Former coach Dale Lennon, UND football players from early-2000s see parallels with No. 2-ranked Fighting Hawks
The last time UND pulled off a sweep of the Dakotas, it did it three straight years from 2001-2003, a stretch that included an NCAA Division II national championship in 2001 and a national runner-up finish in 2003.
On Saturday afternoon, the UND football program has an opportunity to sweep the other three NCAA Division-I schools in North and South Dakota in one season.
The No. 2 Fighting Hawks play No. 4 North Dakota State at 2:30 p.m. at the Fargodome.
The last time UND pulled off a sweep of the Dakotas, it did it three straight years from 2001-2003, a span in program history that included an NCAA Division-II national championship in 2001 and a national runner-up finish in 2003.
In records that date back to 1894, UND has swept the Dakotas 19 times, the first time coming in 1922. The other years were 1928-31, 1936, 1940-41, 1959, 1960-61, 1964, 1975, 1979, 1994, 1998 and 2001-03. Of the 19 times, it's only happened five times since 1980.
As former UND coach Dale Lennon and members of those early-2000s teams were asked to reflect on their past success and the current 4-0 Fighting Hawks, it was easy to draw parallels.
"We weren't a whole lot different than what the current team is doing," said Lennon, now athletic director at the University of Mary in Bismarck. "This team is legit. They're a contender. They're solid from top to bottom. This is what we've been working toward since making the transition. This team has the opportunity to be one of the best programs in the FCS. That's where as an alum, that's where the program belongs. That fits into our expectations."
In 2001, UND was sparked by playing in the brand-new Alerus Center. UND played eight home games that season including three in the postseason in the Alerus. A 14-2 win over UC Davis, with future NFLer J.T. O'Sullivan at quarterback for the Aggies, in the national semifinals remains as one of the best atmospheres produced in Grand Forks.
The Alerus doesn't seem to have lost magic for UND. This year's team played three straight home games and rocketed from unranked in the top 25 to a top-5 ranking by beating Southern Illinois , South Dakota State and South Dakota -- all by double digits.
Former UND offensive lineman David Butler, at his home in Alexandria, Va., has a framed promotional poster of the 2001 Fighting Sioux schedule. He framed the poster a while back but decided this week to put it up on his wall.
"I have the schedule in front of me," Butler said earlier this week before taking a flight back to North Dakota for this weekend's game. "We had five home games, then three home playoff games. We won a national championship because of that. I was at (the 2021) South Dakota State game. The fake punt totally turned it around. You don't win without a little luck, and those little breaks start going your way at home. We had the same thing going our way in 2001."
Members of the early-2000s UND teams also see similarities in a head coach the players respect.
"These guys have taken it to another level," said former UND offensive lineman Mac Schneider, now a lawyer in Fargo. "Just like back in the early-2000s under Lennon, coach (Bubba) Schweigert has set the expectations high. He expects the players to work hard and be committed and get better every week. They've done that. From the outside looking in, the mentality they're bringing this spring does remind me a lot of that 2001 team. That was a team that loved playing football together and do everything we could for each other."
Said former UND running back Adam Roland: "I think if you start at the top, we had good leadership and coaching. Lennon set what I viewed as a clear path to what we needed to do to get there. We knew that path wouldn't be easy. But he had the roadmap, the things to do on a daily basis. One game at a time. Not looking head. Even those NDSU games, it's a big game, but it's also just another game we have to play and win. The first goal was making the playoffs, then make it through and play for a national championship."
Under Lennon, UND's offenses were balanced attacks. It was mostly West Coast offense, set up by play-action off the running of backs like Roland and Jed Perkerwicz. The wide receivers were dangerous, too, with Dan Graf, Luke Schleusner, Jesse Smith, Willis Stattelman, Caleb Johnson, Dan Grossman, Jesse Ahlers and Travis Lueck. The quarterbacks were Kelby Klosterman in 2001 and a mixture of John Bowenkamp and Joe Wilson in 2002 and 2003.
David Wisthoff, a fullback on the early-2000s UND teams, sees a similar balanced attack in 2021.
"Danny (Freund) has done a nice job keeping it balanced and not being one-dimensional," said Wisthoff, now a principal at Bismarck High School, of UND's second-year offensive play-caller. "It's really fun to see them play complete football. I can't tell you how fun it is to see UND back on top, and hopefully, it can stay that way."
UND's defenses of that era were led by defensive linemen Ben Dixon and Jeff Momerak, linebackers Eric Schmidt, Digger Anderson, Ethan Marquis, Tyler Dahlen and Travis O'Neel, and defensive backs Craig Riendeau, Dustin Thornburg, Adam Stratton and Danny Gagner.
UND was strong on special teams in the early-2000s, too, with kickers Cameron Peterka and Jeff Glas.
The 2001 and 2021 UND teams both have some swagger, too, Butler said. He read a story about current UND offensive lineman Kyle Hergel, and it reminded Butler of himself.
"That kid is my clone," Butler said. "The mentality you see now, that's what we had. We were out to bring the heat. I just love that swagger.
"I can't tell you how proud and how much excitement they've brought to my life this spring. After the Southern Illinois game, I was so excited that on Tuesday I bought a plane ticket for the South Dakota State game. I haven't flown by myself to a game like that in 15 years. I probably won't make another regular-season game at home. But if they make the playoffs, you better believe I'll be back."
Butler's daughter came home from school this week and had a card for her dad that read "Best dad ever. Go North Dakota."
"I guarantee a few months ago, she wouldn't have wrote that," Butler said. "My kids know the fight song."
Roland, a Wahpeton, N.D., native, is now head football coach and a teacher at Fargo North High School.
"I'm always proud of the University of North Dakota; I went there for a reason and there are a lot of proud moments, but (the 4-0 2021 season) is nice," Roland said. "I can see the Fargodome every day I go to work. It's one of those things, you have to give credit where credit is due. My big thing is I get a little irritated when people have short memories of the rivalry and what went on. There's a lot of history involved. There are a lot of players from both UND and NDSU who are cut short a little bit when the current fans only go back a short time."
Each player has a favorite memory of that history. For Fargo native Schneider, it was the atmosphere in the Fargodome.
"In 2002 at the dome, being from Fargo, coming into that environment with 19,000 fans and most hate your guts, it's so loud," Schneider said. "I've gone to games there since then, and it doesn't do it justice to being in the middle of the field where the sound is surrounding you. The closest I can compare is sticking your head under water in a hot tub with the jets on. That 2002 game wasn't high-scoring or a fan favorite, but the silence in the dome as we went to the corner with the Nickel, watching fans file out, that was a pretty special moment."
Wisthoff, of Powers Lake, N.D., remembers what it meant to play against players you played against in high school.
"It made Thanksgiving and Christmas a lot better," Wisthoff said.
Lennon, who said the spring season has allowed him to follow much closer than past falls during a hectic time in his schedule, doesn't plan to attend the game Saturday.
"I really enjoy watching the game by myself," he said. "I can analyze and not be interrupted. That's how I watched UND and Southern Illinois. Same with South Dakota State. I've been extremely impressed with this football program. The players have bought into the system."