FARGO, N.D. – Trying to understand the incredible football success at North Dakota State University is time consuming and daunting. Every time you think you have the recipe for success figured out, another ingredient can be considered equally important to the final product.
Just like every other college program in the nation over the last 150 years players come and players go. They do at NDSU and the beat continues. Some players get drafted to play in the National Football League, and yet, somehow, the cupboard never seems to be bare.
Coaches come and coaches go. They don’t often leave Fargo, but when they do they usually move up to what some consider bigger things.
Gil Dobie, Jim Wacker, Don Morton Craig Bohl and Chris Kleiman are just a few names of head coaches who have left Fargo and continued their coaching success at other schools.
Dobie left NDSU and went on to a College Football Hall of Fame career after coaching at several other schools. Wacker left only to lead Texas State to a pair of NCAA Division II titles, and later coached at TCU, while Morton, an assistant under Wacker, later moved from Fargo to coach at Tulsa and Wisconsin. Bohl is now at Wyoming and Klieman is about to begin his second season at Kansas State.
One aspect to the Bison’s recent domination has been the arrival of Randy Hedberg as the quarterback coach prior to the start of the 2014 season.
And to get a greater understanding of what the addition of Hedberg has meant to the Bison one must look at the resume he brought with beginning more than four decades earlier on the plains of North Dakota and forged with success every step of the way to Fargo.
The tiny community of Parshall, N.D. (pop. 903) is home to Hedberg, where he was born and raised, back when the population was at its zenith with just more than 1,200 residents.
Nestled along some of the most picturesque rolling countryside as there is in the United States, Parshall is the home of the world-famous Paul Broste Rock Museum, built of natural granite quarried from the area.
Oh, it was also in Parshall that the all-time low temperature in North Dakota was recorded. On Feb. 15, 1936 the mercury dropped to minus-60 degrees to set a record that still stands.
Hedberg was a star at Parshall and played three sports throughout his time with the Braves.
“I don’t know about being talented … but I was pretty busy, I know that,” the personable Hedberg quipped when recalling his high school days.
Remember that quip, it will become important later.
Hedberg started on the PHS football team at quarterback as a freshman and by the time he graduated the Braves had become one of the top teams in the Northwest Conference on a yearly basis. Hedberg’s team was undefeated as a senior in 1972, a time before North Dakota instituted a playoff system for the smaller schools in the state.
A few months later Hedberg and his teammates stood on the floor at the Minot Municipal Auditorium looking to cap a perfect season with a Class B state basketball title. Eddie Beyer’s Hillsboro Burros ended that hope with a 74-53 victory in the championship game.
Hedberg’s springs, albeit normally shortened springs, we are talking North Dakota after all, were spent playing baseball.
Hedberg’s athletic exploits were well-known throughout North Dakota. It seemed there was always something in the sports sections of newspapers from around the state about the talented youngster.
He had also caught the eyes of plenty of college recruiters all vying for his talents.
North Dakota State and the University of North Dakota both came calling for Hedberg to play football at the collegiate level. Several other schools recruited him to play basketball or baseball.
Minot State allowed Hedberg to play all three, a rarity in collegiate athletics since before the start of World War II. And it was not just a whim. Hedberg competed in all three sports throughout his time at Minot State. He earned nine varsity letters as a Beaver.
NFL COMES CALLING
During the fall of 1976 Hedberg began receiving more attention from NFL teams as more and more scouts found their way to Minot to gauge the potential in the youngster from Parshall.
It was a far cry from the glamour and spectacle the surrounds the NFL Draft today. There were no Mel Kiper’s with a Big Board that is usually just that, a big board that means little and is often far removed from what turns out to be reality. There were no combines for potential draft picks to showcase their talents.
In fact, Hedberg put his talents on display one final time in between games of a baseball doubleheader in Iowa in front of a spattering of talent evaluators.
“I threw the first game of the doubleheader,” recalled Hedberg,” and in between games I threw a football on an adjacent field for some scouts.”
