It couldn't have been a more miserable winter day in Fargo, N.Dak. A blanket of ice covered the town and a fierce wind whipped through the fields where, in less biting weather, wheat and corn grow. But inside the Bison Sports Center at North Dakota State, the collective mood could not have been warmer. The Bison women's basketball team was about to tip off against Briar Cliff College, from Sioux City, Iowa, and over the din of a raucous crowd the P.A. announcer had just run through the starting lineups and introduced college basketball's winningest coach of the '90s. Come again? The decade's most successful college hoops coach? Not in Chapel Hill, Knoxville, Lexington or Storrs? In Fargo?
Yah, Marge. You betcha.
The coach's name is Amy Ruley, and although you may not have seen her team play—North Dakota State has been on national TV only once in the last two years, a tape-delayed appearance on ESPN—Ruley has quietly erected the most dominant basketball dynasty since John Wood-en's. Entering this season, her teams were 207-16 in the '90s and had lost only three games in the last three years. When the team's archrival, North Dakota, upset the Bison in the postseason tournament last year, it ended Ruley's string of four straight NCAA Division II titles. "You look back and it's nice," says Ruley modestly. "I'm always more concerned, though, with the team I have now than with the ones before it."
Downplay it as she might, Ruley's success hasn't escaped others. An annual rite of spring sees several Division I programs trying to lure Ruley with promises of heightened visibility and greater financial opportunities. Recent suitors have included Purdue, Illinois, Minnesota and Long Beach State, and in the last year, a handful of WNBA and ABL teams contacted her about head coaching positions as well. But just as surely as Fargo receives its first snowfall before Halloween, Ruley graciously declines and remains on the plains.
"The question for me is why would I want to leave, and I guess I haven't come up with a good answer yet," says Ruley. North Dakota State, as she sees it, offers the best of both worlds: a big-time program without the appurtenant pressure. "You look at the crowd interest and the community support we have, the quality of athletes we're able to recruit and the school's commitment, and for me North Dakota State may as well be a Division I program."
She has a point. How many other teams in Division II, men's or women's, average more than 3,000 fans a game, have all their games aired statewide on radio and have a lucrative sponsorship arrangement with Nike? For that matter, how many others can get away with charging $9 for a single-game ticket?
A scrappy guard for Purdue in the days before female athletes were deemed worthy of scholarships, Ruley came to North Dakota State as coach in 1979 at the wizened age of 23. "I thought it was a good place to start," she recalls, "but my goal then was to stay a few years and move on." The Bison had had only five winning seasons in the 13 years before her arrival, but Ruley needed just two years to turn them around and get them into the postseason, a destination that hasn't eluded them since 1985-86.
Thanks to her five Division II titles and the 100% graduation rate of the four-year players she has coached, Ruley has cultivated quite a reputation throughout the region. Just as schoolboys in North Carolina once dreamed of playing for Dean Smith, girls in the Upper Midwest grow up envisioning spending four years with Ruley. "I came to Coach Ruley's basketball camp when I was in seventh grade, and I always knew this was where I wanted to play," says forward Rachael Otto, who grew up in New Rockford, N.Dak., and spurned Division I schools such as Iowa to play in Fargo. "All over the state people know her and respect her as a coach who loves to teach and who cares about her players."
Though Ruley grew up in Indiana, she hardly fashions her coaching style after Bob Knight. "Teaching is what I enjoy most about the job, but I'm not a yeller," she says. "I guess my theory is that no one goes out there trying to screw up." Instead she considers herself a disciple of a dispassionate fellow Hoosier, Wooden. "I've never met him, but you can't help be in awe of his knowledge of the game and the way he carried himself."
"Above all, I think Coach Ruley is a great explainer," says forward Brenna Stefonowicz, who was named Miss High School Basketball for North Dakota in 1994. "Most of us come from common backgrounds, mostly small towns, and this program is a perfect fit for us."