Coaches Leaving: Is it Worth It?

At the end of this week, a program that has dominated the hierarchy of college football this decade will make their latest push for another national championship. But it's the end of next week that has folks excited here in the Upper Midwest. A program that has actually seen more recent dominance will try to add another title trophy to their case.

The program I'm talking about is one that most people look over or haven't heard of until recently. For many, Fargo isn't a destination city. This metro area on the Minnesota/North Dakota state line and the Red River has become a hotbed for pigskin, thanks to North Dakota State University. Starting in the mid-1960s, this program made its name very well-known. Over a five-year span, the Bison won three Division II national championships under a poll system. From 1981-1990, the program appeared in seven out of 10 division title games, winning five times.

In 2004, the university decided to move all of its sports up to the Division I level. It took a while for them to gain postseason eligibility, but when they did, the governor came off. On January 5th, NDSU will play for their seventh FCS championship in the last eight years. It's a run of success that no school has experienced at that level of college football. Yes, some schools have seen more historical returns, but 6 of 7 is absurd, with 7 of 8 basically being unthinkable. And that has brought some acclaim for the program, the school, the city, and the Bison head coaches.

But even with all of the school's other sports competing at the highest level of college athletics, there's a wonder if it's time for the football program to make its last jump ... to the FBS level. Why bring this up now? The mood struck again after recent news that Division II Augustana University is exploring what it would take to make the jump to D-I.

That particular item brought about lengthy conversation between myself and a couple of co-workers over 50,000 watts of radio (starting around :45 in and continuing until 32:09 of tape). Would it be worth the time and money for NDSU to reach that tier? You could look at it from several perspectives.

The Coach Angle

As I said before, this program has been a stepping stone to bigger stops. Every coach that won a national championship at the school ended up being the head coach at a "bigger" job.


So, how were the returns once these coaches landed in new spots? Meh. A couple of them had a modicum of success. Later in his career, Mudra returned to Division II to win a national title at Eastern Illinois (1978). Bohl has led the Cowboys to bowl games appearances (a loss in the 2016 Poinsettia Bowl, a win on the 2017 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl). For the most part, however, the products of this coaching factory have translated that wild amount of success outside of Fargo.

The "Down the Hall" Angle

So, how has the rest of the athletic department adjusted to the switch to D-I? There are some mixed results. Men's basketball appears to have sustained the biggest boost. They've earned berths in three NCAA tournaments via the Summit League auto bid. On the same court, though, a women's basketball program that became dominant at the D-II level struggles to even get close to that same winning consistency at D-I.

The "Peer Factor" Angle

Just like its own programs have seen varying success, the same can be said for other schools that have made the leap for lower levels of football. Since the I-AA division was established in 1978, 21 programs can lay claim to the national title. Of those 21, seven climbed their way up to the current FBS level: Appalachian State, Boise State, Georgia State, Louisiana-Monroe, Marshall, Massachusetts, and Western Kentucky. By far, the Broncos are the most successful program in the bunch. But that rise in profile only gets them occasional chances to face the Georgias or Oklahoma States of the sport, and even rarer to face them postseason. This leads me to my last angle.

The "Contending" Angle

Right now, the Bison are on top of their mountain. It may not be Everest, but Kilimanjaro ain't bad, either. Would they trade that in with the hopes of going to a New Mexico or Boca Raton Bowl? Would they trade that in for a long shot at a New Years' Six Bowl? Would they trade that in for a mathematically infinitesimal (and virtually zero) chance at the CFP?

That's what would happen if NDSU discarded the Missouri Valley for any bid to the Mountain West or Conference USA. While having being in a one-bid hoops conference is very limited in its opportunity to enter the three-week tourney starting in mid-March, it's still a shot.

For now, it looks like the Bison will keep that status at the top of the FCS. And, from this angle, that seems to be the smart play.

Comments and Conversation

March 27, 2019

Paul Mancini:

Just Look at what Appalachian State University has done since being a Division 2 Power to now Competing in Division 1 in the Sun-Belt Conference Won 4 Straight Bowl Games in a Row since being Bowing Eligible as well as winning 3 Straight Sun-Belt Conference Titles

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