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Jeff Kolpack, Published December 25 2012

Kolpack: Bison upperclassmen have come a long way

FARGO - The Forum’s annual year-end analysis of the North Dakota State football team in 2009 pointed to seven plays that made a difference in the season. True, the 3-8 record was littered with close plays that, if they had gone the other way, may have resulted in a few more wins.

However, the most glaring assessment that resulted in those eight defeats was obvious: That team had an innate ability to fail at key times when they counted. If the NDSU coaching staff could have hand-picked their own gifts to put under the ’09 Bison Christmas tree, it would have been a huge box of intangibles.

There is no department store that sells leadership or competitiveness.

“I know when I came in the message was made very clear right away that the program is being turned around and we’re going to do some things a certain way,” said linebacker Grant Olson, now a junior who did not redshirt.

The space between Olson’s ears could just as well have been under that tree. He was part of the 2010 signing day class that has the Bison playing for their second straight NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision title next week.

“We’ve come a long way,” said quarterback Brock Jensen, who redshirted during the ’09 season. “The tradition of this program and this school is a winning tradition and we wanted to make sure we got it back to where it should be. And I think it has in the past couple of years and we want to keep it there.”

As defensive end Mike Hardie said last week, it wasn’t as if the program was completely broken. When he was being recruited, he got a sense that season was a one-year aberration that wouldn’t last.

“You knew that wasn’t the culture here,” Hardie said. “That was not the way it was going to stay. With the facilities, you knew we were on the rise and as you can see, it’s going pretty well right now.”

It sure is. If you take a step back and evaluate 2009 to the last two seasons, the transformation is quite startling.

The talent is better, no question there. But that doesn’t always win you games so I keep going back to team camaraderie – that chemistry thing.

The 2009 season was preceded by the Best Buy theft ring and marijuana citations. There was a hiccup last summer with the misdemeanor petition fraud, but by and large, the 2011 and 2012 teams are mostly made up of kids who stay the football course.

It’s hard to fathom this is the same program that went 3-8 just three years ago. A year later, the Bison had a senior named Matthew Gratzek, who was one of those captains that wasn’t going to put up with it anymore.

“We really appreciate those guys who taught us that,” Olson said. “Unfortunately, they weren’t able to play in a national championship or be a part of this team but they set the foundation for us. So we owe a lot to them.”

This year, the Bison won five games by seven points or less. In 2009, they lost those games.

Whatever was under that ’09 Bison Christmas tree is the reason their season is still going.