The autumn storm that socked in large swaths of North Dakota, including the closure of interstate freeways 94 and 29 in much of the state, impacted attendance at Saturday's football game between North Dakota State and Northern Iowa. It was NDSU's homecoming game, usually the most-attended contest of the season, yet there were an unusual number of empty seats at the Fargodome.
This can surely be attributed to difficult travel conditions for fans and alumni living west or south of Fargo. Any Bison fan worth the salt on their margarita glass would do anything to get to a homecoming game against the despised Panthers and intense head coach Mark Farley.
But, as I was reminded via Twitter by Bison superfan Bob Clark, this weekend's weather-related difficulties did not compare to those NDSU and other North Central Conference schools encountered in 1991.
That was the year of the famed Halloween Blizzard of 1991 — all capitalized words because of its magnitude — that shut down large parts of the Upper Midwest and had football teams scrambling for a place to sleep, much less play their games.
The storm swept out of northern Texas and between Oct. 31 and Nov. 2 crushed parts of Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota and Minnesota with more than a foot of snow. The Twin Cities received 28.4 inches while Duluth got 36.9 inches.
In Iowa, according to the National Weather Service, "80,000 homes were without power and there was $63 million in utility damage. Ten to fifteen percent of the corn crop was still in the fields and the combination of ice, snow, and wind from this storm flattened some fields. Crop damage was estimated up to $5 million. This storm is considered the most costly ice storm in Iowa history. It took over a week to restore power in some rural areas."
Wind speeds of 30 to 50 mph, and gusts to 60 mph on November 1 and 2, created blizzard conditions across eastern South Dakota, Minnesota, western Iowa, and extreme western Wisconsin. The weather service said at least 20 people died in Minnesota in traffic accidents or because of heart attacks while digging out after the storm.
In the middle of this maelstrom, the Bison were supposed to host Nebraska-Omaha in a key late-season game at Dacotah Field. Four of the five NCC games that weekend were going to have a bearing on the league championship and the NCAA Division II playoffs, according to former Forum sportswriter Ed Kolpack's book, "Bison Football: Three Decades of Excellence."
Nebraska-Omaha actually traveled as far as South Sioux City, Neb., on Friday, Nov. 1 before I-29 between Sioux City, Iowa, and Sioux Falls, S.D., closed. The Mavericks checked into the Marina Inn in South Sioux City and never did make it to Fargo before the league on Saturday, Nov. 2, cancelled all league games. Some had been postponed until Sunday — and fourth-ranked Northern Colorado had actually made it safely to Grand Forks to play one-loss but unranked North Dakota — before league commissioner Noel Olson cancelled all five league games.
UND desperately wanted to play the game because it believed it needed a quality win to make the postseason field.
"If we beat Colorado, it would have really helped," UND coach Roger Thomas told writer Kevin Schnepf of The Forum. "Then again, we might have lost. Then what? There are a lot of theories flying around on what this does, who this helps and who it hurts. What it does is create more material for you guys (sportswriters) to write about."
Thomas' club at least was safe at home. The same could not be said of other teams. St. Cloud State hit the road for Brookings, S.D., to play South Dakota State before having to stop in Clara City, Minn. Normally a 90-minute drive from St. Cloud, it took the Huskies four hours to get to Clara City.
When coach Noel Martin and his team rolled into the tiny Minnesota town, the only motel in town (the Clara City Motel) was full. So the Huskies had to hit the road again to nearby Granite Falls and checked into the Super 8.
"That's normally a 20-minute drive but it took us an hour today," Martin told Schnepf. "Holy buckets, this is the first trip I've had like this. When you move along at 10, 15, 20 miles per hour for that long. It can get on your nerves."
Mankato State was supposed to drive to Vermillion, S.D., to play South Dakota, but were delayed for a day. The Mavericks-Coyotes game was moved to Sunday before being called off altogether.
"This is the worst storm here I can ever remember," Mankato State coach Dan Runkle said to The Forum. "I got stuck twice driving home so I just walked."
The effects of the storm lingered, as one would imagine. NDSU's game the following weekend at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa, was moved to the DakotaDome in Vermillion. It mattered not in the outcome of the game. The Bison racked up 614 yards of offense and beat the Chiefs 56-10 before an announced crowd of 1,500.
NDSU ended the regular season with a 35-28 victory over UND at Dacotah Field to finish 7-2. The Bison made the 16-team playoff field, but lost 27-7 at home to Mankato State.
"It ranks up there with one of the best wins ever," Runkle said. "One of the greatest feelings for us to come to Fargo is to hear silence."
The dome was not silent early in Saturday's game against Northern Iowa, but it was quieter than normal with the smaller-than-usual crowd. But it was better than having no game at all.