We joke. How can the North Dakota State Bison be the enemy? Illinois State and North Dakota State share a lot in common.

They are both based in small cities in America’s heartland. They both draw students from around the world, but their main constituencies are regional. They both started with different names and with singular missions (Illinois State Normal University and North Dakota Agricultural College) and have expanded their offerings, notably into business, nursing, and the arts and sciences at Illinois State and into pharmacy and the STEM fields at North Dakota State. And our beloved Redbirds were gracious enough to share the Missouri Valley Football Conference title with the Bison this season.

That act of generosity will be forgotten Saturday when the Bison (14-1) and the Redbirds (13-1) meet in a historic FCS national championship game, the first such title game to feature two members of the same conference.

In order to provide some fodder for Redbird chants at the big game, we offer the following (light-hearted) comparison between the two universities. We tried to get North Dakota State to play along and rib the Redbird faithful a little bit. But our rivals to the west wouldn’t take the bait.

“Our fans aren’t the common fan. They really know the Bison. They know everything about Bison football. They are a very respectful (fan base),” Bison Athletic Director Matt Larsen said. “It sets up to be a very good matchup.”

I guess. Well, let us take the lower road.

Which university is older?

Students walking through gate

(Photo courtesy of North Dakota State University)

Illinois State was founded in 1857, with an assist from Abraham Lincoln, and was already into its 33rd year when North Dakota State belatedly opened its doors, in 1890.

Advantage: Illinois State

Which university is larger?

Illinois State enrolled about 37 percent more students in fall 2014 than North Dakota State, 20,272 to 14,747. Bigger isn’t always better, but in this case it is: It is better to be a large school with a small school feel, than a school that is just small.

Advantage: Illinois State

Which university boasts the better academic credentials?

North Dakota State likes to go on and on about its placement among the nation’s top 108 public and private universities in the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education’s “elite” (our quotes) category of Research Universities/Very High Research Activity. La-di-da. But in the only ranking that anyone pays attention to—U.S. World News & World Report’s 2015 rankings of America’s top public universities— Illinois State came in it at 74, more than two first downs ahead of North Dakota State’s 102nd ranking. Scoreboard.

Advantage: Illinois State

Which university has produced more star power?

Illinois State: Sean Hayes, Jane Lynch, John Malkovich, Craig Robinson, et al.
North Dakota State: (crickets)

Advantage: Illinois State (by a tower of Emmys)

Which campus has the nicer quad?

Illinois State’s Fell Arboretum is an internationally recognized 490-acre swath of idyllic green graced by thousands of trees representing over 154 species. North Dakota State doesn’t have a quad.

Advantage: Illinois State

Castle covered in snow

(Photo courtesy of North Dakota State University)

Which campus is colder?

If you find it hard to believe that it can get colder than a winter night on the Central Illinois prairie, then you haven’t visited Fargo, the home of North Dakota State. It’s so cold in Fargo that the Bison—an animal whose hide kept generations of Native Americans warm—play football indoors. Fargo’s average low in January is zero degrees. Its three coldest months are all colder, on average, than Normal’s coldest month, January, when average temperatures range between 33 and 15 degrees. In fact, Fargo’s March is as cold as Normal’s December.

Advantage: North Dakota State (congratulations)

Who has the better team colors?

Yellow and green may work with traffic signals and may look good together in a vegetable spread, but the two colors that most conjure up the cold and flu season don’t make for a sharp team uniform. Even the Oregon Ducks are ditching those colors for their national title game. Also, I have yet to see a yellow and green bison, that is other than on North Dakota State’s logo. Illinois State keeps it colors a traditional red and white. We keep our Redbird red, as well.

Advantage: Illinois State

Which university has the stronger football tradition?

Football players running

(Photo courtesy of North Dakota State University)

North Dakota State has won the last three FCS Championships and has accumulated 11 national titles and 31 conference titles in its football program’s 120-year history. That success has engendered a multigenerational lovefest between the fans and their team. “Bison football has a unique following in the town,” Larsen said. “It’s very much a lifestyle out here.”

The upcoming game will be Illinois State’s first national title game appearance since football arrived on campus in 1884*. The Redbirds have won two Missouri Valley Conference titles.

Advantage: North Dakota State (but just barely)

Which university has the stronger team this season?

