UND-NDSU matchup brings back the 'North Dakota Super Bowl' after 12 years
When North Dakota travels to Fargo next Saturday to take on the North Dakota State University Bison, the four-time defending NCAA Football Championship Series champion, it'll mark the revival of a once-intense rivalry that abruptly ended a dozen years ago.
It was a rivalry that lasted 109 years, one that even was featured in an NFL Films documentary series, Football America. The segment, subtitled "Fire and Ice," included footage of UND's 21-7 regular season victory over the Bison in 1995.
"Interest is so high that two dozen cities across the country set up satellite feeds for alumni of both schools," actor and narrator of the segment James Coburn said.
But the rivalry ended in 2003, as NDSU moved from Division II to Division I. A few years later, UND followed the Bison to the FCS a few years later, but the annual grudge match was left off their fall schedules and on the sideline--until this year.
It will not be an annual, home-and-home affair, however. After Saturday's game, the next regular-season matchup is not scheduled until 2019, again at the Fargodome.
For the most part, the UND-NDSU series has been one of streaks, with UND holding an overall 62-44-3 lead, although NDSU holds a 12-1 advantage in national titles.
UND dominated the 1950s and early 1960s. Then NDSU took over, notching six straight wins in the mid- to late-1960s, including three national championships in that span.
The two teams split their 10 games in the 1970s, and the Bison started a 12-game winning streak over UND in 1981.
Roger Thomas, UND's head coach from 1986 through 1998, and then the school's athletic director until 2005, remembers how difficult that losing streak was for coaches, players and fans to endure.
"They were just very, very good at that time," Thomas said. "Not only were they your rival, but they were highly rated in the country. It was double trouble. We just couldn't compete, especially in the late 1980s."
The Bison won three national titles, one under Coach Earl Solomonson and two under Rocky Hager, in Thomas' first five seasons at UND.
But Thomas and his staff, which by then included eventual coaching successors Dale Lennon and Bubba Schweigert, along with then-assistant coach Rob Bollinger, designed a plan to recruit and develop players to counter the Bison's vaunted, run-oriented veer offense, as well as to develop a passing attack of their own.
"We worked hard at recruiting," Thomas said. "It was an era of two or three games where it was very close, but we just couldn't get over the hump."
It also was about that time that fans started showing up at Memorial Stadium hours before gametime, with barbecue grills and beverage coolers in tow.
It was Schweigert, now UND's head coach, and former Athletics Director Terry Wanless who sparked the trend, according to Mark Holm, a Grand Forks accountant who was part of one of the early tailgating groups.
"He (Wanless) couldn't believe we didn't have any tailgating," Holm said.
Schweigert asked Holm and some of his softball teammates if they would consider tailgating at games, as a way to inspire excitement in home games.
Holm's group of about 10 friends, along with a couple of other groups, started grilling hamburgers or brats on the east side of the stadium, between the east bleacher seats and the old Winter Sports Arena, the hockey arena that later was renamed the original Engelstad Arena, where visiting teams had lockers.
The Palmiscno and Whalen families of Grand Forks and their friends were among the other early tailgaters, he said.
"One of the first games was against Morningside," Holm said. "It was about 30 degrees outside. At halftime, their coaches stopped by to warm up by the grill."
As the tailgating trend grew, so did the home-crowd influence, as fans peppered opposing players and coaches with good-natured ribbing and even some mean-spirited insults as they walked or jogged past, on their way to or from the field.
Holm vividly recalls the 1993 rivalry game at Memorial Stadium, when UND finally ended the Bison winning streak.
"Rocky Hager was the coach," he said. "He figured out he had to come through a different entrance because they got too much grief from the fans, from the tailgaters."
That day, UND took a come-from-behind 22-21 victory when linebacker Mike Mooney stripped the ball from a Bison player and carried it into the endzone in the game's waning moments.
"That was pretty exciting," Thomas said, "That's a big thrill, just to beat your rival. It was like New Year's Eve in Grand Forks that night."
The following year, UND routed the Bison 34-13 in their first game against each other in the Fargodome.
After that, UND won eight of the next 11 games against the Bison, culminating in a 28-21 overtime victory in 2003 at the Alerus Center, securing the Nickel Trophy--the long-standing symbol of the rivalry--a home in Grand Forks, where it remains.
The Nickel will not be on the line next week, however, because UND since has retired its Fighting Sioux nickname.
Mike Mannausau was part of that winning tradition, first as a player from 1994 to 1998, as an assistant coach and then as assistant head coach and defensive coordinator between 2001 and 2013, when he was named executive director of the UND Champions Club, a primary source of private financial support for UND athletics.
He also was part of UND's 2001 national Division II football championship.
"I was very lucky," Mannausau said. "I missed all the heartbreaking losses."
Thomas, who now is athletic director at the University of Mary in Bismarck, served as UND's athletics director for the 2001 national championship season.
"That was absolutely great to finally get to that point," he said. "Dale Lennon is a dear friend and he was coaching that team. It was just fun to do that for UND and for the community.
"They teased me," Thomas said of the teams coaches. "They kind of called me the godfather. That's kind of how I felt. I was around the team, but not directly involved in it."
His career brought high and low points, and Thomas said losing the UND-NDSU rivalry is among the saddest.
"It means a little something to most everybody in the state," he said. "The rivalry; the back and forth. After it ended, it was kind of like a void. It was too bad, I think, for the players. If you talk to Bison alum or UND alum, they're reminiscing about those games over the years."
"The rivalry meant so much at that time," Mannausau said of his early years with the program. "UND was competitive again. We were recruiting competitively throughout the state."
Thomas and Mannausau said it's disappointing that so many players never had a chance to experience the rivalry.
"This is something the whole state can get excited about," Mannausau said of next weekend's contest.
"NDSU has had a lot of success recently, with four straight national championships," he said. "For our players, it's so much bigger than the game. Hopefully, this renewed rivalry can continue. I'm just excited for the game, for the whole state."
Holm will never forget the UND-NDSU game-day ambience in Grand Forks in the 1990s and early 2000s.
"The last time they played here, it was 8 o'clock in the morning and the parking lot was full," he said. "And the game didn't start until 1 o'clock. You just don't have that atmosphere now."
But he's hopeful it will return soon, even if the game is in Fargo.
"I don't think it's going to take much," Holm said. "I don't think they're going to miss a beat."
Thomas has fond memories, too.
"I don't remember all the scores; I don't remember games against other teams," Thomas said, "but I remember all those games with the Bison. For a couple of hours on a Saturday, almost everybody in the state is watching. It's fun, really fun. I think a player deserves that kind of thrill in this state.
"That Football America thing, that kind of tells the story of how great the rivalry was," Thomas said. "That was kind of like the North Dakota Super Bowl."
However, he's not so sure the rivalry will ever reach the level it once did.
"There's not a player on either team that has been through this experience," Thomas said. "They're not playing every year and they're not even playing in the same league. It's going to take some time."