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Kolpack: Sturdevant's decision in '63 helped flip the Bison from losers to winners

Fargo The genesis of North Dakota State football as we know it today was in 1963, the year after the squad put together an 0-10 season. It wasn't exactly a friendly start to '63, either, with a season-opening 31-14 loss to Moorhead State. It was ...

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Fargo

The genesis of North Dakota State football as we know it today was in 1963, the year after the squad put together an 0-10 season. It wasn't exactly a friendly start to '63, either, with a season-opening 31-14 loss to Moorhead State.

It was the second straight defeat to the Dragons and you could probably surmise the few Bison fans of those days were rolling their eyes as to say, here we go again. Inside the locker room walls, however, things were changing.

It was Darrell Mudra's first year as the head coach and the players from the 1960s will tell you he brought different expectations, both with the team and with the boosters downtown. And the players will also tell you there was one decision by one player that helped turned the tide.

It was when Bill Sturdevant, after spending just two and a half weeks at the University of Minnesota, decided to transfer to NDSU.

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"They would say Billy Sturdevant was a player that changed us," said Pat Simmers, former Bison assistant coach and current executive director of NDSU Team Makers.

Sturdevant said he didn't fit in at Minnesota, felt lonely, so he called his parents in Wahpeton and said he's coming home. He played at the North Dakota State College of Science for two years before committing to the Gophers.

His brother, Terry Sturdevant, and 1963's leading scorer Ed Pflipsen also played at Science before enrolling at NDSU. What's certain is the Bison played the opener against Moorhead without Bill Sturdevant, but what is not certain is which Bison coach told Terry Sturdevant and Pflipsen to "go to Wahpeton and get your brother up here."

"So they came down to Wahpeton and said, hey, it's all business up there," Bill Sturdevant said. "I was ready to go."

He was eligible to play right away since he didn't register for classes at Minnesota. In Bill, the Bison finally got a top-notch running back who was also talented enough to play cornerback.

That two-way excellence is a big reason he will be inducted into the Bison Hall of Fame on Friday, Sept. 29. Simmers is also part of the eight-member class and in those two you have a player who helped start the juggernaut and a man who breathes and lives the tradition.

The Bison won their first three games with Bill Sturdevant on the roster, including a 21-0 win over Northern Iowa. The Panthers were dominating the North Central Conference in those days, so that victory in a sense was probably like the 2003 win at Montana.

Both showed success at the next level was possible.

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Players like Sturdevant cannot say enough how Mudra changed the image of the program. Mudra's office was located in the southwest corner of what is now Bentson Bunker Fieldhouse and Mudra made sure any players who had the propensity to not go to class lived on the north side of Churchill Hall-across the street facing Mudra's office.

If Mudra didn't see a light on in the dorm rooms in the morning, he would send legendary trainer Denis Isrow over to knock on doors to make sure they were up for school.

"You know what Mudra would say? We haven't scratched the surface," Sturdevant said. "He said that all the time in practice."

The NCAA had restricted substituting rules in those days so there were times Sturdevant never left the field. He was even the team's punter.

These days he's retired and living in Moorhead. His legacy, always known to former Bison players in the 60s, will now be documented for all in the Hall of Fame.

"I call it the honor flight back," Sturdevant said.

One day, while hanging out at home, he looked at the Bison football record book and noticed the program won just 30 games from 1950-62.

"But in '63, we got to be a real unit, the closeness was there," Sturdevant said.

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His 1964 Bison team went 9-1, won the Mineral Water Bowl and it was game on as a football program. One reason: A big-time running back who decided against the Big Ten Conference and joined a team that was 0-10 the previous season.

Related Topics: FOOTBALL
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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