(Editor's note: The Forum's Mike McFeely traveled to Harrisonburg, Va., in Oct. 2018 to chronicle the James Madison University football program, which has emerged as the top challenger to North Dakota State's spot atop the Football Championship Subdivision. While there, McFeely found a program with facilities, administrative commitment and a passionate fan base similar to the Bison's. Since the Bison and Dukes are meeting Saturday for the FCS title game, The Forum will re-post some of McFeely's columns from his trip to Virginia. Here is one of the reports McFeely filed.)
This column originally ran Oct. 6, 2018.
HARRISONBURG, Va. — Those who tailgate before James Madison University football games know this about their counterparts at North Dakota State: Bison fans know how to party.
They mean that in both a positive and negative sense.
Oh, and Dukes fans are hoping for a rematch against NDSU in Frisco, Texas. That's the home of the Division I FCS championship game.
"We always keep our eye on NDSU. Three years ago I didn't even know NDSU existed and now they are on my radar, they are on my ESPN app," said Kelly Zuber of Roanoke, Va. "I have to keep an eye on them and what's going on there."
Some tailgaters who were out before JMU's game against Elon on Saturday, Oct. 6, were in Frisco in January when the Dukes and Bison played for the national championship. NDSU won 17-13 for its sixth title in seven years, but JMU fans came away mostly impressed with the Bison team and its tailgaters.
"We don't quite tailgate here like they do in Fargo or Frisco," said Cheryle Deacon of Forest, Va. "Oh my. No."
"Somebody offered me a beer at 8 o'clock in the morning," Hayley Necessary of Richmond said. "It was like, whoa."
Yes, the JMU tailgate crowd is smaller, more genteel and later-arriving than NDSU's, but it's still better than many FCS schools. Up in the Convocation Center lot, behind the arena where the JMU basketball teams play and a fair hike from Bridgeforth Stadium, the tailgating got started at 8 a.m. for a handful of fans. Kickoff was 1:30 p.m.
The tailgaters on this day were particularly late because of a crash on Interstate 81 that backed up traffic for about seven miles.
What impressed so many JMU fans about NDSU tailgating were the decked-out RVs so many Bison fans have. There wasn't an RV or bus to be spotted among Dukes fans, even those closest to the stadium in the swanky areas.
And Dukes fans would love to see the Bison come to Harrisonburg for a game.
"It would be amazing with the RVs and everybody coming and the passion of both fan bases. That would be would be really cool," said Michael Evangelista, a 2012 JMU grad now living two hours away in Washington, D.C. "I would say we follow NDSU really closely. We look at (the Bison) as sort of a rival and I think we're stepping up to the plate as well."
That's something else noticeable while wandering around JMU tailgating. Dukes fans are well aware of NDSU and almost all would like to see JMU and the Bison get to the national title game in Frisco again.
"There's no denying we keep our eyes on them, right?" said Justin Partlow of Arlington, Va. "If you ask any JMU fans, they would love to have that rematch in Frisco to play again. If you ask NDSU fan in Frisco last year, the dream would be to get back and play JMU again. It's something everybody is watching."
There is one obvious similarity between Dukes fans and Bison fans. Both have sky-high expectations. That is a change for JMU that's occurred because of the national title and runner-up finishes the last two years.
"I would say 100 percent. They had an event on the football field last night and the people were saying, 'Where you staying in Frisco?'" Brandon Bowyer of Harrisonburg said. "I just think the the expectation that we're going to make it year after year and it's going to be a consistent thing is still relatively new. It's really exciting."