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Each fall thousands of migrating geese zip over North Dakota with the same nonstop perseverance as the tight-grip-on-the-wheel motorist whose most fervent wish is to get over a border—any border—before he runs out of gas.
It is a pity that birds and people feel this way, but understandable. Although North Dakota is a magnificently untamed country, roughhewn, vast, chock full of oil and coal and boasting some of the richest, blackest, most fertile soil in the world, its winters come early and they stay late. The wind blows the bleak winter through, piling snow into mountainous drifts, and anyone who sticks his nose outside is in grave danger of losing it.
The wonder is that while North Dakota is disappearing before our very eyes—it is one of the few states that is decreasing in population—it has somehow managed to produce two of the finest small-college football teams in the country. Last week North Dakota State, winner of 22 straight games, the national small-college champions of 1965 and No. 1 in all the polls this year, traveled 75 miles up the Red River Valley to Grand Forks to play the University of North Dakota, ranked third in the country and winner of nine straight games, a streak that would have come to 22, too, except for one excruciating loss, 3-6, to North Dakota State.
On Saturday the dust billowed, the wind howled and 14,000 people (as many as can be stuffed into Memorial Stadium) popped up and down so many times that the stadium appeared to be filled with flamingos indulging in courtship ritual. Within a period of three minutes and 50 seconds there were no fewer than 10 plays—by hysterical count—that should have at least proved that the No. 1 and No. 3 teams were, in fact, dead even. But, on panic play No. 11, with 17 seconds left, North Dakota State took back, with a 29-yard field goal, a game that it tried to give away in the first quarter. It won 18-15 and thus clamped a headlock on the top small-college ranking. The hold should last for at least two more weeks, or until State's Bisons play San Diego State, now ranked second. Think nothing of it. With wins already over No. 6-ranked Montana State and now North Dakota, the Bisons will be going toe to toe against an heir apparent for the third time. It goes without saying that their young coach, Ron Erhardt, will stay out of a cardiac ward just long enough to shoot the man who made his team's schedule.
It is not surprising that the unblushing pride of North Dakotans is way over on the other side of euphoric. For years any stout lad found carting off a ton of potatoes without breathing hard was trundled out of state to the University of Minnesota, which considered North Dakota a sort of private game preserve. Today the good, tough ones stay at home, thanks mostly to red-blooded recruiting by both North Dakota and State. But as the president of North Dakota, Dr. George W. Starcher, says, "Darned if I know how we get enough boys for two good teams."
Luck, maybe, or coincidence, but it is a demonstrable fact that nobody beats a North Dakota school but another North Dakota school. For State the rise to the top has been meteoric. Just four years ago the most enthusiastic part of the Bisons' football program was a base drummer who whomped away in a preseason parade. That task finished, he, the band and the student body left the team to play in spectacular isolation.
Talk about an inferiority complex—not only was State regularly humiliated by its most bitter rival, North Dakota, but it was consistently ridiculed because of its agricultural leanings. "Swept out the barns yet, farmer?" North Dakota students would ask leeringly, following this sally with an inevitable "mooooo." What really hurt was that the State campus did look like a model farm, while North Dakota, trimly (smugly, if you were from downstate Fargo) basked in the Ivy glory of its Gothic halls. North Dakota, as its own students were pleased to point out, produced lawyers and doctors. And what, they asked, did agricultural State turn out? Milk.
Worse yet, State could not take out its frustration physically. No matter how bad a football team North Dakota had, it always knew that it could clobber ol' Silo Tech. Then Dr. H. R. Albrecht arrived from Penn State to assume his duties as president of State. He spent his first year watching the Bisons lose 10 straight games, giving up 300 points while they were about it. With almost no fuss, Dr. Albrecht saw to it the next year that the athletic budget was tripled—to 42 full athletic scholarships—and convinced Darrell Mundra to take over as head coach.
Mundra settled into the football office in the physical education building with a crash, shaking the exposed water pipes and jarring what stuffing remained out of the ancient leather chairs. After reviewing game films with his assistants, one of whom was Erhardt, two things immediately became apparent. State's players were not all that bad, but a more hangdog lot of athletes never existed.
"Our program was simple," said another assistant, Buck Nystrom, the old Michigan State guard who made Rose Bowl trips back to back 10 years ago and who bears a disconcerting resemblance to that thick-shouldered little fellow who carries the whip around in the Charles Addams cartoons. "You may not be the best team around," he told them, "but you are jolly well going to be the best conditioned. You are going to be the most agile. Your technique is going to become perfect. And your execution will be flawless. And, damn it, hold your heads up. Pride, men, pride."