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Kevin Schnepf, Published January 29 2011

Schnepf: Ross Fortier remains the king of Dragons football

Minnesota State Moorhead named a new head football coach Friday – something that has become as routine as bracing for spring flooding.

Those who follow MSUM football are once again hoping their new coach – this time Steve Laqua – will become the next Ross Fortier.

Fortier is the king of Dragons football, the measuring stick for the five coaches who have tried or will try to fill his shoes for nearly two decades.

From 1970 to 1992, Fortier won 152 games at MSUM, twice as many victories as any other Dragons coach. So could Fortier win today like he did back then?

“No,” Fortier himself flatly stated during a phone conversation from his winter home in Florida.

Still an avid supporter of MSUM football, the 73-year-old Fortier will be the first to tell you that times have changed since he coached the Dragons to nine conference championships and to 10 playoff appearances during his 23 years.

For starters, MSUM is no longer a member of the NAIA, where softer rules made it easier to recruit high school and junior college players.

The Dragons now compete at the NCAA Division II level, where football teams are allowed to offer 36 scholarships. MSUM, due to years of insufficient fundraising, offers only around 10 scholarships.

Therein lies the challenge that has faced the three previous coaches who won only 17 of 65 games. The challenge that remains for Laqua is so obvious, it prompted Fortier to write a letter to MSUM President Edna Szymanski.

“I told her that there are two ways to develop a football team,” Fortier said. “You buy a team through scholarships … and Moorhead State isn’t in a position to do that … or you build a team through a freshman program.”

Even with all his success, Fortier didn’t have much money to build a program either. That’s why he relied on a junior varsity program that brought in 60 freshmen – 15 of whom, on average, ended up playing varsity football a couple years later.

Fortier recalls watching one junior varsity game with North Dakota State athletic director Ade Sponberg. Fortier’s Dragons beat Sponberg’s Bison.

“Ade was pretty upset,” Fortier recalled. “I just told him, ‘Ade, you’ve got more money in one kid than I have in that whole squad.’”

In theory, Fortier’s idea of renovating a junior varsity program sounds good. But another big change since Fortier’s days has been the implementation of the four-decade-old legislation known as Title IX, requiring equal participation for men and women.

“I certainly understand and see the value in having a freshman program,” said MSUM athletic director Doug Peters. “It has merit. But is it feasible in today’s world in meeting our gender equity plan? Probably not.”

It’s not all doom and gloom for the program. There is one big change since Fortier’s tenure that shows promise for Dragons football: administrative support.

“It’s way better now than it was 20 or 30 years ago,” Fortier said. “The president has decided they want to improve the school’s image through athletics. But you certainly can’t be the laughingstock of the conference and have a good image.”

Going through one football coach after the other, hard economic times, spring floods and budget cuts, Peters admits is has been “a messy four years” during his reign as athletic director.

“But our scholarship dollars are higher than it ever has been,” Peters said. “Are we satisfied where we are at? No way. But at the same time, we are seeing progress.”

But it has yet to be seen on the football field at Alex Nemzek Stadium, where Fortier watched last fall’s 56-7 loss to eventual national champion Minnesota-Duluth.

“From what I saw, there was not one player for Moorhead State that could’ve started for Duluth,” Fortier said. “There’s just not as many good players at Moorhead State as there used to be. That’s where everything starts.”

Readers can reach Forum Sports Editor Kevin Schnepf at (701) 241-5549

or at kschnepf@forumcomm.com