Port: Football isn't what makes a university great

How, exactly, does winning a football championship improve academics?

The NDSU Bison flag flies over Toyota Stadium once again after the NCAA FCS championship game in Frisco, Texas, on Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020. David Samson / The Forum
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MINOT, N.D. — It's a great thing that the North Dakota State University football team has brought home yet another championship. Though not a football fan myself, I understand why so many people are excited. It's a remarkable achievement.

Less great, though, is NDSU President Dean Bresciani's opinion that football excellence is the proper measuring stick for the success of a university.

Don't take my word for it. Here's Bresciani, in his own words during a WDAY television broadcast, bragging about his school's championship game getting picked up by network television: "National news wants to cover national stories, and NDSU has become a national story."

He continued: "The biggest, best universities in the nation fit that niche, and that means we are becoming one of the biggest and best universities in the nation."

The video:


Just so we're clear, the contention here is that NDSU's football team playing in a championship game broadcast on national network television makes the school "one of the biggest and best universities in the nation."

That's ludicrous and sadly illustrative of the utterly backward priorities we see from so many, like Bresciani, who are in higher education leadership.

Let's break the claim down a bit, shall we?

First, the "biggest" part.

I'm not sure enrollment growth for the sake of enrollment growth is the right metric to measure a university's success. One of the driving problems behind the soaring costs of higher education, and the associated problem with student loan debt, is universities operating as factories. They have been admitting students and harvesting the largely taxpayer-backed tuition dollars and other sorts of funding attached to them, only to spew those students out into the job market with diplomas with little regard for whether or not the experience bettered those students.

But let's set that aside for a moment. Let's stipulate to Bresciani's expressed opinion that big equals good. Has NDSU's string of football championships helped make NDSU bigger?


Not really. Here's a chart showing fall enrollment numbers for NDSU (with the University of North Dakota thrown in for comparison). As you can see, the trend has been down. If we start measuring from 2011 when NDSU began its championship run, we can see that enrollment is down 9%:

NDSU and UND Fall Enrollment Graph

As is the case at most institutions of higher education, the athletics program at NDSU is a money loser. It must be subsidized every year, with millions of dollars from taxpayers and students. The sports teams at NDSU make attending NDSU more expensive, which, to my mind, is unacceptable given the problems in higher education with affordability and student loan debt.

Apologists for this status quo say that cost is worth it because it's good marketing for the university. But how effective can the marketing be if a historic level of success on the football field doesn't translate into boosted enrollment?

Will the eighth football championship be the charm? It seems unlikely. Maybe football isn't that great of marketing.

And, hey, maybe prospective students shouldn't be picking the school they attend based on the success of the football team.

Which brings me to the other point Bresciani made. How, exactly, does winning a football championship improve academics?


Are NDSU's students more thoroughly educated thanks to all these football wins? Are the researchers at NDSU making advancements at a more rapid pace?

The answer to those questions is "no."

Bresciani believes that football makes NDSU a better institution of higher education.

He is wrong.

Football, and athletics in general, are costly distractions from the academic mission of schools like NDSU.

Yet because they're also wildly popular distractions, as far as the public is concerned, Bresciani's misplaced priorities as an educator will be overlooked by most.

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Rob Port, founder of, a North Dakota political blog, is a Forum Communications commentator. Listen to his Plain Talk Podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RobPort.

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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