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This week's F-M Extra column: NDSU makes Fargo-Moorhead a Division I community

by Mike McFeely

SPOKANE, WASH. -- A genius columnist for a local  newspaper once wrote that North Dakota State University was making a major mistake by moving its athletic programs from NCAA Division II to Division I. The move would result in NDSU getting lost in the shuffle of big-time college athletics where it couldn't compete with the Floridas and Nebraskas, the genius columnist surmised. The Bison would lose their regional rivals and, because of it, their fans, he wrote.

In an attempt to be literary, the genius compared NDSU's move to D-I to Jay Gatsby's green light across the harbor in F. Scott Fitzgerald's masterpiece. The green light, the dream, would always be out of the Bison's reach, shining seductively in the distance.

The genius columnist long ago admitted he was wrong, although some NDSU fans haven't let him forget. The column was penned in 2002. These Bison fans have long memories.

Bison players celebrate after their victory over Oklahoma.

The same genius columnist now sits behind a keyboard in Spokane, hunting and pecking for words to properly describe how then-president Joseph Chapman's Big Idea has changed the university and the community in which it is located. After much deliberation, "seismically" seems about right. Joe has long since retired to the Rocky Mountains, by the way, having run into a problem with a house and its pricetag. The plan he put into motion, though, has turned out OK.

Spokane was the site of some NCAA men's basketball tournament games in which NDSU took part. The Bison beat one of the genius columnist's big-time schools, Oklahoma, in their first game before losing to San Diego State in their second. It was the second time coach Saul Phillips' Bison played in the NCAA tournament and the first time they'd won a game.

If you are unfamiliar, the NCAAs are coined "March Madness" because schools like NDSU sometimes beat schools like Oklahoma and everybody celebrates an underdog actually winning. It is one of the nation's largest sporting events and one on which millions place bets, mostly in the form of $5 or $10 to fill out a pick-em bracket at the office. Everybody from 10-year-old sports nuts to 87-year-old grandmas who don't know a Flyer from an Aztec pick their winners, then live and die with the results.

NDSU was a part of this. It is said when the Bison's victory over the Sooners was announced in an arena in Milwaukee, thousands of fans erupted in cheers. There is a 98 percent chance that 98 percent of those fans had never set foot in Fargo. 

The value of this publicity cannot be measured accurately, except perhaps by the Bison coaches who apparently now are being contacted by recruits who didn't seem all that interested in NDSU before last week. It's unlikely more jobs, businesses or families will move to Fargo-Moorhead because the local basketball team received some national publicity. So who cares if some athletes from Oregon, Illinois and Wisconsin win a bunch of games?

Community pride could be one reason. A sense of shared interest could be another. There is value in those kinds of things, even if an economic analyst can't put specific dollar figures on them. The genius columnist has spent some time in the Fort Myers-Naples area of southwest Florida, a destination for Midwesterners and Northeasterners to re-locate to escape the cold. It is easy to pick up on a theme in that part of the world: Nobody is from there, so nobody cares about it. It's a place on a map. People move there for the sun and beaches. Pride in the community? That's something for the saps up north.

It's possible the genius columnist, being from Alexandria originally and having lived in Fargo-Moorhead for most of the past 30 years, fell victim to the inferiority complex that invades us on the frozen plains. How could a little school in Fargo measure up the mighty University of Minnesota in the big city of Minneapolis? Quite well, it turns out. The Bison football team, winners of three straight national titles and counting, have defeated the Gophers twice since the move to Division I.

Much of it comes down to commitment, like so many things in life. NDSU has raised the money it's needed, spent the money it's needed and didn't try to do things on the cheap. There is a lesson to be learned there: If you're going to do something, don't do it half-arsed. 

It's also about the people. Gene Taylor is the athletic director, and he is terrific. He hired the excellent Craig Bohl as the football coach. The basketball team in Division I was led first by Tim Miles and now Phillips. Both outstanding at their jobs. How long the latter remains in Fargo is the next big question to be answered.

In summary, the genius columnist was not only wrong, he was wrong by a million miles. Moving up to Division I has moved up Fargo-Moorhead to a Division I community, a known college town like Norman, Okla., or Lincoln, Neb. Once we were known only for a movie that wasn't about us; now we're known for the Bizzzon.

"We have to smash some perceptions about Fargo," Phillips told the national media after the Bison beat Oklahoma. "A lot of people in this room haven't been there. ... Fargo's actually a really cool place. It is. Now, it's cold. Bring a jacket. You can take it off when you get inside."

Along with smashing perceptions, the genius columnist would suggest smashing the green light shining across the harbor. It is no longer out of reach, and no longer relevant.

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