’m just excited to go down and see them play against top-tiered competition and see how they compete against one of the best teams in the country.”