SPOKANE, Wash. — Thursday will be a big day for the North Dakota State basketball team.
The Bison are in the NCAA Tournament, playing the Sooners at 6:27 p.m. Thursday, and a state with perhaps the lowest athletic profile of the Lower 48 takes another step up the recognition ladder.
But heck, Tuesday was a big day for the Bison. They flew a charter plane from Fargo to Spokane.
That’s no small thing after a season of bus rides across the northern Plains and commercial flights through Chicago and Minneapolis during this winter of miserable weather.
“We’ll be traveling in relative style to what we’re used to,” said North Dakota State coach Saul Phillips.
Relative style describes the status for all of North Dakota. The NCAA Tournament puts the low-key state in an athletic spotlight it avoided for many years.
“The perception of North Dakota is … either glaciers or tumbleweeds,” said Phillips. “You say Fargo, North Dakota, the first visions people get is the wood chipper from the movie.”
Yep, the 1996 movie “Fargo” is to North Dakota what “The Grapes of Wrath” was to Oklahoma in the 1940s. Then along came Bud Wilkinson, and Rodgers & Hammerstein, and something will come along in North Dakota.
Maybe it already has. Seven years ago, North Dakota State went Division I. Since then, its football team has won three NCAA I-AA national titles, and last August, the Bison beat Kansas State. In 2009, the North Dakota State basketball team made the NCAA Tournament and played Kansas tough in a regional opener in Minneapolis, losing 84-74.
Now the Bison are back, with an even better team. NDSU is 25-6, champion of the Summit League and a 12-seed in the NCAA West Regional.
Sports have provided a lasting image for various American outposts. Oklahoma and Alabama football. North Carolina and Indiana basketball.
North Dakota has been far behind in that regard. Until recent years, the Dakotas and Alaska were the only states with no Division I teams in football or basketball.
The University of North Dakota has long been a Division I hockey power, but hockey is a niche sport. Only football and basketball move the needle for national recognition.
Phillips arrived in Fargo when the debate raged on whether the Bison should compete at a higher level. Phillips said the argument against went this way: “Why would we want to go Division I? All we’re going to do is get kicked in the teeth.”
But the debate is long since over.
“That got washed away the second we went to the ’09 tournament,” said Phillips, in his sixth year as head coach.
The university is undertaking a $41 million renovation to Bison Sports Arena, all with private donations. Annual giving to the athletic department is way up.
The move to Division I has “been tremendous,” said Don Canton, a spokesman for Sen. John Hoeven, the former governor of North Dakota. “Terrific in terms of spirit and pride for the community and the college and the whole state.”
Now, don’t get the wrong idea. It’s not easy trying to be nationally competitive in a state like North Dakota, which is bigger land-wise than Oklahoma by 739 square miles but has a population of just 700,000. Oklahoma’s population is 3.8 million, and Dallas-Fort Worth’s 6.6 million people are only an hour south of the Red River.
“There’s challenges,” Phillips said. “But there’s way to overcome challenges.” Once recruits give North Dakota State a chance, “guys really enjoy it. Terrific, terrific sports following. It’s been a blast to coach up here.”
When Phillips talks about Fargo, it sounds something like you can imagine Oklahomans saying, before the Sooners and even the Thunder changed the perception of a state.
“What you have up here, it’s a school of 15,000 people, our alums take great pride in it,” Phillips said. “We’re modest. We don’t like to tell people how great we are.”
But sports can do the talking for the modest. Welcome to the club, North Dakota.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.