FARGO, N.D. – North Dakota State's ascension to NCAA basketball tournament darling began more than a decade ago with a college president who wanted to see the school name scrolled across the ticker on cable TV stations and set out to raise millions of dollars for Division I athletics.
The No. 12-seeded Bison knocked off the No. 5 Sooners 80-75 in overtime Thursday, giving NDSU and the state of North Dakota their first victory in the tournament and prompting some officials and boosters at the football-first college to call it the signature win for all of its sports.
The Bison have been playing sports at the Division I level for six years and have quickly grown to a dominant team in the Football Championship Subdivision. They have won three straight FCS titles. They shocked Kansas State last fall.
But the win over Oklahoma came on a bigger stage, athletic director Gene Taylor said Friday.
"There is just so much exposure in this particular tournament," said Taylor, who was hired in 2001 by then-President Joseph Chapman to oversee the transition from small college athletics.
Chapman told Taylor he wanted athletics to be part of his plan to elevate academics, facilities and salaries at the land-grant college in Fargo. The school renovated two large buildings downtown, primarily to house architecture, design and business students. It built a new president's house that turned from a $1 million project into $2 million, which eventually led Chapman to resign over questions about his spending.
But along the way, the school did see success in athletics, giving NDSU attention from across the country.
"There are people who own Bison gear who have never attended the school," said Doug Burgum, an NDSU alumnus and booster who built Great Plains Software into a Fargo-based Microsoft campus that employs about 1,800 people. "They have sort of adopted it as the darling they want to pay attention to."
In January, 10,000 Bison fans fill up a baseball stadium in Texas for a pep rally the night before January's FCS championship game. The Bison also had a solid following in Spokane for Thursday's game. As they game went on, they got more supporters. Some crowned the Bison "America's Team" after the victory.
Burgum, who retired from Microsoft a few years ago, runs a development group committed to continued revitalization of downtown Fargo, which was on display earlier this year when ESPN staged its popular GameDay football show outside the Fargo Theatre. Burgum called the GameDay show, FCS football title and Thursday's basketball win "the trifecta" for NDSU athletics.
"I am getting emails today from all over the country. I am getting emails from CEOs in Seattle, CEOs in South Carolina," Burgum said Friday. "I received texts from six states during the game. It's just fun stuff."
Burgum said NDSU's rise to being a noteworthy Division I program is due primarily to leadership, from the president, athletic director, Team Makers booster club, coaching staff and the city of Fargo. He added that North Dakota's booming economy, primarily from oil and gas development, doesn't hurt.
The athletic department had a budget of $5.6 million at the start of the transition; it's $17.3 million now. Football coach Bob Babich made $90,000 when Taylor arrived; new coach Chris Klieman will make $260,000. Former basketball coach Tim Miles, whose Nebraska club lost in the NCAAA tournament Friday, made $75,000; current basketball coach Saul Phillips makes $175,000.
Every fundraising group was asked to up the ante. Team Makers went from raising $750,000 to nearly $4 million, marketing from $100,000 to $500,000, ticket sales from $300,000 to more than $2 million, and the university from $900,000 to $5 million.
"I remember the day they told us we needed to get 2 million bucks and I thought, 'How are we going to do that?'" Team Makers executive director Pat Simmers said Friday. "Whenever you start a new business, you need to have capital. If you don't invest early, it's a long hike. And we did that."
Erv Inniger, a former NDSU basketball coach who recently retired as the school's associate athletic director of development, a job that sent him around the country raising money, called the transition a monumental task that required him to "agitate and educate" boosters. A lot of them were skeptical that NDSU could compete in Division I.
The skeptics were all over the place," Inniger said Friday. But, he added, "I give the skeptics a lot of credit for coming back and saying they were wrong."
Now, fans are debating about what NDSU's biggest win has been in athletics.
Simmers, a former Bison football player and wrestler, paused when asked if the victory over Oklahoma compared to three straight FCS titles.
"You know, I had that thought on the way to work today and I never came to a conclusion," he said. "It's breaking new ground. It's a place we've never been. It's a first. We've been a football school for decades and this is an opportunity to impress the country in a different manner."