Sioux prepare for a new era
In the last eight months, UND football has witnessed a transformation unlike any in the program's 113-year history. Since Nov. 24, 2007, the day last season ended when UND was defeated by Grand Valley State in the NCAA Division II playoffs in All...
In the last eight months, UND football has witnessed a transformation unlike any in the program's 113-year history.
Since Nov. 24, 2007, the day last season ended when UND was defeated by Grand Valley State in the NCAA Division II playoffs in Allendale, Mich., sweeping changes have occurred at Memorial Stadium.
n The Sioux no longer compete in NCAA Division II football. Gone are the days of UND entering each season as a legitimate contender for a national title. Now, UND officially is a Division I Football Championship Subdivision program -- one that will not be eligible for NCAA postseason play until 2012.
n A new coach is in place. In late December, Chris Mussman took over for Dale Lennon, who was the face of the program for nearly a decade and a coach who guided the Sioux to their only national title.
n There is a new administrative staff in place at Hyslop Sports Center, located across the street from Memorial Stadium.
n Gone are the days of the North Central Conference, a 90-year old league that provided scheduling stability for UND. The league was the focal point for the Sioux since 1921.
n With the move to Division I FCS, UND's home schedule will be considerably different this season. Next year and beyond, the schedule could be radically different as the program attempts to find FCS programs to come to Grand Forks. And its road schedule likely will include high-paying guarantee games against teams in the Big 12, the Western Athletic Conference, the Big 10 and other leagues.
The changes, perhaps, were inevitable as the college landscape surrounding UND began to take on a new look with North Dakota State's move to Division I in 2003.
Despite the numerous changes, Mussman, who has been with the Sioux since 1999, is looking forward to UND's first season as a Division I program.
Sioux players are scheduled to report today at Memorial Stadium. The players will be on the field Monday. The first true practice is scheduled for Tuesday at 9:15 a.m.
UND's first game as a Division I FCS program is scheduled for Aug. 28 against Texas A&M-Kingsville.
Last week was the calm before the storm at Memorial Stadium.
Mussman, who was UND's offensive coordinator for the past seven years before succeeding Lennon, took a few minutes to reflect on what has been an interesting offseason for UND football.
You've had a lot on your plate since you were named the head coach in late December. Are you ready for the Aug. 28 opener?
As a team, we're not ready. I'm ready for Monday. Monday will be a great day because we'll actually be on the field and playing football with the guys who want to be here. As far as Aug. 28 goes, I'd like to push it back farther if I could. But I can't. I'm sure I'll be pretty nervous and excited on that day.
Will the Sioux be a different team with Chris Mussman in charge?
We probably won't be that much different. We'll have the same defensive structure since coach (Mike) Mannausau and coach (John) Kelling have been running the defense for the last couple of years. Offensively, we'll run some of the same plays, but there will be some subtle differences. Coach (Greg) Breitbach and his offensive coaches will step away a little from how I did it. It will be a little bit of a different look offensively, but you'd probably have to be on our end of the film to figure it out.
What will be the strength of the team this year?
We lost the two kids who were impact players. But we have 18 seniors coming back. They will be the strength of our team. Offensively, we have some talent. We won't be as deep, especially up front. But part of that is just the sheer numbers we can now carry. Defensively, some guys sat out of spring ball because of injuries and the semester rule. So I'm kind of interested to see how the defensive guys will come out of the gate. We haven't seen those guys jell as a unit.
Can UND compete for a Great West Conference football title in its first year in the league?
It's so far away. Our first conference game isn't until Oct. 25 at UC Davis. The reality of it is that we won't play two preseason games and then jump into conference play. It's not even on the radar yet. We have three important games at home to open the season. We then jump on a plane to play a Thursday game against Idaho State for our first Division I game. Then we go to Southeastern Louisiana. Then we get two weeks off to heal our wounds and get ready for the conference season. I really look at the season as being two halves. Obviously, we'd like to win it. We want to be there at the end to have a chance to win it. There are some great teams in this league.
What's your biggest goal for your first season of Division I FCS football?
The biggest thing we want to do is establish ourselves as a staff. The season is a part of that, but it's also recruiting and other things. It's making sure we make a positive mark as the season goes on. And it's changing the way we think as an institution. We're no longer a Division II school. We're a Division I football program. We have to think, act and work like that on a daily basis. At times, that's been a frustration. But we have to keep plugging away at it.
Speaking of recruiting, will you now look nationwide for football players?
We're into different areas. We're heavy into the state of Iowa right now. We've never done that before. We're canvassing a lot more of Nebraska. We're into Texas, the California junior colleges, pockets of Florida, Illinois and Wisconsin. But we still have to get the corps of our guys from this region. We have enough talent in this region to be competitive. Take a look at the schools in this region that have been successful, North Dakota State and Northern Iowa. They get their kids out of this region. There is no reason why we can't have success with the same types of athletes.
You haven't even played your first game as a Division I school, but what are future UND schedules looking like? There are rumors that UND is talking to a handful of big-name schools for games as early as 2009. Also, what kind of home schedule are you looking at starting in 2009?
The schedules haven't been officially released for '09 and 2010, but there are some schools we're in communication with that would be guarantee games. We're trying to get Division I FCS schools to come to Grand Forks. That's not an easy thing for us to do right now, but that's our priority. Will we have to play some Division II and NAIA games at home? Yeah, but our priority is to have true Division I schools come to Grand Forks.
There will be no playoffs for UND this season. But one game will have a playoff atmosphere. You'll play at Southern Illinois on Nov. 1. With Dale Lennon as the Southern Illinois coach, a lot of your players already have that date circled on their calendars. How do you approach that game?
In coach-speak, I'm just looking ahead to the Aug. 28 game. Obviously, we know that game is there. I'm excited and nervous for that game. Dale and Southern Illinois have a lot more to lose than we do in that game. It's stressful. But in all honesty, I'm looking forward for that game to be done. Then, it'll be the official end of the (coaching) transition. We have to be guarded with each other because we play each other. And I don't like that because they're our friends. We want to win and we know it's going to be tough. That's a great football team. But if we don't go into that game with that attitude, we'll know the outcome of the game. Dale and I are in similar situations. We're both going into the unknown. He's been a head coach, but not at that level. There is no transition for Southern Illinois. They were in the (FCS) semifinals last year. Their expectations are pretty high. When you think about it, he went from Vermillion, S.D., for his last regular-season game to playing in the Big 10 against Northwestern. That's a big jump. But they'll do well. With the staff that's there, they'll work their tails off and they'll do a good job.
You've experienced a UND-North Dakota State game as an assistant. Your players have not. Now that UND and NDSU are both Division I FCS programs, is there a chance the Sioux-Bison rivalry will be renewed?
During spring recruiting, I heard (NDSU athletic director) Gene Taylor say something like 2011 would be the earliest the game could be played. They have issues with their conference schedule. The Missouri Valley is a big league. And are they going to play money games? The only thing I can tell you is that it will eventually be played. The game is good for the state and it's good for the state's recognition, too. We'll get national exposure for both institutions. There is only one way I want to see the rivalry resumed. We don't want it to be a one-game shot or a two-game shot. If we resume the rivalry, let's put it on the schedule every year.
Nelson reports on sports. Reach him at (701) 780-1268; (800) 477-6572, ext. 268; or send e-mail to email@example.com .