By Kyle Roth
College Sports Journal
FARGO, ND. — It’s safe to say that in a conservative region of the country like the Upper Midwest that there’s a certain frugality present in college athletics.
Just like in every day life in the Dakotas, nothing moves too fast or too rashly without due consideration and plenty of thought ahead of time.
That’s part of the reason North Dakota State and South Dakota State’s announcement of a move to full Division-I status across the two schools’ athletic programs was such a shock to not just the respective fan bases of those two institutions, but to the states they represent.
It also made a path for two more Dakota schools – the Univesity of North Dakota and the University of South Dakota – to make the transition to Division I as well.
To some, the move up seemed gauche, a brazen dismissal of the powerful empire the Dakotas represented in Division-II sports, from the outstanding track and field history in South Dakota to the dominance North Dakota football teams held from the 1970’s onward.
Others thought the move up seemed laughable, a last-bid attempt by the little old Dakota schools to cling to a scrap of relevance in the ever-changing world of college athletics.
Others still simply thought the move had no business being made.
Two of those particular parties were the “non-Staters” at the Universities North Dakota and South Dakota, who both announced intentions to remain in Division-II while their counterparts tried their luck at the higher level.
After NDSU and SDSU made a splash in their transitional years to Division I athletics, soon UND and USD were making similar plans to move up.
In 2006, that transition began and all four Dakota schools were on their way to competing in Division-I athletics.
In similar fashion, all four institutions have treated coaching as a long-term affair.
SDSU head coach John Stiegelmeier has been with the Jackrabbit football program since 1999.
NDSU head coach Craig Bohl has led the Bison since 2003.
And four institutions have shown themselves to be adherents to the long-term coach that builds a program.
Those numbers might not be extraordinary, particularly when compared to the Jerry Moore’s and Howie Dickenmann’s of the Championship Subdivision world, but for teams going through the type of changes that the moves to Division-I status entailed, they effectively became subsidiary builders of the successes some of the Dakota schools have enjoyed already.
And just like the announcement by NDSU and SDSU to Division-I sent tremors through the Dakota sports scene, so too did South Dakota’s effective firing of football head coach Ed Meierkort, who was with the Coyotes since 2003, in early December.
What spoke volumes about the situation by far, though, was his replacement: former Northern Colorado and Montana head coach Joe Glenn, a USD alumnus, who has a Division-II and Division I-AA championship to his name.
In normal cases, “letting go” of a head coach in favor of one with the resume of Glenn is not particularly remarkable, but the successes Meierkort had while at South Dakota were hardly routine.
He compiled a record of 54-35 with the Coyotes, which alone is certainly respectable for the coach of a team moving through a five year transition.
His results were certainly respectable as well.
In 2010, the fourth year of the Coyotes’ postseason ineligibility, Meierkort led the team to a 41-38 upset of Big Ten opponent Minnesota, the same kind of victory that helped to propel North Dakota State to its lofty status in its analogous transition.
Despite that win, South Dakota’s 2010 season ended with a 4-7 record.
2011 started off even better as the team upset the top team in the nation and defending FCS Champion Eastern Washington Eagles, 30-17.
Toss in a win over ranked Southern Utah, Meierkort’s performances certainly don’t seem fire-worthy.
Even more dubious is the nature of the transitional phase.
South Dakota is the sole Dakota school to dismiss their head coach in the transitional phase. (North Dakota head coach Dale Lennon, who left North Dakota in 2008 in the middle of their Division I transition, was hired away by Southern Illinois after head coach Jerry Kill left for Northern Illinois.)
The transitional years were periods of building for all four Dakota schools that made the move vertically.
All four reaffirmed new commitments to excellence that went beyond simply sports.
In that vein of thought, the coaching staffs of the various sports teams that existed within each athletic department were charged with building their programs to heights that hadn’t been seen before at any of the Dakota schools.
Such was the case with North Dakota State’s basketball team.
After the entire the 2004 hoops class was redshirted, the four seniors who took the court in the 2008 season, the first of the program’s eligibility across all sports, won a berth to the NCAA Tournament with a consistent coaching staff at hand (current head coach Saul Phillips took the helm in 2007 when Tim Miles took a job offer at Colorado State, but was instrumental in the development of that 2008 team).
Similarly, it was Bohl, Stiegelman, and Meierkort that guided their teams consistently through their respective transitions, holding in their arms the future of three football programs that were a significant part of the lifeblood of sports in the Dakotas.
Nobody can argue that Bohl’s leadership – that led to an FCS national championship for the Bison – was a model for others to follow in regards from Division II to Division I football.
Why the mystique, then, with South Dakota? Why derail what turned out to be a pretty good coach who had his team ready to compete – following a similar path as Bohl?
The simple answer is that the administration at USD didn’t want to simply compete, and pretty good wasn’t good enough.
They wanted a winner, and a conference contender, and they got one with Joe Glenn.
The split of the Dakota schools between the Missouri Valley Football Conference and Big Sky Conference when UND and USD announced acceptance into the latter in 2010 established an intriguing pair of standards among those two institutions.
Suddenly, it wasn’t about competing at the Division-I level at their own standard, but rather about deviating from the plotted course already in place.
The final twist came, though, when a last-minute offer was extended to USD to join the MVFC in lieu of the Big Sky.
For USD, it seems like they want to blaze a new trail rather than follow in another school’s footsteps.
That mindset had to have played a role in USD’s reaffirmation of athletic competition, to the point where they fired a good coach in the hopes of hiring a better one at what is undoubtedly a tumultuous, but hopeful, period in USD’s athletic history.
Make no mistake, USD is taking a gamble as the head into what was the strongest football conference in the Championship Subdivision in the 2011 season with a team that went 6-5 in one of the worst.
With an athletic budget of millions and an alumni base’s support at stake, the South Dakota administration probably seems like it’s taking a terrible risk in a critical point of their modern athletic history, but what’s to be respected is that they’re taking it for the right reason.
“Pretty good” isn’t good enough. They want a winner, and they’re putting plenty on the line to get it.