Bison Game Day: The legend of the fourth-quarter four fingers
A tradition that started in the 1960s with Buck Nystrom continues to this day, although the meaning may be different
FARGO — The legacy that Buck Nystrom left with the North Dakota State football program was one of toughness and grit. He coached a position, offensive line, that is built on those traits in an era, the 1960s, that regarded three-a-day practices in August heat as a badge of honor.
There was no Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome, no indoor football performance complex or artificial turf fields. This was grass, dirt and in the elements mud.
But behind the intense exterior of Nystrom was a mastermind of how to win the fourth quarter of football games. It was all about being prepared and as a signal to turn up the toughness meter, Nystrom had his players hold up four fingers after the third quarter horn.
It started with Darrell Mudra as the Bison head coach.
It’s a practice still being used to this day. When the horn to end the third quarter sounds between the University of North Dakota and North Dakota State on Saturday, and Bison players and staff hold up their four fingers, trace that to 1963-65 when Nystrom was at NDSU.
“Mudra was a big outside-the-box guy,” said Kyle Nystrom, Buck’s son. “That was the cutting edge of it. It wasn’t as refined yet.”
Behind the scenes in their approach was former NDSU head wrestling coach Bucky Maughan, whose background from blue-collar Pittsburgh lent itself to toughness, also.
“They were doing stuff in the racquetball courts with the kids, movement stuff,” Kyle said. “They were putting together the base foundation.”
Buck Nystrom refined the program after he left NDSU to take a position at the University of Oklahoma. It got tweaked over the years to the point that in 1983 at Michigan State, the staff was handed a 57-page manual on how to win the fourth quarter.
Broken down, it consisted of three different phases of movement circuits, with those chopped into different stations.
“I grew up watching it and doing it when I was young,” Kyle said. “He used to make me do it when I was at camps and stuff back when football camps were the whole week. It was a lot of football movement, body position, footwork change of direction, leverage. If you couldn’t move your hips and you couldn’t move your feet, you died in the thing. You have to accommodate it a little bit for the big boys, your power group of the D-line and O-line.”
It wasn’t so much about strength training. Kyle, in a minor way, compares it to Navy SEAL training “because there’s a lot of mental barriers to get through.”
“You push the team, all they have is each other,” he said. “They learn to form that bond in that relationship because the only ones they have out there are themselves. It’s a lot of learning how to be tougher, how to knock down barriers and doing it together because they’ll help each other.”
That 57-page manual, by the way, is not what NDSU exclusively uses in today’s training of its football players. On one page was an excerpt from a speech by former President Teddy Roosevelt, with one line reading: “If he fails, at least fails while daring greatly; so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory or defeat.”
When Bison players hold up their four fingers after the third quarter, it may mean something different than it did to Mudra and Buck Nystrom.
With Buck, they stood for discipline, commitment, motivation and effort. But the concept remains the same.
“There’s always been a level of physicality and a level of toughness that’s been preached since the ‘60s,” said Bison offensive coordinator Tyler Roehl. “A lot of those core principals have stayed the same through the course of time. The methods may change but the philosophy and the type of people we desire to do it with probably hasn’t.”
NDSU head coach Matt Entz, a program history buff, was talking about it in August during fall camp. Former legendary trainer Denis Isrow was also part of starting the four fingers tradition. Entz appeared to get emotional during his speech at the grand opening of the Nodak Insurance Football Performance Complex in talking about Buck Nystrom.
“It initially started with more of the offseason conditioning program,” Entz said this week. “I think it stemmed from that and moved its way onto the football field. It never really was intended to indicate the fourth quarter, which it’s kind of grown into that, but I think it had a number of other characteristics behind it.”
Roehl was a young Bison player, around 2005, when former head coach Craig Bohl got Buck Nystrom to talk to the team. He remembers Buck going through the four fingers of the program. It was 20 to 30 minutes of old school grit that made an impact on the players.
Roehl said the last point of emphasis from Buck was discipline, and all that went into it.
“You could tell the passion and conviction that he had for that theory, that philosophy,” Roehl said. “I think it gave you a little more understanding of what Bison pride was, especially for a young kid at the time. I want to be held more accountable, I want to give more to the program, I can do better, I can give more, I can invest more so, yeah, at the end of the day, potentially going to run through a brick wall.”
Buck Nystrom was ahead of his time in the strength and conditioning field. While at Michigan State, he went after some of the top minds in the country in the field and further got into how the Spartans were going to be the stronger and better conditioned team in the fourth quarter.
He moved the workout times to 6 a.m. over a nine-week period, a time of day NDSU players for many years began strength and conditioning workouts in the winter and summer.
Buck Nystrom died a year ago last September in his hometown of Marquette, Mich., at the age of 88. On the whole, his stint at NDSU was just a fraction of what he did in the profession.
He was part of national championships at NDSU in 1965, Oklahoma in 1968 and Northern Michigan in 1976.
“You have to have good coaches to run it, that’s the biggest thing,” Kyle Nystrom said. “I knew how to do all this stuff because I saw it, it was like brushing my teeth to me. You have to bust your butt as coaches and some people can’t handle it. He was smart about it. But if Buck saw you as a coach not doing it the right way, you got in trouble.”
Kyle Nystrom was a Bison assistant from 2006-08. He most recently was the head coach at Northern Michigan.
“It was run every offseason and you watch your freshmen, by the time they’re going into their third year, they’re a different person,” he said. “You can count on them and you can depend on them a lot more than you can when they’re younger.”