UPDATED: Darrell Mudra, who coached NDSU's first national title team, dies at 93
Legendary coach led North Dakota State to the 1965 College Division championship
FARGO — Bruce Airheart was a sophomore running back at North Dakota State in 1962 and the results were miserable. The team went 0-10.
Like the leader of a cavalry riding in to save the day, Darrell Mudra was hired as the head coach before the 1963 season and Airheart saw an immediate change. Mudra ran the team like a real college football program.
"First of all, he was an intelligent guy," Airheart said. "Not just football wise but an intelligent guy. He changed the attitude of everybody."
That change led to NDSU's first national football championship in 1965. There would be 16 more after that. Mudra, the man who along with former school president Herb Albrecht is considered the pioneer of the Bison football dynasty, died on Wednesday at the age of 93.
Former players like Airheart forever will hold him in reverence. Mudra, with the blessing of Albrecht after the Bison had just two assistant coaches in 1962, hired Ron Erhardt and Buck Nystrom as assistants and cranked up the intensity in practice.
Erhardt and Nystrom went on to big things in coaching. Mudra brought in a few junior college players and instilled a work ethic in returning players.
"All the kids that came into fall camp in '63, we never experienced anything like that," Airheart said. "We walked onto the field the first day of practice and everything changed completely. The only thing we did for two weeks was eat, sleep and practice and that was the name of the game. It changed the attitude of the kids."
The Bison went 3-5 in 1963. They went 10-1 in 1964, defeating Western State (Colo.) 14-13 in the Mineral Water Bowl.
"I think the culture started back in the early 1960s when Darrell Mudra came here," current Bison head coach Matt Entz said on the FCS title game media conference call Friday, Jan. 3. "There's been a high level of success. And there are certain things that are nonnegotiable, and they've been that way ever since I've been here and probably going back to the '60s with Coach Mudra."
In a microcosm of change, Airheart and a few of his teammates from Fargo Central High School started at NDSU in 1962. In high school, they never beat a Grand Forks team. At NDSU, they lost to the University of North Dakota in '63 and '64, with the 1964 game being close at 20-13.
They finally broke through in 1965, the national title year, winning 6-3.
"Those kids who weren't willing to pay a particular price, or didn't want it badly, just dropped out," Airheart said of the change in NDSU success. "We wanted to be good pretty badly."
The Bison went 11-0 in '65, defeating Grambling 20-7 in the Pecan Bowl. Mudra was 24-6 in his three years at NDSU, resigning to take a position with the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League.
"I do believe, looking back, that we all had an unusual commitment to the game," Mudra told former Forum sportswriter and sports editor Ed Kolpack. "We didn't begin with a great knowledge of the game. But, collectively, we probably understood the game as well as any coaching staff in the country by the time we played Grambling in the Pecan Bowl."
In all, Mudra coached 27 years at eight different universities or professional teams with a record of 207-88-4. One of those stops included the University of Arizona. The Forum published an opinion piece on Mudra last week before the game.
Mudra later led Eastern Illinois to a Division II national title and Northern Iowa to the Division I-AA semifinals on two separate occasions. He was inducted into the Bison Athletic Hall of Fame in 1989 and the College Football Hall of Fame in 2000.
"Darrell Mudra left his mark on numerous college programs, turning them around and winning more than 70% of his games," said Archie Manning, National Football Foundation chairman in a statement.