McFeely: Bison championship run is not normal, except that it is
FRISCO, Texas—This is not normal.
Chris Klieman knows this. Moments after screaming, "You got your six-pack!" to thousands of celebrating North Dakota State football fans jamming the field from end to end at Toyota Stadium—he meant championships, not beers—the Bison football coach saw a familiar face just behind the stage. Klieman smiled and shook his head, his new championship cap askew from all the hugging and patting on the back.
"This is frickin' unbelievable," Klieman said, a look of astonishment on his face. "Six national championships in seven years? With all the injuries and adversity we've had. It isn't supposed to happen."
And, yes, Klieman did use the word "frickin'." No worries, mom.
It might be hard to believe in Fargo or Flasher or Fessenden or Fingal, but storming the field in Frisco is not supposed be an annual event or anything close to it. That's fiction, fantasy and fanciful thinking all rolled into one. Maybe back-to-back titles. Or one every few years. But this? No.
It just doesn't happen.
Yet there was a sea of yellow again, NDSU fans stretching from end zone to end zone and singing along with "We Are The Champions" while Bison players hoisted a trophy and held up their two-fingered horns sign to the partying crowd. Green and yellow confetti rained down.
It was deja vu all over again. And again, again, again and again.
NDSU is the undisputed king of Football Championship Subdivision once more, slugging its way to a 17-13 victory over James Madison in an intense title game on a spectacularly sun-splashed Saturday before a standing-room-only crowd. It was the perfect setting for a game between the two best teams, by far, in their division. A game that can only be described as epic.
How often does a sporting event live up to the pregame hype? Three times in 10, maybe? This one did, and then some, going down to the final play. Bison quarterback Easton Stick ran out the final seconds and flung the ball toward the heavens in an ending that resembled a basketball game more than a football game.
NDSU won five straight championships from 2011 to 2015 before James Madison ended its streak in the playoff semifinals last year. The buzz before this game was whether the Bison could reclaim their title or if the Dukes were the new kids at the top of the mountain.
Turns out NDSU's drought lasted one year. The Bison wanted back what was taken from them.
"Damn right. We got it back," Bison senior safety Tre Dempsey said. "That's what we're supposed to do here—win national championships. It feels great because this is what we're supposed to do."
And, yes, Dempsey did use the word "damn." Sorry, mom.
NDSU has created its own monster with all these championships. Its fans buy tickets to the national title game in August, expecting to take a vacation to Texas in January. Its players and coaches, who have remained remarkably humble, have resorted to mind tricks in an effort to lower expectations.
NDSU senior linebacker Nick DeLuca stood just behind the stage at the tail end of the Bison celebration, accepting congratulations and hugs from teammates, friends and ex-players. He was asked whether it felt like the Bison grabbed back something that was taken from them.
"Without a doubt. We say every year that our goal is to win the conference, to be the Missouri Valley Football Conference champions, but this is where we want to be," DeLuca said. "We know that. To be here and to have done it again, it feels unbelievable."
If six national titles in seven years isn't impressive enough, here are a couple more stunning figures: NDSU is 97-8 since the beginning of the 2011 season, winning games at a 92-percent rate, and Klieman is 54-6 with three national titles in his four seasons.
"This is what I came to NDSU for," Dempsey said. "To win championships."
When Dempsey said those words, the celebration on the field behind him was starting to break up. Bison fans were walking back up the same aisles they had descended, heading out into Frisco or nearby Plano for a bite to eat and likely a couple (or more) celebratory cocktails.
They were surely recapping the great game they'd just seen, but just as surely they were already looking ahead to next season and handicapping the Bison's chances of a return to Frisco. That's the way things work in the abnormal world of NDSU football. Fans expect this run might never end.
They might not be wrong.
You want to know a little secret? The 2018 Bison might be better than the 2017 Bison. Yes, they lose some key players. But they get back just as many. NDSU stands an above-average chance of playing a game in Frisco on Jan. 5, 2019.
We'll start where we began: This is not normal.