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Schnepf: In Frisco and Fargo, Bison love is in the air

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North Dakota State University football players celebrate their 17-6 win over Sam Houston State during the Football Championship Subdivision title game Saturday, Jan. 7, at FC Dallas Stadium in Frisco, Texas. The title is the school’s first since moving up to Division I in 2004. Carrie Snyder / The Forum

FRISCO, Texas — Rocky Hager has always been an emotional guy. But it was certainly understandable when tears welled up in his eyes as he overlooked the stadium where North Dakota State University's football team claimed a national championship Saturday.

"Just look at this," Hager said, pointing to the 21,000-seat stadium that was more than half full of green-and-yellow-clad Bison fans. There had to be anywhere from 11,000 to 12,000 Bison fans cheering on a 17-6 victory over Sam Houston State University.

"The volume of people, the intensity of the enthusiasm is really special," said Hager, NDSU's all-time-winningest coach who was dismissed back in 1996, much to the disliking of many of those same Bison fans yelling Saturday. "I know we had a pretty good thing going when I was there, but nothing like this."

Hager, who had 91 career wins at NDSU, won NCAA Division II national championships in 1988 and 1990. Not only did Saturday's win mark NDSU's first national title since 1990, but its first since making the move to Division I in 2004.

"We barely hatched at that time," Hager said. "I don't know what the limit of this program is. I don't know if there is a limit."

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Former North Dakota State University coach Rocky Hager watches as the Bison football team prepares to take the field Saturday, Jan. 7, against Sam Houston State at FC Dallas Stadium in Frisco, Texas. Carrie Snyder / The Forum

After Saturday's win that had Bison fans filling half the field during the postgame celebration, the sky certainly seemed like the limit. Fans in the north end zone even chanted "LSU, LSU" in reference to taking on Louisiana State, the top-ranked team in the top division of college football.

Once Bison fans come down to earth, talk of playing with those big boys will subside. But the impact a championship run has on NDSU is immeasurable - much like the visibility the school received when the Bison men's basketball team reached the prestigious NCAA tournament in 2009.

"It feels like a Final Four," said Missouri Football Valley Conference commissioner Patty Viverito, who saw her league win its first championship since 1997.

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NDSU athletic director Gene Taylor said it's hard to know what kind of impact this will have on the school. But if nothing else, it removes all doubts that he made the right decision when the Bison made the move to Division I.
"This solidifies everything," Taylor said. "It closes the book on the transition."

And it starts a new era for NDSU, which got some valuable exposure from a national television audience on ESPN2 and playing in an area where three of the nation's largest cities (Dallas, Houston and San Antonio) sit.

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Jake Axtman of Bismarck carries around a life-size cutout of North Dakota State University head football coach Craig Bohl on Saturday, Jan. 7, at FC Dallas Stadium in Frisco, Texas. Carrie Snyder / The Forum

"You can't buy that kind of exposure" is always the comment heard from school officials basking in athletic success.

NDSU's football team has numerous returning starters for next year. A young men's basketball team is off to an impressive start this year. Once the Bison Sports Arena undergoes its lavish renovation, the sky may be the limit there, too - at least in terms of someday playing in the more prestigious Missouri Valley Conference.

"This has certainly raised the profile in a positive way," Viverito said. "But it certainly doesn't trigger any immediate changes."

What was triggered this weekend was the lasting impression the mammoth Bison following left on people - including NCAA President Mark Emmert, who was in attendance Saturday.

"I'm very impressed, and this is not exactly in their neighborhood," Emmert said. "The impact is significant. This puts North Dakota State on a national stage."

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Thousands of North Dakota State University fans filled FC Dallas Stadium in Frisco, Texas, Saturday, Jan. 7, for the Football Championship Subdivision title game against Sam Houston State. Carrie Snyder / The Forum

Tom Burnett, the commissioner of the Southland Conference that hosts this championship game, was blown away, comparing the Bison following to the 12,000 Kansas State or 12,000 Arkansas fans that came to Dallas for Friday night's Cotton Bowl.

"This is a similar-type following, and to come all this way, my gosh," Burnett said. "It's so great to have this program at this level. This is absolutely what we have to have. I am tickled pink."

So was NDSU President Dean Bresciani, who was also among the more than 5,000 fans who crammed into a nearby hotel ballroom for Friday night's pep rally. It left the hotel high and dry of any liquid refreshments.

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Sen. John Hoeven, left, congratulates North Dakota State University’s President Dean Bresciani at the FCS title game against Sam Houston State on Saturday, Jan. 7, 2012, in Frisco, Texas. Carrie Snyder / The Forum

"We tried to warn them," said Bresciani, whose alumni head honchos had a Minneapolis hotel call the Plano, Texas, hotel about the Bison following during last month's win over the Gophers. "Even I have to admit this is a bit overwhelming."

Rocky Hager was certainly overwhelmed. Some fans who spotted him at Friday night's pep rally started to cry.

"You know you are loved," Hager said.

And today, Bison football is loved. And it will continue to be loved, according to Hager, who had high praise for Bison head coach Craig Bohl.

"Today is like the construction of the building of the pyramids," said Hager, always good for being a bit overdramatic. "But it all started back in the 1960s with coaches like Mudra, Erhardt, Wacker, Solomonson and Morton and has continued with Bohl. It's pretty special."

Readers can reach Forum Sports Editor Kevin Schnepf at (701) 241-5549 or kschnepf@forumcomm.com .

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