FARGO — The Nickel Trophy is officially retired and residing at the North Dakota Heritage Center and State Museum in Bismarck. The 75-pound traveling trophy was a longtime staple in the North Dakota State-North Dakota football rivalry, one of the longest in college football history.
For former NDSU running back Chad Stark, who played for the Bison from 1983-86, the Nickel tradition endures. He recently helped create a new — and much smaller — Nickel Trophy with his neighbor, Lauris Molbert, a UND graduate who is now executive chairman of Kilbourne Group.
The winner gets to keep the trophy and bragging rights.
“There’s a bunch of Nickel trophies all over the place still,” Stark said with a laugh. “Dinner is provided to the winner along with the trophy.”
The rivalry, which was mostly dormant since 2003, reboots at 2:30 p.m. Saturday when NDSU hosts the Fighting Hawks at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome in a nonconference NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision game.
The teams last played in 2015 when the Bison earned a 34-9 victory at the Fargodome.
“The blood gets stirred (up) with the former players,” said Stark, who lives in Fargo and played on three NCAA Division II national championship teams at NDSU. “That was the Super Bowl of North Dakota. That was the game that you had to win. For football, it was just that one shining light on that game and you had to win it.”
Renewing the rivalry
With UND joining the Missouri Valley Football Conference next season, the same football league as NDSU, Bison vs. Fighting Hawks is going to become a regular event again. But Bison head coach Matt Entz said earlier this week that he wasn’t sure if current players consider UND a rivalry game, since most have yet to play against the Fighting Hawks.
“I don’t know, I haven’t asked any of them yet,” Entz said at his Monday press conference. “The majority of the guys on our team right now have have never played UND before, so I would guess if you were to ask them, they may not answer Fighting Hawks as a rival.”
NDSU and UND were unquestioned adversaries until the series, which started in 1894, took a break after the 2003 game.
“When you have a century of tradition, that doesn’t go away just because you don’t play each other very much for a decade and a half,” said Mac Schneider, a Fargo South graduate who played at UND from 1998 to 2002. “That said, if you grew up in the early 2000s, you don’t know the rivalry.”
Stark and Schneider played in an era when the rivalry arguably burned the hottest. Matt Olien, a television producer at Prairie Public in Fargo, chronicled the Division II days of the schools' football duel from 1981 to 2003. The 2012 documentary, “When They Were Kings,” also looked at the women’s basketball rivalry between the schools.
NDSU dominated the football series from 1981-92, winning 12 consecutive games. From 1993 to 2003, UND turned the tables by winning 10 of 13 games. UND won the 2003 game 28-21 in overtime in Grand Forks, the last time the two teams played for the Nickel Trophy.
The Nickel Trophy was handed over to the State Historical Society last December and the exhibit opened to the public in January, according to a spokesperson at the State Historical Society.
The 2015 game was the first Division I matchup between the schools and was not played for the Nickel because it has a buffalo on one side and a Native American head on the other. UND retired its former Fighting Sioux nickname.
“I think it’s one of those things that everyone remembered down to the play, if you competed in it," said Olien, who graduated from UND in the 1980s.
UND has a 62-46-3 edge in the all-time series, and Saturday will mark the 112th meeting between the schools. UND has a 4-2 record in the Fargodome.
Due to the hiatus from 2003 to 2015, Olien said he doesn't feel the same buzz for the NDSU-UND football game that he remembered as a student or as a fan after he graduated from UND.
“I don’t sense a big excitement about this game right now," Olien said. “In retrospect, UND should have went Division I when NDSU did.”
Being former players, Stark and Schneider have a different perspective. This week brought back memories from past rivalry games. Stark is a middle school football coach at Fargo Shanley, and one of his players is the son of former UND running back Jed Perkerewicz, who scored the winning touchdown in the 2001 Division II national championship game.
Stark said earlier this week he shared a laugh with Perkerewicz after some good-natured chatter and Stark got down into a three-point stance.
“I got a chuckle out of him," said Stark, who added he's been bombarded by text messages from former teammates and friends about the rivalry. “That’s what I love about this week. This is about the passion.”
Some have argued the rivalry can't reach the heights it once did during the Division II era. In interviews he did for the documentary, Olien said when he talked with former UND head coach Roger Thomas and former Bison head coach Rocky Hager, you could still feel the emotion. Thomas was the head coach at UND from 1986-98, while Hager was head coach at NDSU from 1987-96.
“You would interview them and you could see how they missed it," Olien said.
Olien said television personalities like Ed Schultz and Pat Sweeney, who called many of the games, brought excitement to the broadcasts that helped give the rivalry a larger-than-life feel.
"You could tell from their standpoint that this was a big deal," Olien said.
While the history of the rivalry is important for both Stark and Schneider, both agree they are interested in how the rivalry develops in the future.
“It is in a different place than where it was in the mid-'90s and early 2000s," Schneider said. “What’s exciting is the chance for this rivalry to be taken to new heights.”
While NDSU dominated the 2015 meeting at the Fargodome, limiting UND to 61 yards, Stark doesn't think it would take much to re-ignite some of the passion of yesteryear.
“I would say one UND victory, that would get it charged up pretty quick," Stark said. “It’s going to take a few years and just having it on a regular basis. If it’s a competitive game, the players will feel it.”