The Redbirds and the Bison did not meet in the regular season despite playing in the same conference. Both teams lost to Northern Iowa. Illinois State’s best victory probably came in the FCS playoff semifinals against top-seeded New Hampshire. Early in the season, North Dakota State took down Big 12 minnow Iowa State, making it the fifth consecutive year it has beaten a FBS school. The Bison have also won 15 consecutive playoff games. But, as the saying goes, they appear due for a loss.

Advantage: Illinois State

* This date comes from John B. Freed’s history of Illinois State, Educating Illinois: Illinois State University, 1857–2007. He wrote that by 1893, games were being played against local colleges and high schools.

Kevin Bersett can be reached at kdberse@IllinoisState.edu.

11 thoughts on “Know your enemy: Inside look at North Dakota State

  1. I am thine enemy. Fear me.

  2. Missy says:

    People of Note who graduated from NDSU:
    David Bernauer is the former chairman and CEO of the pharmacy chain Walgreens, the largest drugstore chain in the United States.

    Tyrone Scott Braxton (born December 17, 1964 in Madison, Wisconsin) is a former American football safety who played for the Denver Broncos for most of his career from 1987 to 1999. Braxton played in four Super Bowls with the Broncos, and won 2 NFL championship rings in Super Bowl XXXII and Super Bowl XXXIII.

    Robert Lee “Bob” Backlund is an American professional wrestler with an in-ring career that spanned over 30 years.

    Brad Rheingans is an American former Greco-Roman and professional wrestler

    Alf Clausen is an American film and television composer. He is best known for his work scoring many episodes of The Simpsons, of which he has been the sole composer since 1990.

    Richard Alan “Rick” Berg is an American politician who served as the U.S. Representative for North Dakota’s at-large congressional district from 2011 to 2013.

    I would also like to point out the Josh Duhamel tweets about the Bison 🙂

    1. Jill says:

      Don’t forget Phil Hanson, Marcus Williams and Billy Turner, Paul Pornic, Craig Dahl.

  3. Ty says:

    Illinois States football tradition comes nowhere close to Ndsus. Ndsu is the stronger team this seasin. We have an Fbs win and a much better defense. The offenses are faitlrly even. Plus Ndsu coaching staff is the best in Fcs.

  4. Bison Pride says:

    It should be a good, physical, defensive game. (and cold – bundle up) Go Bison!

  5. Bbbbbbiiiiiiiissssssooooonnnnnnnnn!!!!!!!

  6. Cam says:

    Next time ESPN College GameDay is in Normal, let us know.


  7. Gofargo says:

    Redbirds will learn denial’s not just a river in Egypt. Bison will ground the Redbirds 37-24. After today’s victory, the Herd will have more national championships than total losses over the past 4 years (57 wins- 3 losses going toward their fourth straight national championship) http://www.thefmextra.com/god-bless-texas-again-for-bison-and-their-fans/
    Go BISON!!!

  8. Gofargo says:

    Denial’s not just a river in Egypt ISU. Congratulations to both schools for one of the best games I’ve seen. I doubt Oregon and Ohio State can match it.
    The Bison have now won 4 straight national championships, that’s one more than their total number of losses the past four years.
    (Bison 57-3 since 2011) http://www.binghamtonhomepage.com/story-sports/d/story/in-the-fcs-huddle-all-ndsu-seniors-do-is-win/18352/UXMWK3X0gECBnbKhn-0x_w

    Go BISON!!

  9. Bob Ganges says:

    Game over
    Advantage: NDSU

    Maybe the author should be comparing ISU to Towson and Sam Houston State. Schools in their catagory.

  10. Great article! I completely enjoyed this fun ribbing of the Bison and Fargo. I might not have liked it quite as much if I would have read it before the game… but its sweet, now that the game is over. And what a game it was! That was the most amazing championship game I’ve seen in Frisco, or anywhere, including tv. I prefer blowouts because close games are way too stressful, but that game was amazing. ISU showed up big and everyone was so nice, well, except the lady who wouldn’t move out of the stairway to let 4 of us down to dash out on the field once it was over. (We even asked nice and said please.) She was a true linebacker and we had to work to get around her. To be honest, she was probably just very sad and heartbroken as I would have been. The Birds were seriously amazing, talented and played like champions. We can be proud of the Missouri Valley Conference. We can be proud of the Bison and the Redbirds.