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Bison women's basketball glory days are farther away than ever

by Mike McFeely

The North Dakota State women's basketball program played its final game in the Bison Sports Arena on Saturday afternoon and most of the world didn't care. Nor did most of the state of North Dakota. Nor did most of Fargo-Moorhead, the NDSU campus and or even the Bison athletic department. An announced crowd of 768 watched Carolyn DeHoff's final team miss 68 percent of its shots (including 77 percent of its 3-pointers) en route to a decisive loss to the school formerly known as Nebraska-Omaha, a team the formerly competitive Bison used to beat with ease.

In NDSU's last two seasons in the North Central Conference, albeit a decade ago, Amy Ruley's teams beat the Mavericks four times by an average score of 93-66.

Those days are long gone, and so are the afternoons and evenings when fans filled a basketball arena to watch Bison women's basketball. The latter will never return to level the women's program once enjoyed. The former, a world in which NDSU's women are competing for conference titles and berths in national tournaments, can and must. There is no excuse why the Bison cannot challenge for Summit League titles every year. NDSU has the money, boosters, fans, staff, location and -- with a new arena on the way -- facilities to make it happen. 

There should be no excuses from women's athletic director Lynn Dorn. NDSU should win. 

It will have to start with the dismissal of DeHoff after this disastrous season. The coach is in the final year of her contract and there is no reason to bring her back. The program has gotten progressively worse in her six seasons and, at 6-20 this year, DeHoff now owns half the 20-loss seasons in program history. And the record of 22 defeats in one season is still in sight with three games remaining.

DeHoff is a nice person and not somebody who would draw the ire of fans and media for her ego, abrasive ways or sneaky way of doing business. She's good people. But if you are a Division I basketball coach at a school that values victories, she has failed at her job. Period.

Bison women's basketball used to be the toast of the town, will huge crowds cheering them on.

The killer for DeHoff hasn't been that's she's been unable to lure talent to NDSU, which she obviously can't despite being touted as a great recruiter when she came to Fargo from Utah. It's been that she and her staff haven't been able to properly judge talent. More than one Summit League coach has told me the Bison have been under-recruiting since DeHoff got the job. There have been coaches in the NCAA Division II Northern Sun Conference who were surprised to discover NDSU was recruiting some of the same players they were. That cannot happen.

The program DeHoff inherited from legendary Ruley was not the same one that won multiple Division II championships in the 1990s -- the Bison saw slippage in Amy's final seasons, despite putting up gaudy records during the Division I transition -- but it was not a last-place Summit League team, as it is now. When DeHoff took the job, South Dakota State's program was clearly superior to NDSU's, but the rest of the Summit was there for the taking. The goal seemed to be reinvigorating the Bison to compete with the Jackrabbits. Instead SDSU has stayed atop the league while NDSU has plummeted to the bottom.

Like most of the world, I didn't attend Saturday's BSA finale for the women's program. I can count the number of women's games I've been to in the last five years on a few fingers. There is just no reason to go anymore. Maybe beyond wins and losses, or the Bison's inability to compete with SDSU, that is the bigger story with the women's basketball program. It is irrelevant. Noboby cares. 

In a mini-metro area of around 200,000 people, DeHoff's club averaged 721 fans this season. The largest announced crowd at the BSA this season was 1,763 for the Jackrabbits. That used to be a tiny crowd for a big game.

For those who experienced the BSA rocking in Ruley's glory days, it is sad. NDSU led Division II in attendance each year from 1992-2000, and again in 2003. The lowest average attendance between 1992-2000 was 2,438. The highest was 3,971 in 1994, a Division II record that will likely stand forever. NDSU announced crowds of more than 7,000 on six occasions, and 25 times drew more than 5,000 fans. 

There are those who believe attendance figures in the 1990s were more estimate than solid head-count, but if you attended a game during that decade you knew fans were numerous and deeply invested in the outcome. I don't believe those types of crowds will ever come back to Bison women's basketball games. Bison football has become such an insatiable monster, gobbling up people's passion and disposable income, that men's basketball will always be a distance second and women's basketball an even more distant third in terms of interest. But there is no reason why Bison women's basketball can't draw between 1,500 and 2,000 fans a game, with an occasional crowd of 4,000 when SDSU or UND visits.

It wouldn't be a return to the glory days. But after witnessing the TV highlights Saturday and seeing an arena at less than 15 percent capacity, it's about the best for which we can hope. Irrelevancy has its price.

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