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Tom Mix, Published November 18 2013

Miller: Inability to compete in Big Sky Conference cost Mussman

Grand Forks

The University of North Dakota’s first season in the Big Sky Conference in 2012 was generally a success. The football program had a signature win against Montana and finished 5-6 with most of the star players returning for 2013.

The only black eye from 2012 was a pair of brutal losses at Eastern Washington (55-17) and at Montana State (55-10).

That was the rude welcoming into the new league. It showed the incredible gap between UND and being a legitimate contender for a Big Sky title.

That gap had to close. It never did. In fact, it felt like it got wider.

And that’s why the UND football program is in search of a new head coach today, a day after relieving Chris Mussman of his duties.

In a way, coach Mussman was set up to fail this season. He started the year with a string of home games that would have been ominous for an established FCS program, let alone a Division I newcomer.

UND opened its home schedule against South Dakota State, Montana, Montana State and Eastern Washington. At one point or another this year, all were considered top 10, maybe even top 5, caliber.

But it wasn’t losing that caught the ire of the fan base and eventually the administration. It was the manner in which UND went down. North Dakota gave up 188 points in those four games and was only competitive against Missouri Valley member SDSU.

Against Montana, UND trailed 33-10 at halftime. A week later, UND fell behind 42-7 at halftime to Montana State.

Through the recent past, UND’s fan base had been conditioned to winning. In its final decade of Division II, UND had become a power and even won a national title in 2001.

When the program began to slide in 2013 with such lack of competitiveness, it was a tough pill to swallow. The fan base disappeared. First, they left at halftime. Then, they started not to show up altogether.

The final dagger for the coaching staff might have been an Oct. 19 loss to Sacramento State, a program UND should’ve been on par with after beating the Hornets handily on the road the previous season. But Sacramento State beat UND 31-7, cementing UND’s place near the bottom of the Big Sky standings.

By the last home game against Northern Colorado, about 2,500 fans were in attendance. An amazing total considering more than 4,000 season tickets were sold before the year began.

Now, it should be remembered that Mussman had his share of hurdles to overcome. He took over the program at a time of major uncertainty.

He transitioned the team from Division II to Division I. He battled the Fighting Sioux nickname saga on the recruiting trail. He fought through an era of instability as UND searched for a stable Division I conference home. He managed the financial shortcomings UND allowed him to distribute to the rest of his staff.

He was fighting an uphill battle.

But this is the reality of Division I athletics. It’s constantly walking a fine line. It brings to memory UND’s final home game of 2011 against South Dakota.

In that game, UND was trailing 37-17 after three quarters to the Coyotes. The buzz in the press box was about the uncertainty of coach Mussman’s future.

As it turned out, UND scored 21 points in the fourth quarter to beat USD 38-37 in dramatic fashion – clinching a share of the Great West Conference title.

Mussman was named the Great West coach of the year. USD coach Ed Meierkort was fired.

It’s really the cliche: What have you done for me lately?

On Monday, UND determined Mussman hadn’t done enough.

Tom Miller writes for the Grand Forks Herald