FARGO - The University of North Dakota has finally found its football home after a decade long search.
Wednesday, UND will become the 11th member of the Missouri Valley Football Conference and end a process that began in November of 2010 when the school was accepted into the Big Sky Conference. UND officially joined the league in 2012 and enjoyed a mix bag of success.
The high point was in 2016 when Bubba Schweigert led the Fighting Hawks to the league championship and an unbeaten conference record. UND qualified for the FCS Playoffs for the first time that year.
But the miles were piling up. Trips to three different time zones was getting old for the other teams at UND and when an opportunity to join the Summit League and get membership to the Valley, the school pounced at the opportunity.
"I think part of the experience for guys growing up in Wishek and Bismarck and Fargo and the Twin Cities, when they come to UND that experience should include playing NDSU, South Dakota State and South Dakota." Schweigert said when UND officially joined the Valley in January of 2017. "That will be special to us. I do believe it will help our fan base to follow on the road to drive down I-29 for three games."
UND spent the last two seasons as an FCS independent but mostly playing a Big Sky schedule. The Fighting Hawks have flirted with Valley opponents, playing the likes of the Bison, Jacks and Coyotes with just two wins to show in seven games.
"It's the best league in the country. Our players are excited for the challenge that comes with playing in the league." Offensive Coordinator and former UND quarterback Danny Freund said.
Newcomers to this league have not fared well. The last two teams invited, NDSU and USD both struggled. The Bison won just 10 league games over their first three years. South Dakota won three.
Freund added: "You throw two of the top five teams in the country and the quality of football is top notch, we're excited and it's a big step for us and it's an important step for our football program and university."
The biggest challenge for the Fighting Hawks may not come on the field, it may come fighting other Valley schools on the recruiting trail.
"Not only are you competing on the field, you are competing off the field in recruiting. Those wins and losses mean even more than the ones on the field, so you need to work even harder than that." Freund said.
UND has been aiming for this season for three years. But they are aware that the climb to the top is a steep one.
"The national champions come out of this league for a lot of years now, it's the teams we're recruiting against, we have history and tradition with. There's a bit of energy with the move and it feels right."
UND's 2020 Valley schedule
September 26th at Youngstown State
October 3rd vs South Dakota State
October 10th vs Missouri State
October 17th at Western Illinois
October 31st vs South Dakota
November 7th at Illinois State
November 14th at North Dakota State
November 21st vs Southern Illinois
DO NOT PLAY: Northern Iowa and Indiana State