College football hotbeds are scattered across the country, from Alabama, Oklahoma, Notre Dame and Michigan. When you think of the greatest college football programs in the modern era, those schools come immediately to mind. But none of them did what North Dakota State did from 2011-15 and that is to win five straight national championships, in NDSU’s case at the Division I Football Championship Subdivision level (formerly known as Division I-AA). In fact, nobody at any level of college football has ever won five straight. The Bison did it with a unique toughness, including farm kids from the Midwest who were used to working 18-hour days before taking one step on the Fargo, N.D., campus. They did it with a work ethic and an unusual devotion and love to their hard-driving strength and conditioning coach. It didn’t come without some hard knocks. The Bison went 3-8 in 2009, one year after becoming fully eligible for Division I athletics after making the transition from Division II. They lost their head coach during the 2013 title run, a change that was met with resistance and tension within the coaching staff that filtered down to the players. From 2011-15, Alabama won 62 games, Florida State 58, Oregon 57 and Clemson and Ohio State 56 each. North Dakota State, with its collection of lightly-regarded players primarily from the states of North Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin, won 71. Since moving to Division I, NDSU went 8-3 against bigger FBS schools with wins against the likes of Minnesota (twice), Kansas State, Iowa State and Colorado State. They had some stars, like in 2011 when a quarterback from Bismarck Century with a few scholarship offers decided to stay in-state and attend NDSU. Four years later, Carson Wentz was the second overall pick of the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFL Draft. The national media paid attention. ESPN’s “College GameDay” came to Fargo two straight years and the network developed a love affair with the city. “Horns Up” is a story of a football program that came out of nowhere. It’s a story nobody could have predicted.
A good chronicle of the off field stuff that made the transition from D-II possible and the makings of the greatest football dynasty in college. It was, however, not exactly what I was expecting from the marketing. It didn’t deal a whole lot with the actual games, though there was a couple of sections that covered a few games or seasons in general.
Whereas his father’s book (Bison Football: Three Decades of Excellence) was a game by game description of each season with some player interviews and behind the scenes information, Jeff’s book was more of a behind the scenes perspective with some game/season description and quite a bit personal anecdote. Between the two books you get a pretty good look at the Bison program from the hiring of Mudra in the early 1960’s through the 5th consecutive D-I FCS championship in 2015. Unfortunately the 1990’s were pretty much skipped over. Those lean years between the last D-II championship in 90 under Rocky Hagar through the hiring and firing of Bob Babich (with no conference nor national championship) are barely mentioned. The media was a prominent theme throughout.
This book was not in chronological order, but was divided into chapters of similar concepts. It flowed well, but at times glossed over events that were covered elsewhere.
The formatting of the paperback was not spectacular. There were frequent areas where the print faded in and out. There were also a surprising amount of spelling/grammar errors in a book written by a professional journalist. Not knowing the difference between “mettle” and “meddle” was one of the more glaring errors.