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McFeely: New NDSU president says 'we pick up the phone and listen' if FBS comes calling

David Cook says the changing landscape of college athletics makes it too difficult to know what is going to happen

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David Cook, NDSU's new president, says the school would pick up the phone and listen if a Football Bowl Subdivision conference called to offer an invitation.
David Samson / The Forum
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FARGO — I had an hour-long interview with new North Dakota State University president David Cook in his office this week. Most of the 60 minutes were consumed by talk of enrollment, funding, academic mission and the state legislature. Weighty topics.

Cook is, after all, the president of an institution of higher education and one of the most important pillars in the state. That portion of our discussion will be published soon.

Toward the end of the interview, I ventured into the toy department. I asked Cook about a topic in which I am deeply interested and one that I have been pushing for almost two years.

That would be the idea of NDSU's football program moving from the Football Championship Subdivision up to the higher-level Football Bowl Subdivision. The Bison have won nine FCS national titles in 11 years and, in my not-so-humble opinion (and that of some members of the athletic department), it's time for the football team and the school's other programs to move up.

To be clear to those uneducated on the topic: The decision to go FBS isn't entirely in NDSU's hands. The school needs to be invited by an FBS conference — the Mountain West and the American Athletic are the two in which NDSU would be most interested — and then would need to accept the invitation and, frankly, spend a whole lot of money in making the move to the higher level.

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I asked Cook where he stood on the topic, since conference movement is a presidential-level decision.

I wanted Cook to say: "We're going FBS as quickly as we can! Maybe even next week!"

Instead he gave the answer I knew was coming.

"You know, my stance has been pretty consistent on this," Cook said. "I think that right now, the future of the NCAA and all that's happening with athletics is incredibly uncertain. If anybody tells you they know what's going to happen tomorrow or next week or next month I would tell you, they're fools. They're fooling you. And so there's no crystal ball here.

"I think it's imperative that we're doing everything we can to put ourselves in a position to be successful in whatever some kind of new world order might be. And that's what we're doing."

Yawn.

It's essentially the same answer athletic director Matt Larsen has given for months.

"Nobody knows what's going to happen."

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"Position ourselves to be the best we can be."

"Be ready if the opportunity comes."

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Pull the string, out comes the cliche. It might be truthful, and surely the future of college athletics is uncertain, but once it'd be nice to hear somebody at NDSU be more aggressive with their public statements.

I played the hypothetical card. If, say, the commissioner of the Mountain West Conference called tomorrow and invited NDSU to join, what would your answer be?

"I want to be clear. Nobody has called us and we haven't called anybody else on this. And I'm sure you've heard that before," Cook said.

I have, but don't necessarily believe it. But please continue ...

"I think if somebody calls us we pick up the phone and we listen and try to see what all that might be," Cook said. "I mean this sincerely, we are interested in picking up the phone and we're interested in all those things. But there's so much uncertainty about what that may or may not mean. Like I said before, we need to position ourselves to be open to every potential opportunity that's out there."

The biggest hurdle for NDSU moving from FCS to FBS — or whatever the second level of college football might look like in the future — is money. According to the Knight-Newhouse College Athletics Database, NDSU's total athletic budget is in the neighborhood of $22 million. The poorest funded athletic department in the Mountain West is Fresno State at $29 million. Nevada-Las Vegas, as an example, has an athletic budget of $52 million.

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In a radio interview after he'd left office, former NDSU president Dean Bresciani raised the athletic department finances as being stretched about as far as they could go.

"We'd have to find an affiliation that didn't bankrupt us," Bresciani said.

He said the school might have reached its limit in fundraising, given the size of Fargo-Moorhead.

Bresciani's take seemed odd, considering the school just finished a record-setting fundraising campaign of $586.7 million and athletics raised $160 million of that. On the northeast side of campus, work continues on an indoor practice facility for football that will exceed $50 million. All the money was privately raised.

So, the obvious question for Cook. Can NDSU afford to go FBS?

"That is part of the calculus of this entire thing right now. If you look at what's happening in Division I, you see what the SEC (Southeastern Conference) or the Big Ten or even the Big 12, I don't think we know what that new world order is going to be," said Cook, who came from Kansas University of the Big 12. "Nor do we know what the funding and the financial implications are going to be.

"So it is, sincerely, a very difficult question to answer."

Give the new guy this: He is well-polished in giving non-definitive answers to the biggest question facing NDSU's athletic future.

Let's hope his phone rings and he's forced to be more absolute.

Mike McFeely is a columnist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began working for The Forum in the 1980s while he was a student studying journalism at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He's been with The Forum full time since 1990, minus a six-year hiatus when he hosted a local radio talk-show.
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