The old offices for North Dakota State football consisted of bathroom-sized rooms in a narrow hallway at the old Bison Sports Arena. It was in this iconic space where the potential of Louisiana State quarterback Joe Burrow was first realized by real Division I eyes.
While the newly hired Bison coaches in 2003 worked putting together a program, the kid spent hours in the hallway throwing a Nerf football. Sometimes it would bounce into the only meeting room. At one point, Bison assistant coach Dan Enos watched the kid throw and was immediately impressed. Assistant Pat Perles was guarded on this assessment.
“I’m like, ‘Really Danny?’” Perles said on Thursday. “The kid is 7 years old and you’re telling me he already has a good throwing motion and you can evaluate it at this age? He says, ‘Yeah.’”
With NDSU still a Division II school, Perles asked assistant coach Brent Vigen what the highest honor was for an NCAA Division II player. Vigen told him the Harlon Hill Award.
“I was like, how about that guys, we have a Harlon Hill Award winner waiting for us in 2014 or 2015 or whenever,” Perles said.
A few days later, NDSU assistant Jimmy Burrow brought his son Joe to the offices again. And once again, the kid was throwing the Nerf football all over the place.
“I keep saying, there’s our Harlon Hill winner,” Perles said. “He’s ready. We got him. First Jeff Bentrim, now Joey Burrow. Everybody was laughing.”
They’re still laughing — all the way to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony on Saturday night. Joe Burrow is the overwhelming favorite, and barring Russian interference in the voting process, he will have his name etched in the history of college football.
Jimmy Burrow will be there. He was Craig Bohl’s first defensive coordinator when Bohl got the Bison job in 2003. The two with strong University of Nebraska ties spent two years together in Fargo before Burrow moved on to Ohio University, where he coached under Frank Solich until retiring last year.
It’s debatable to which former Bison coach first saw greatness in young Joe: Enos or former Bison men’s basketball coach Tim Miles. Jimmy Burrow said the first trophy Joe ever got was at Miles’ summer basketball camp.
“Jump start to greatness,” Miles said this week. “Some of us saw it from young Joe from the beginning.”
The beginning on the academic side was Centennial Elementary in south Fargo, where Joe went to first and second grade. So, all you Centennial graduates out there, you can boast that your school will produce a Heisman Trophy winner.
Or the Fargo Park District T-ball baseball program, where Joe got his first taste of being on a sports team.
“He was involved in sports as soon as he could,” Jimmy Burrow said. “He was always pretty athletic. He loved to compete and that’s the thing that keeps coming out over the years. Especially in interviews, everybody calls him a competitor and that showed up right away in the sports he was involved in Fargo.”
In Fargo, Jimmy Burrow was on the ground floor of Bison football. The 2003 season, albeit still Division II, technically was the first year of a five-year Division I transition. The 2004 year was the first for a Division I FCS schedule.
Burrow’s defense shut out Valparaiso 52-0 in the first Division I game. His Tampa 2 held off Nicholls State (La.) 24-14 in the first D-I road victory. NDSU convincingly won its last three games against Northwestern State (La.), on the road at Weber State (Utah) and at the Fargodome against UC Davis to finish 8-3.
Then it was on to Athens, Ohio, where Joe Burrow developed into one of the top quarterback prospects in the country, a four-star recruit from Athens High School. He was Mr. Football in the state of Ohio. He signed with Ohio State and spent three years with the Buckeyes, one as a redshirt and two as a seldom-used backup.
A good student (most likely thanks to his Centennial teachers for starting him right in the classroom), he went to LSU in 2018 as a graduate transfer and was eligible immediately. He became the first player in LSU history to throw for more than 2,500 yards and rush for more than 350 in a season.
This year has been a chart topper leading the Tigers to an unbeaten regular season and a No. 1-seed heading into the College Football Playoff.
Meanwhile, the Bison will be hosting Illinois State on Saturday morning in the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs. Jimmy Burrow said when he and Bohl first got to NDSU, they weren’t sure how good FCS players were since they came from an FBS program.
What’s happened since, of course, has been college football history.
“I’m proud, I cheer for them,” Burrow said. “I’m proud of the fact that I was on Craig’s staff and we kind of started the process. The foundation and the culture was established in Craig’s first couple of years and I was fortunate to be a part of that.”
So were the principles of offense and defense. The Bison still run essentially the same style of offense and defense that Bohl and Burrow brought to NDSU.
“So there’s a sense of pride in the fact that they’ve been able to do as much as they have,” Burrow said. “And the ability to change coaches and continue to do a great job … that you have different head coaches and still win championships is impressive.”