The Wonderlic Test, used to measure cognitive ability and problem-solving aptitude of prospective employees, which has become widely used by NFL teams, was given to Hedberg while sitting in the back seat of a car instead of a normal classroom setting.
Hedberg’s life would begin to change a few days after returning from the trip to Iowa.
While student teaching at Magic City High School in Minot, Hedberg was summoned to the office to take a phone call.
The caller was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who had selected Hedberg in the eighth round (196th overall) of the 1977 NFL Draft.
The plan, according to Hedberg, was to be a backup while learning the intricacies of the pro game.
“I was supposed to sit and learn,” said Hedberg as he recalled a preseason roster of six quarterbacks.
Instead, he saw significant playing time as a rookie and was under center when the Buccaneers opened the season Sept. 18 at Philadelphia. That marked the first time in NFL history a rookie started a season opener at quarterback. Hedberg and the Buccaneers lost the game 13-3. Ron Jaworski threw a pair of touchdown passes to Tom Sullivan and Keith Krepfle for the Eagles. Tampa Bay’s lone points came on a 22-yard field goal from Dave Green in the second quarter.
Hedberg completed 10 of 25 passes for 66 yards in the game.
“I wasn’t ready to play,” said Hedberg, who would start four games that season.
Gary Huff, a former standout at Florida State before being drafted by Chicago in the second round four years earlier, started six games in 1977 and Jeb Blount, who played at Tulsa and was drafted by Oakland in the second round one year prior to Hedberg’s arrival in Tampa Bay, started four games on the season as the Buccaneers finished 2-12 in their second year of existence.
NEW MARK IN FUTILITY
Tampa Bay began its existence in the NFL in 1976 and lost all 14 games during the regular season. The Buccaneers would add to that losing streak on a weekly basis causing then-coach John McKay to utter one of his most famous comments.
When asked about what he thought of his team’s execution following one 1977 game, McKay, the master of one-liners, quipped, “I’m all for it.”
McKay had little on Hedberg.
“I was part of that execution,” the former Buc said.
Hedberg would finish his rookie season with 25 completions on 90 passing attempts for 244 yards and 10 interceptions. He was also sacked 15 times in the seven games he played in.
The Tampa Bay losing streak would eventually reach 26 games before ending with a 33-14 win over New Orleans on Dec. 11 inside the Superdome. The Buccaneers would win the following week by defeating St. Louis 17-7 in the season finale in Tampa.
Hedberg was traded to Oakland less than two months after the 1978 season in which he spent on injured reserve. He played briefly for the Raiders during the preseason before being released and signing with Green Bay in 1980 before being cut a short time later and ending his brief time in the NFL.
After being released by the Raiders in 1979 Hedberg returned home to North Dakota and became an assistant football coach at Minot State and spent three seasons in that capacity before being elevated to head coach prior to the start of the 1982 season. In eight seasons he led the Beavers to a 45-23-2 (.657) record.
During that time he also the head coach for basketball and baseball, joining the likes of coaching legends Amos Alonzo Stagg and John Heisman, to name a few to coach three sports in a single academic year.
Hedberg later worked as an assistant at Central Missouri (1990-95) and North Dakota (1996-98) before returning to the head coaching ranks at St. Cloud State. He led the Huskies to a 47-51-0 (.480) record during his nine seasons (1999-2008) there and increasing his head coaching record to 92-74-2 (.554).
He spent six seasons (2008-13) at the quarterback coach at Southern Illinois before joining the Bison.
WITH THE BISON
Hedberg was quickly indoctrinated into the meaning of Bison football in a big way.
On a bright August afternoon seemingly in the middle of nowhere the Bison, with an untested quarterback at the helm, found themselves trailing 14-0 early inside Iowa State’s Jack Trice Stadium.
Not to worry.
John Crockett would rush for 138 yards and three touchdowns while Chase Morlock would rush for one TD of his own and Adam Keller would kick a pair of field goals as NDSU scored the final 34 points of the game to defeat the Cyclones 34-14 in the season opener for both teams.
