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Kolpack: Tucson has changed since the days of Darrell Mudra

Legendary head NDSU football coach took his show to Arizona

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View of Arizona Stadium in Tucson, Arizona, on Friday, Sept. 16, 2022.
David Samson/The Forum
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Tucson, Ariz.

Everything within and around Arizona Stadium is big, from the large video board on the south end to the Lowell-Stevens Football Facility on the north side. The indoor practice complex is big, although North Dakota State has joined the University of Arizona in that department.

University Boulevard on a Friday afternoon is a happenin’ place. It’s what big-time football should be at the Power Five level in the Pac-12 Conference. Hard to believe, but it’s a place where a former NDSU head football coach once coached.

Hard to believe Darrell Mudra left Tucson for Western Illinois.

Times have changed in Tucson.

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The Arizona Wildcats marching band practices in the heat at Arizona Stadium in Tucson, Arizona, on Friday, Sept. 16, 2022.
David Samson/The Forum

The dominating front page picture on Oct. 1, 1967, in the Arizona Republic newspaper was a photo of University of Arizona players carrying their head coach, Mudra, off the field on their shoulders. Think of Rudy and Notre Dame and you get the picture.

The Wildcats had just upset Ohio State and its legendary coach Woody Hayes 14-7 in Columbus, Ohio, in the second game of the season, which would go down as the first win for Mudra at Arizona.

Mudra is the head coach given credit for starting the North Dakota State football dynasty when he was hired in 1963. The Bison went 3-5 that year, but went 10-1 in 1964 and won their first of 17 national championships going 11-0 in 1965.

Two years later he got the job at Arizona. The Wildcats got a school record $62,000 guarantee for playing the Buckeyes. These were not the days of the Pac-12 Conference vs. the Big Ten; Arizona played in the Western Athletic Conference and the program didn’t have near the prestige it would enjoy in the 1990s when its “Desert Swarm” defense became a thing.

Mudra wasn’t fazed.

“If I were Woody Hayes, I wouldn’t be too excited about playing us,” he told Sports Illustrated.

The season didn’t go as exciting as Mudra hoped. The Wildcats finished 3-6-1 overall and 1-4 in the WAC. They turned it around the following year going 8-1 overall and 5-1 in the WAC, losing a Sun Bowl game to Auburn. It was just the third bowl appearance in school history and the first since 1949.

Yet he resigned, leaving for Western Illinois where he built the Leathernecks into a high-end Division II program. In his five years, WIU was 39-13 reaching the D-II quarterfinals in 1973. In 2022, it looks like an odd transition, going from Tucson, Ariz., to Macomb, Ill.

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“At Arizona, I never thought we could be a success because of the president,” he said in the book “Bison Football: Three Decades of Excellence.” “But in the second year we went to the Sun Bowl. I waited until after the Sun Bowl and all the jobs were gone except for Western Illinois. That wasn’t a step up but I got a raise in pay.”

It started all cool and wonderful. The headline in the Arizona Republic when Mudra took the Arizona job was “UA Looks to Small College ‘Miracle Worker.’” That would be the reference in taking a decades-old losing program like NDSU and turning it around. To be fair, he wasn’t the only guy. Credit Team Makers booster club for finding the funds to invest in the program.

On Saturday, at Arizona Stadium, the Bison won’t need a miracle to beat the Wildcats. But they will need to play well and they will need to use a familiar formula that got them a 9-3 record vs. FBS opponents: Weather an occasional big play on defense and be the better running team on offense.

These days, Mudra is in a memory care facility near Tallahassee, Fla., but his old teams are carrying on. NDSU and Arizona face off at 10 p.m. (CDT) Saturday in a game where oddsmakers have it as a tossup.

Mudra, by the way, would later lead Eastern Illinois to the 1978 Division II national championship and twice led Northern Iowa to the Division I-AA (now FCS) semifinals in 1985 and ‘87. Both schools would salivate to get back to those kinds of national levels.

NDSU has been there since Mudra got it there. Who knows what made Western Illinois a pay raise from Arizona for Mudra, but current head coach Jedd Fisch has a five-year deal worth $14.1 million with base compensation of $10.1 million.

Times have changed in Tucson.

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Jeff would like to dispel the notion he was around when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, but he is on his third decade of reporting with Forum Communications. The son of a reporter and an English teacher, and the brother of a reporter, Jeff has worked at the Jamestown Sun, Bismarck Tribune and since 1990 The Forum, where he's covered North Dakota State athletics since 1995.
Jeff has covered all nine of NDSU's Division I FCS national football titles and has written three books: "Horns Up," "North Dakota Tough" and "Covid Kids." He is the radio host of "The Golf Show with Jeff Kolpack" April through August.
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