McFeely: NDSU-UND rivalry regains heat faster than expected
Nothing will reignite the long-dormant rivalry between the Bison and Fighting Hawks faster than the kid who's been getting sand kicked in his face for nearly two decades knocking out the bully.
FARGO — President Joe Chapman announced North Dakota State's intention to transition to NCAA Division I on Aug. 30, 2002. On Oct. 18, 2003, NDSU and the University of North Dakota played their last football game for the Nickel Trophy, a traditional prize between the longtime and very heated rivals.
UND administrators made the decision to no longer schedule NDSU, effectively ending the rivalry that began in 1894.
The teams have played twice since 2003, nonconference affairs at the Fargodome in 2015 and 2019 pursued by UND in a nod to irony.
Both games were treated as "a return to the rivalry," and many middle-aged and older men who remembered the glory days of contests between NDSU and UND tried to stoke the embers of the long-dead feud.
The truth was this: The two games between NDSU and UND since the end of the historic rivalry in 2003 do not rank in the top 100 most important or memorable games the Bison have played since moving up to the Football Championship Subdivision.
For Bison fans, coaches, staff, administrators and even Fargo media that covers NDSU, the idea the Bison needed to play UND to spark interest or attendance ended, in my opinion, in September 2006. That's when NDSU went to Muncie, Ind., and beat Ball State of the FBS Mid-American Conference.
It seemed a massive victory at the time (it wouldn't seem that way anymore) and a month later NDSU nearly beat the University of Minnesota at the Metrodome, losing 10-9 when the Bison missed a last-second field goal.
The train was off and running. NDSU beat the Gophers the next season and were ranked No. 1 in FCS for most of the season despite not being playoff eligible. After some struggles in 2008 and 2009, the Bison made the playoffs in 2010 and won a couple of games before bowing out in a memorable overtime thriller at Eastern Washington.
The Bison got their first FCS national title the next season and haven't stopped collecting them, nor other impressive milestones. Wins over Power Five foes, a couple of Fargo visits by ESPN College GameDay, two quarterbacks coveted high in the first round of the draft by NFL teams, a party-like "destination" game at Target Field in Minneapolis.
NDSU's football program became nationally known for its success, a rarity for FCS schools.
The point, perhaps lost on a fair number of those invested in UND, is that NDSU moved on after 2003.
The Bison moved forward. NDSU found new annual rivalries with South Dakota State and Northern Iowa. Fans marked off the days until the Bison played Minnesota, Iowa State, Kansas State or Iowa. They cherished playoff matchups with SDSU, Georgia Southern and James Madison.
And, of course, they planned trips to Frisco for national title games.
UND just wasn't on the radar for NDSU, the fans or the media. The Fighting Hawks were late to the FCS table and played in the Big Sky Conference. UND won a league title in 2016, but in eight years of being postseason eligible the Hawks made the playoffs only twice and didn't win a game either time.
NDSU had a better rivalry with James Madison, a school in Virginia, because the teams played three slobberknocker playoff games with rosters loaded with NFL talent.
It is for all these reasons that many of us who pay close attention to the Bison program believed it would take a few years for the rivalry between NDSU and UND to ramp up to heated status when the teams began playing annually again in 2020 as members of the Missouri Valley Football Conference.
The Bison had forged a long history without the Fighting Hawks and, given the roster NDSU compiled for the fall of 2020, it appeared the gap between the programs remained wide. It would take awhile, the theory went, because there was no recent shared history. As the teams played regularly, natural grudges and dislikes would be built. And so would the foundation of an old-school rivalry.
The COVID-19 pandemic had different ideas. With the FCS switching to a spring schedule, the Bison's fall roster was slashed by opt-outs, transfers and key players leaving for the NFL Draft. UND, meanwhile, was left with a veteran roster that appears much-improved in key areas like the offensive line. Combined with a stout defense and better-than-expected play from young quarterback Tommy Schuster, the Hawks are steamrolling through this shortened spring schedule.
UND is wrongly ranked No. 2 in the nation. It should be No. 1.
The narrative has been flipped for Saturday's game between NDSU and UND at the Fargodome. The Fighting Hawks are the better team and, despite oddsmakers saying the contrary, are the favorite to win.
If UND follows through, it erases 18 years of playing little brother to NDSU. It will be a monumental victory, easily the largest since the Fighting Hawks went Division I in 2008. They will be back in the conversation with NDSU.
Is anybody planning a parade in Grand Forks?
And nothing will reignite a long-dormant rivalry faster than the kid who's been getting sand kicked in his face for nearly two decades knocking out the bully.
The bully won't take kindly to this development.
So while I don't believe the NDSU-UND rivalry will match the levels it reached in the 1990s — the sports world is just a bigger, more crowded space generally than it was back then and Bison fans still will look to FBS games and Frisco as the ultimate destinations — Saturday's game will go great lengths toward making it way more interesting way faster than expected.
There will be another fun date on the calendar each fall.
And it will be that way until NDSU bolts for the FBS Mountain West Conference, hopefully within the next few years.
An old columnist can dream about covering a team that plays in Hawaii and San Diego, can't he?