From a few rumblings came a thundering herd: A brief history of Bison football
(Editor's note: This article was originally published on Aug. 27, 2015.)
FARGO -- There’s no better nickname for the North Dakota State football team than “the Thundering Herd.”
Not only does it call to mind the trampling power of a massive wave of muscle—a perfect metaphor for a football team—but it also describes their entourage of green-and-gold clad fans, an equally unstoppable force ready to take Missoula by storm this weekend when the Bison open their season against the Grizzlies of the University of Montana.
But once, this deafening roar was only the tiniest of tremors. It began back in 1894 when NDSU, then the North Dakota Agricultural College Farmers, took the field against the University of North Dakota, then the Flickertails. Both had minimal squads that played on offense and defense.
The Farmers of NDSU won 20-4. They also won a rematch that same year. Excitement began to swirl around the team and football in general and, like thunder, kept rolling. These humble first rumblings of the Bison were the subject of a look back at the history of the program published in The Forum in 2004, when NDSU began competing in Division I athletics. The article is reprinted below in its entirety.
Storied tradition started off small
By Brittany Lawonn
Today’s Bison game with Valparaiso will write a new chapter in North Dakota State University’s storied football history: the first Division I game in Fargo.
The football fans have grown with the school’s enrollment. From its first graduating class of five in 1895 to today’s enrollment of nearly 12,000, the team has gone from a few huddled masses congregating along its home sidelines to a climate-controlled dome seating more than 18,000. Today’s game is expected to host a sellout crowd. “That was our goal all along, to have this game full,” said Josh Hemingway, NDSU’s ticket manager. There were fewer than 100 tickets remaining Friday when the ticket office closed at 5 p.m., but as many as 150 additional visitor tickets could be made available today if Valparaiso fans don’t claim them. NDSU football wasn’t always this popular. John Graber, 87, can still recall when crowds of 40 to 50 huddled in the cold outside Dacotah Field on campus. Graber, who first watched the Bison after sneaking into a 1926 game, now rarely misses their matchups.
Looking back on the days when North Dakota Agricultural College was referred to as “Moo U” because of the barns along Fargo’s Centennial Drive, Graber can name off the school’s famous players and coaches as well as today’s standouts.
“They’ve been the best local team,” Graber said. “You’ve really seen the best football out of them.” Graber, whose north Fargo condominium boasts several bison statuettes, said he has been ready for the Division I move for years and believes NDSU is ready for the change.
"I just think they’ve been an asset to the city of Fargo,” he said. “People who’ve never heard of Fargo have heard of the Bison.”
But people didn’t begin hearing about the Bison team name until 1922; 28 years after the school had its first football team. In the state’s first official football game – Nov. 3, 1894 – the NDAC Farmers defeated the University of North Dakota Flickertails 20-4. Both teams would later change their mascots, UND to the Sioux, and NDAC to the Aggies and, eventually, the Bison in 1922.
The rivalry that began in that first game in Grand Forks wouldn’t change for more than a century, ending in 2003. The two schools did break off all athletic ties for brief periods in 1903 and 1907 because the rivalry became so intense, according to a 1975 Forum article.
But the competition quickly began again. The 1894 team defeated UND twice, making the players local heroes and drawing newfound attention to football. The two games that first year made the Farmers’ first quarterback, Robert B. Reed, a lifetime Bison supporter, who told his tales to his granddaughter, Lisa Duckstad, for a 1955 Forum article.
According to the article, the two 1894 teams were so short on players that professors were put into the games. Football teams would remain small-sided, often using players for both offense and defense.
“In those days they did everything; they played both directions,” Graber said.
The Bison-Sioux rivalry would continue to flourish as the game became more complex. A 1965 Forum article compared the Sioux’s 12-year domination over the Bison to Custer’s Last Stand. In 1965, during the 70th football meeting between the teams, the Bison defeated the Sioux 6-3 in front of a record 11,500 fans at Dacotah Field. That Bison team would go on to complete for its first undefeated and untied season since 1911.
The team was named the nation’s top small-college football team in The Associated Press’ weekly poll, ending the season with a 20-7 victory over the Grambling College Tigers in the Pecan Bowl in Abilene, Texas. But the No. 1 ranking came just three years after the Thundering Herd went 0-10 and one year after the North Dakota’s first post-season bowl competition, the 1964 Mineral Bowl in Excelsior Springs, Mo.
The Bison defeated Western Colorado 14-13 in front of 6,000 fans, some of whom traveled all the way from Fargo. Special trains were scheduled and quarterly exams were delayed to allow students to attend the game for $21.10 roundtrip.
The Fargo City Commission declared Nov. 28 “Bison Day” in recognition of the 1964 team’s accomplishment, a recognition Gov. William Guy would later follow. Guy proclaimed April 30, 1966 “National Championship Day in North Dakota” to recognize the 1965 Bison’s accomplishment.
But the team’s success and recognition eventually led to the resignation of two professors who blasted the school’s emphasis on football, according to a 1966 Forum article. Despite the flap, NDSU would continue to gain recognition as well as funding from the city. The Fargo City Commission allocated $35,000 in federal revenue in 1985 for new artificial turf at Dacotah Field.
Dacotah Field was a site of constant change, both in location and makeup. In 1910, it was north of Festive Hall on campus. A quarter-mile cinder track and a 7,000-seat stadium were added in 1938 as part of one of the federal government’s Works Progress Administration construction projects. But the field would move farther north in 1949 to its present location, completed in time for the 1950 season.
A 1952 fire destroyed two-thirds of the north stands but, in 1972, the remaining wooden bleachers were replaced with a new 7,000-seat grandstand, courtesy of the New England Patriots. NDSU won its final game on Dacotah Field in 1992 and still uses the turf for practice and high school games.
The team began playing its games in the 18,700-seat Fargodome in 1993. Graber said the move indoors was a welcomed one, as fans dreaded the winter weather that accompanied many outdoor games.
“I sat out there with a parka and long underwear, and that business just gets old,” he said.
One game against the Concordia Cobbers sticks out in Graber’s memory because fans on both sides huddled for warmth. Graber said he used to mutter to himself when the Bison made bad plays, but he’s since grown out of that habit.
“When you get older, it kind of loses its luster,” Graber said. “You don’t get as upset when they lose.”