Bison Football. There's no question that the football team at North Dakota State is the athletic program synonymous with the university. This is certainly for good reason. The football team has provided Bison fans with 31 conference championships, two visits from ESPN's College Gameday, eight victories over FBS opponents and 12 national championships.
The football program accomplished 8 of these national championships and 26 of these conference titles before playing Division I football. Bison football was a dominant entity in Division II. It's not much of a stretch to think that North Dakota State selected the right head coach and used the same basic principles with new Division I resources to establish a successful program.
The men's basketball program has been no slouch, either. While the Bison aren't likely to win a national championship in basketball what they have accomplished is very impressive. The Bison have played 11 Division I seasons. In that time, North Dakota State has nine winning seasons; five of those were 20 win seasons. They've beaten two top 25 teams in Marquette and Wisconsin.
Most importantly North Dakota State has made three NCAA Tournament appearances in the seven years they've been eligible. Those appearances included a victory over Oklahoma of the Big 12 in 2014. The Bison program has sent former players Ben Woodside, Mike Nelson, Lawrence Alexander, Trayvonn Wright, Taylor Braun and Andre Smith into various levels of professional basketball.
By any measure, since joining Division I in 2004, NDSU men's basketball has been a successful mid-major program. This did not come from a long line of success at the Division II level. North Dakota State won just ten Division II conference titles despite being a part of the North Central Conference of Division II since 1922. The Bison made just eight appearances in the Division II playoffs and never advanced beyond a regional final.
There were certainly memorable players, names like Lance Berwald and Denver TenBroek come to mind. Few people are held in higher regard around Fargo and in the athletic department as former head coach Erv Inniger. The Bison just didn't win enough. Especially when compared to Amy Ruley's women's program. NDSU's women's basketball program was a Division II juggernaut. From 1986 to 2000, the women's program captured five national titles and were national runners-up three times.
So what happened? Why did a program that failed where Fort Hays State, North Alabama and Kentucky Wesleyan succeeded become a mid-major success story? How did it all happen so quickly?
The easy answer is coaching. College basketball programs are often defined by their leaders. Players cycle in after four or five seasons but coaching staffs and administrations build and ultimately maintain programs.. When you think of UCLA basketball, John Wooden comes to mind. North Carolina is synonymous with Dean Smith, and Duke with Coach K.
There were certainly successful coaches during the Division II run. The aforementioned Inniger had a very impressive 244-150 record. Ray Giacoletti took Eastern Washington to the NCAA tournament and won a national coach of the year award with Utah in 2005 after his stint at NDSU. Greg McDermott coached at UNI and Iowa State after being with the Bison and is now the head coach at Creighton University (if he had stayed at NDSU his son Doug might have averaged 30 ppg in the Summit League).
Tim Miles began his coaching career with North Dakota State in the fall of 2001. He and former Athletic Director Gene Taylor were both in their first academic year at the university. Miles came from Division II Southwest Minnesota State, and NAIA Mayville (ND) State before that. Miles' 47-39 record in Division II was acceptable, but 2004 laid the groundwork for the "new" tradition of Bison basketball.
Two very important things happened to Bison Basketball in 2004. First of all, Taylor announced that North Dakota State would be going Division I in all sports. The ultimate goal for Bison basketball was now a trip to the NCAA tournament. The Thundering Herd had a shot at March Madness.
The 2004 men's basketball recruiting class might have been the most important class for any program in Bison history. Guards Ben Woodside and Mike Nelson joined forwards Lucas Moorman and Brett Winkleman. All four chose to redshirt so that their senior season would coincide with NDSU's first season of tournament eligibility. It worked like a charm.
2004 was also the first year for former Wisconsin operations assistant Saul Philips on the NDSU coaching staff. He joined Miles and a graduate assistant by the name of David Richman on staff for the Bison. Unbeknownst to BIson fans, the next dozen years of successful Bison coaches came together before the 2004 season.
The '04 recruiting class had a number of impressive accomplishments before becoming eligible for postseason play. They posted the first 20-win season in Division I history during the 2005-2006 season. They defeated a ranked Wisconsin team in Madison (that never happens) in 2006. Miles' crew would better that feat the following season, taking down 8th ranked Marquette. Woodside himself would set the NDSU career scoring record with a 60 point performance against Stephen F. Austin.
Miles would leave the program in 2007 for Colorado State. Phillips was immediately tabbed as the replacement for Miles, and elevated Richman to Associate Head Coach. The recruiting class of '04 would accomplish what they set out to do, defeating Oakland in the 2009 Summit League Tournament and qualifying for March Madness. The Bison would fall to Kansas in the first round, but not before an electrifying 37 point performance by Woodside. Woodside was the tournament's highest single-game scorer and was named the Summit League Player of the Year.
North Dakota State would return to the NCAA tournament with another Summit League tournament victory in 2014 behind Phillips and a completely different cast of characters. Taylor Braun became NDSU's second Summit League Player of the year. He, inside-scoring savant Marshall Bjorklund and human highlight reel Trayvonn Wright defeated IPFW and the Thundering Herd returned to the big dance. North Dakota State would win their first tournament game over Oklahoma in overtime.
After that run to the round of 32, Phillips would leave the Herd for Ohio University. Again, it didn't look like the decision to find his successor was very difficult. David Richman was promoted from Associate Head Coach to Head Coach, and the program kept on rolling. During the 2014-2015 season, Richman and senior guard Lawrence Alexander became the leaders of the program. Alexander would win Summit League player of the year and lead a very young group of Bison to their second consecutive tournament appearance.
The 2014-2015 team was the first group of Bison that qualified for the tournament without a lot of "buildup". Both the Woodside-Winkleman-Nelson group and the Braun-Bjorklund-Wright group played together very early in their careers and had their senior seasons culminate in a trip to the Big Dance. The '14-'15 team blew into March Madness in a "reloading" year.
Ultimately the credit for NDSU's Division I success has to be given to Tim Miles and his coaching tree. Miles, Phillips and Richman have established a tradition of their own. North Dakota State is now a very good regional program in the Upper Midwest. With brand new facilities and a shiny new arena, the future looks very bright for Coach Richman and the Thundering Herd.
This has been Part One of a two part series on the Men's Basketball team. Check back tomorrow for the 2015-2016 Team Preivew.