FARGO — North Dakota State defeated Valparaiso (Ind.) 52-0 in the first Division I football game played at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome. It was in 2004 and the marketing blitz the NDSU administration put into the game bordered on all-out effort.
It worked. The game was a sellout, rare in those days. After the game, then-athletic director Gene Taylor told assistant athletic director Troy Goergen that university president Joe Chapman wanted to see him in his office.
Goergen wondered if he was in trouble. Taylor and Chapman played it up like he was.
“I think he was a little nervous, put it that way,” Taylor said this week.
Once in Chapman’s office, the administrators presented Goergen with a “pet rock” after Forum newspaper columnist Mike McFeely wrote the marketing campaign was “one of the most masterful marketing jobs since the Pet Rock.”
They all had a good laugh.
Goergen still has the rock with Valparaiso coming to the dome for the second time Saturday afternoon for a 2:30 kickoff. Seventeen years later, the Valpo program has pretty much remained what it was while NDSU went on to win eight FCS national titles in a nine-year span.
It had to start somewhere.
When it comes to the NDSU game-day atmosphere, perhaps the beginning date was Aug. 28, 2004, with the Valparaiso game. It was the culmination of a marketing effort that started earlier that year and never fell off.
For starters, Bison fans needed an education on the different levels of Division I football from the FBS Big Ten Conference to the non-scholarship FCS Pioneer League, of which Valparaiso is a member. NDSU began play in the five-team Great West Football Conference that season, but nobody really knew much about the rest of the FCS, which was Division I-AA back then.
For many fans, their footprint of football for decades consisted of the old North Central Conference teams mainly in North and South Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa.
“They just assumed we weren’t ready or other DI teams were always better,” said Taylor, now the athletic director at Kansas State. “We felt pretty good about our team, but there was definitely an educational period.”
The marketing tools were anything and everything, from bartenders wearing Bison jerseys with the No. 1 on them to yard signs. A large Division I football banner, probably the largest ever seen in Fargo, hung on the north wall of the Bison Sports Arena for a long time.
A lot of what NDSU did before the ‘04 game is still around today, like the yard signs. It was an election year in 2004 when the idea first surfaced.
“Every politician had a yard sign and we thought we should too,” Goergen said.
NDSU distributed 2,500 this year.
“We were at Scheels last week, it was pouring rain and 150 people were standing in line in the rain for 600 yard signs,” Goergen said.
The official attendance for the Valpo game was 18,655 in a stadium that carries a capacity of 18,700. Keep in mind NDSU averaged 11,567 fans in 2003 and 10,620 in 2002.
“We watched other schools ease into it,” Taylor said of the Division I move. “We went aggressive in terms of scholarships and funding and making sure when we got there we were as completely funded as we could possibly be. But we knew we had an advantage with facilities and tradition, particularly in football. And Craig was building it.”
That was head coach Craig Bohl, whose previous coaching stops included five Division I schools. He knew the level of play.
It was everybody else who really didn’t know.
“It’s easy to look at now but back then Valpo wasn’t looked at like that,” said Justin Swanson, director of development for the NDSU Foundation, who was a student manager in 2004. “There was a different type of buzz. You could feel it.”
Swanson said the even-keeled Bohl knew what kind of opponent the Bison had in the Crusaders, who changed their nickname to the Beacons this summer.
“He was not going to tip his hand to the players though,” Swanson said.
Besides, it was more about creating an atmosphere. In 2003, Bohl started the pregame intro of lights out and a tunnel walk from the locker room to the field that was filmed live to the stadium video boards.
Chapman assembled an on-campus group to coordinate the marketing effort for the 2004 season.
“The focus and the goal was to sell the game out and usher in the Division I era,” Goergen said. “In hindsight, people knew the potential of what the Fargodome could be for fans. It’s become a badge of honor for fans to be part of a top college atmosphere in the country. So many things went into it. That was the start of the era.”
The advent of tailgating coincided with the Valpo game. NDSU, in a news conference 12 days prior to the game, announced alcohol was going to be allowed in the west parking lot. The rules and times allowed for tailgating have not changed since.
On the field, running back Kyle Steffes ran for 175 yards and four touchdowns. Quarterback Tony Stauss threw touchdown passes to Travis White and Marques Johnson. Defensive end Alvin Robinson had 10 tackles.
Division I football became a thing.