Editor's note: This is the first episode of The Forum's Glory Days podcast, designed to look back at historical figures, rivalries and moments from the area sports scene. Podcast episodes, with an attached story, will appear periodically on inforum.com.
MOORHEAD — In 1988, the Moorhead State Dragons wore alternate black jerseys, especially made for their football game against the Concordia Cobbers.
The jerseys also had “Crystal Bowl” written on them for game sponsor American Crystal Sugar in the cross-city rivalry game. The new look didn’t work well for the Dragons as they went away from their traditional red top and white pants home-game color scheme.
“I don’t remember what we paid for them, but probably $1,000 went down the drain,” said former Dragons head coach Ross Fortier.
The underdog Cobbers, who had lost the three previous meetings, cruised to a 50-10 victory on that Saturday afternoon at Alex Nemzek Stadium.
“Nobody saw (those jerseys) ever again,” said current Concordia head coach Terry Horan, a senior wide receiver for the Cobbers in 1988.
“Those jerseys were laying all over the locker room,” said former longtime Minnesota State Moorhead sports information director Larry Scott. “They didn’t even keep them. … It was a pretty good lesson in humility.”
The Dragons are celebrating their 100th season of football this fall. MSUM (8-3) plays Missouri S&T at noon Saturday, Dec. 1, in the Mineral Water Bowl (a Division II bowl game for teams that don't make the NCAA playoffs) in Excelsior Springs, Mo., to close out the season. The Cobbers had their 100th season of football the previous fall.
The rivalry between the schools was a rich part of both football programs' histories.
That aforementioned special-edition jersey game is just a small part of the lore of the series that was last played in 2007. The Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference changed its scheduling structure, leaving the Dragons no room in their schedule for nonconference games. Concordia has a 49-25-12 lead in a rivalry series that started in 1916 and is currently dormant.
“I just thought it was a wonderful, unique rivalry with two really quality teams,” Scott said. “It was an amazing way to open a football season.”
Doug Peters was in his first year as MSUM athletic director the last time the teams played in football. The NSIC still has its schedule set for teams to play all 11 regular-season games against conference opponents. The current scheduling format runs through the 2021 season for the NSIC.
“It was a special game for many years,” Peters said. “It really created that feeling of that community in Moorhead. ... It definitely created an environment and created some memories. I think if we had the opportunity to play the game, we would take a serious look at it. It’s an awesome community event.”
The Cobbers-Dragons football game was generally the season opener or second game of the season for both teams, and for many years was broadcast on local television. The series also had various game sponsors during its heyday and attracted large crowds.
Concordia athletic director Rachel Bergeson enjoyed the football rivalry as a young fan, student and Concordia employee. A 2005 Concordia graduate, Bergeson has memories from the rivalry game as far as her memory goes back.
Bucky Burgau, Bergeson's father, was the longtime equipment manager for the Cobbers. Burgau is still an assistant baseball coach for Concordia.
"I'd get an opportunity to stand with him on the sidelines," Bergeson said. "Those were great memories."
Bergeson said both schools would have "tricky issues" to consider if it became possible to play the game again, since both teams are in different levels of the NCAA. Bergeson said playing regional Division III opponents in the nonconference is important in trying to earn at-large bids for the football playoffs.
"It certainly wouldn't be a reason to not have a competition, but those are things to think through," Bergeson said.
Fortier said for that 1988 game, two assistant coaches came up with the idea for the alternate jerseys. A traditionalist, Fortier decided to go along with the special edition jerseys that were becoming a trend in college football at the time.
“If it worked it was a good idea,” said Fortier, who is retired and splits time between Merritt Island, Fla., and Detroit Lakes, Minn. “It didn’t work. It backfired on us. … We never wore them again.”
Cobbers legend Jim Christopherson was the head coach for Concordia from 1969 to 2000. For a good chunk of that run, Christopherson matched wits with the legendary Fortier, who guided the Dragons from 1970 to 1992. The rivalry was evenly matched during the Christopherson era, as he posted a 15-15-2 mark against the Dragons.
“We didn’t win so many we could gloat or lose so many that we would be embarrassed,” said Christopherson, who also played in the game for the Cobbers. “It was a healthy rivalry.”
The Cobbers earned victory the last time the teams played on the gridiron, a game that had a memorable finish. Concordia scored a touchdown with three seconds to play for a dramatic 34-32 comeback victory.
The Dragons led 32-27 with less than two minutes remaining, and Concordia didn't have any timeouts and MSUM had driven into Cobbers' territory. Dragons quarterback Dustin Long threw incomplete passes on second and third downs and was sacked on fourth down. MSUM decided to run a play instead of punting, giving Concordia the ball at its own 48-yard line with 1 minute, 32 seconds to play.
Andrew Larson capped the Concordia rally with an 11-yard touchdown pass to Nick Alton with three seconds to play for the victory.
"A lot of people were scratching their heads," longtime Cobbers radio voice Larry Knutson said of the Dragons late-game play calls.
Knutson said there was a feeling of divine intervention that day from former Cobbers head coach Jake Christiansen.
"You start to feel in certain times that there's an aura that hangs over a stadium," Knutson said. "Jake was there that day."
In the game's aftermath, Dragons head coach Damon Tomeo didn't allow his players to talk to the media.
"That was kind of the end of the Damon Tomeo era," Scott said. "Still, Concordia had to get things done, which they did. ... There was always a thought about Cobber magic."
In 1976, Fortier led the Dragons to a 14-7 victory against the Cobbers, ending a 19-game Concordia winning streak in the series. The Dragons forced eight turnovers in the game and had some key plays on special teams. Ed Schultz was the starting quarterback for the Dragons in that game.
"They were always important games," Fortier said. "Everybody got involved. The (school) presidents even got involved. We had the best crowds. It just grew over the years.
"It was a good rivalry, even if you didn't win as often as you wanted. It was still a nice challenge and a nice way to start the year."
Scott said MSUM players have asked him about the football rivalry with the Cobbers.
"I always told our players, you would have loved it," Scott said. "You would have loved playing in that game. ... For about a week, we were the No. 1 feature in town.
"We haven't been about to duplicate that and I doubt we ever will. There was something magical about that."
The college landscape has changed since the series was at its most celebrated.
The Dragons, an NCAA Division II program, have increased their scholarship levels. The Cobbers are in Division III, which doesn't offer athletic scholarships. MSUM offers around 28 football scholarships.
There would also be postseason ramifications for both teams, playing a team not in their division. For example, a D-III opponent on the schedule would not help the Dragons on their aspirations to earn a Division II playoff bid.
Knutson said if the football rivalry was rebooted, there would be a different feel.
"You can't recreate what happened, but maybe you could create something new," Knutson said.