Spring football starts at North Dakota State this week and if you're a close follower of Bison athletics, it will probably be met with some renewed enthusiasm. The winter sports season came to a close over the weekend at the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships and the results for the three main programs were less than stellar.
The combined record of men's and women's basketball and wrestling was 31-47.
None of the three had a winning season in a mid-major setup where success by all involved is publicly expected. It's Division I athletics and it's big business. There's been a lot invested in recent years, starting with the $50 million Sanford Health Athletic Complex and continuing with the approval of cost of attendance for all sports.
All the pieces are there.
In the spirit of fairness, it's still a mid-major program where sometimes you have to take chances on recruiting. You don't get the first pick of the litter, so teams are allowed a pass from time to time.
The Bison men went 11-18 in 2009-10, a year after it went to the NCAA tournament in the first year of Division I eligibility. From there it was a slow build to back-to-back NCAA appearances in 2014 and 2015. NDSU went 15-17 this season, won a game in the Summit League tournament, and is counting on a couple highly recruited guards and a few younger players to start the buildup again. Whether it happens remains to be seen.
The fans appear to be still on board, which in times of state cutbacks can be crucial to the budget. NDSU led the Summit in attendance for the second straight year averaging 3,159 in league games and 2,757 for all games.
As for the women, the numbers are what they are.
Former head coach Carolyn DeHoff was 56-62 in her first four years, although she had the benefit of taking over for Amy Ruley, who left the cupboard somewhat stocked with the likes of Katie Birkel, Inger Hodgson, Jerri Penley and Abby Plucker. Maren Walseth had less talent to work with when she was hired prior to the 2014-15 season, with senior guard Brooke LeMar to run the show.
But Walseth is 33-84 in her first four seasons with three straight years of 20 losses or more. That includes this season when the Bison had one of the weaker schedules in Division I, with three of the nine wins against NAIA programs and the other six against teams that had a combined record of 35-113.
Massachusetts had the best season at 14-16. Florida International was 8-21, University of Maryland, Baltimore County was 5-26, Purdue-Fort Wayne was 4-24 and New Jersey Institute of Technology went 4-26. The average attendance this year in 14 home games was 768 fans.
In the last four years, there have been two victories over teams that finished with winning records and both happened on Jan. 4: 83-73 over South Dakota in 2017 and 83-78 over South Dakota State in 2015.
If there is internal pressure for a better record, it has yet to be documented by the NDSU administration. Walseth's evaluation reviews from 2015-16 and 2016-17, as written by deputy director of athletics Todd Phelps, are strong on words like "growth" and "process."
"Team got better as the year progressed," Phelps wrote in the '16-17 form, following a 6-24 season. "Showed some fatigue down (the) stretch from long season. A tough non-conference slate that helped prepare for conference was not detrimental. The process and progress toward changing the culture is moving in the right direction. Next year look to take the next step."
Walseth and NDSU finalized a six-year contract in November of 2014 that was signed by former women's athletic director Lynn Dorn and current university president Dean Bresciani. There may be a lesson there. At the time, it was the longest term contract by any NDSU coach in history until football coach Chris Klieman signed a six-year extension in January of 2016. That came after his second straight national title.
Walseth had never been a head coach, but had an enticing pedigree as an assistant at Penn State. The Lady Lions won three Big Ten Conference titles and reached the Sweet 16 twice in her seven years there.
This administration has proven it won't wait around. Former head volleyball coach Kari Thompson was told in the winter of 2017, several months before the season even started, that her contract wasn't going to be renewed after the 2017 season. It never reached that point. Thompson was hired at Southern Illinois last spring.
The wrestling season ended on Friday at the national tourney without an All-American. The Bison scored three team points and finished 45th out of 65 teams in the team standings.
This program needs to figure out how not to be young anymore. For the most part, there have not been more than two senior starters in each of the past four seasons. On the flipside, NDSU is new to the Big 12 Conference and that may take some time to adjust.
It's probably not helping the psyche of Bison fans as to what's happening down south. For better or worse, comparisons are always made to South Dakota State, which has been whistling victories and titles all winter. The combined record of the Jackrabbits' three main sports was 68-16 with both the men and women basketball teams reaching the NCAA tournament and the wrestling team producing an individual national champion.
Anyway, for NDSU, it's on to spring football. At this time next year, the tone may be different.