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Jeff Kolpack, Published October 15 2009

Say it ain't so, Joe: Departing NDSU president leaves behind legacy as driving force behind move to Division I

Joe Chapman emerged from a dimly lit Metrodome hallway and ducked into a locker room full of celebrating North Dakota State football players and coaches.

It was in the waning moments of the 27-21 win over the University of Minnesota in 2007. Those few minutes could very well stand as the quintessential moment in the NDSU president’s legacy with the Bison athletic department.

It was all about Division I.

For all the problems with the State Board of Higher Education and latest flap over expenditures with the new presidential house and expenses with NDSU’s Foundation, none of that hit the athletic department. Chapman is regarded as the man who pushed NDSU out of NCAA Division II.

“He was fearless,” said former NDSU men’s basketball coach Tim Miles. “We were going forward in that direction, we were going to do it right, we were going to do it well and those were the only options. I think that started with him.”

Chapman’s reign ended Wednesday when he submitted his letter of resignation to the Board of Higher Education. In the athletic department, it was met with surprise from administrators, coaches and boosters.

Athletic director Gene Taylor said it took the air out of his department. Associate athletic director Amy Ruley called it a sad day. Head softball coach Darren Mueller said Chapman gave his program the baseline to compete against some of the best programs in the country.

Head men’s basketball coach Saul Phillips said Chapman’s Division I vision got the Bison to the NCAA tournament last March.

“Without him, it’s safe to say none of this would have happened,” Phillips said. “You can wipe out March and you can wipe out The Summit League championship. His fingerprints were all over this.”

His fingerprints were all over Mueller’s team when it won an NCAA Regional last spring and advanced to the Super Regional against national power Arizona State — unheard of for a mid-major school so new to Division I.

“One thing about him: He opened our eyes and made us believe in ourselves,” said Joan Deal, who was the president of the Team Makers booster club the first year NDSU was in Division I. “This is disappointing all the way around because we have some amazing things happening in our community, and a lot of it is because of Joe.

When Miles took the Bison job in 2001, he did so because it was one of the top positions in Division II – and that’s what he wanted. The Division I possibility came up in his interview, but Miles discounted it as ongoing talk from the past two decades.

“Seven months later, I’m at a meeting and we’re going to Division I,” Miles said. “This guy wasn’t joking.”

It was no joke for Taylor on Wednesday. He was brought in from the Naval Academy to seriously take a look at Division I athletics and a Division I transition – a task many considered a career ender.

It was anything but. There were several big moments, like a football upset of the University of Montana in 2003 or a men’s basketball upset of nationally ranked Wisconsin in 2006. Chapman was at both of those.

He was at a lot of athletic contests.

“He was supportive from Day 1,” Taylor said. “He said if Division I was the way to go, then he would support it. He has not only been a tremendous supporter of it, in many ways, he has become a fan.”


Readers can reach Forum reporter Jeff Kolpack at (701) 241-5546