It was the first career start at quarterback for Carson Wentz, who would complete 18 of 28 passes in the game for 204 yards as the Bison won for the 25th straight time.
“I was all excited about the way we had played and was waiting to get into the locker room to celebrate,” recalled Hedberg, who quickly learned celebrations are short-lived amidst a dynasty.
“Of, course there was some excitement among the players,” the new Bison assistant said, “but what was really impressive is the way in which the reaction was more an expectation to have won the game.”
He continues to be schooled in the Bison tradition.
“The expectations are always the same,” he said. “We go into the start of each new season with the same expectation to win the Missouri Valley Football Conference and to do well in the playoffs.”
We all know when it comes time for the playoffs it seems the Bison simply rachet things up to whole new level.
The recent success of the Bison is unrivaled in college football. Eight FCS championships in the past nine seasons is a mark unlikely to be matched. And along the way NDSU has used four quarterbacks, albeit pretty outstanding quarterbacks, to become more of a household name than their time as one of the dominant programs in NCAA Division II.
Brock Jensen led the Bison to three FCS titles during his time at the school. Oh, he also operated the Bison offense to a near flawless drive to lead NDSU to a win on the road over defending Big 12 champion Kansas State to open the 2013 season.
Hedberg came on board the following season and with Wentz leading the way the Bison won two more FCS titles before Wentz was drafted second overall in the 2016 NFL Draft. Wentz did miss eight games due to an injury in his final season and his backup, Easton Stick, held the Bison ship steady in Wentz’s absence and gave way to Wentz as NDSU won the FCS title again following the 2015 season.
Stick, who was drafted by the Los Angeles Chargers in 2019, spent two full seasons leading the Bison and ended his career as the winningest quarterback in FCS history as he finished 49-3 during his time at NDSU.
“The first five years were something special,” Hedberg recalled. “People like (Wentz) and (Stick) generally do not come along very often. To get that kind of talent back-to-back was unique.”
Many people thought 2019 would see the Bison fall off the pace a bit as they entered the year with a new head coach and a new quarterback. But, with Hedberg still teaching the intricacies of being a high-caliber quarterback the Bison simply took things to a new level.
Enter Trey Lance.
A redshirt freshman on paper only, Lance operated the Bison offense to near perfection.
He was the top rusher on the team with 1,100 yards and 14 touchdowns and completed 192 of 287 passes for 2,786 yards and 28 more touchdowns as the Bison finished the season with a win over James Madison in the FCS title game as the Bison became the first team since Yale in 1894 to complete a season 16-0. Lance did not throw an interception all season. None. Zilch. Nada.
The heralded signal-caller won the Jerry Rice Award (top FCS freshman) and the Walter Payton Award (top FCS offensive player) award and was voted the outstanding player in the national championship game in Frisco, Texas.
“Our meeting room has been something,” Lance said. “To sit in there as a freshman and listen to (Hedberg) and (Stick) the only thing I could do was sit, listen and learn. They both are incredibly knowledgeable about the game, the schemes and what it takes to win.”
Hedberg understands football and what it takes to win at the game. He also understands what he inherited in 2014 and what it takes to continue the success at the school.
And currently part of that success lies squarely on the shoulders of Lance.
“He has been incredibly impressive,” Hedberg said of the young standout. “The last two years he has been very impressive. Not only in his play on the field, but in how intelligent he is and his attention to detail. He has such a willingness to learn.”
A native of Bismarck, N.D., Ray is a graduate of North Dakota State University where he began studying athletic training and served as a student trainer for several Bison teams including swimming, wrestling and baseball and was a trainer at the 1979 NCAA national track and field championship meet at the University of Illinois. Ray later worked in the sports information office at NDSU. Following his graduation from NDSU he spent five years in the sports information office at Missouri Western State University and one year in the sports information at Georgia Tech. He has nearly 40 years of writing experience as a sports editor at several newspapers and has received numerous awards for his writing over the years. A noted sports historian, Ray is currently an assistant editor at Amateur Wrestling News.