Last weekend, I tweeted that Fargo, N.D., is a good option for people who like Akron but want something colder.
Truth is, Fargo is more like the colder version of Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Walk through the Fargo airport, or one of the downtown bars, and you’ll see North Dakota State shirts everywhere. Thousands of students come early for games to heckle the opposing players. At the 19,000-seat Fargodome, all of this year’s home games, like the fans, are sold out.
As one Youngstown State official said, “They’re drinking the Kool-Aid.”
While YSU has one of the best college atmospheres at the FCS level, there’s just no way the city can compete with Fargo for city-wide devotion. Ohio has too many other teams.
Consider: There are eight FBS programs in Ohio, the second-highest number in the country behind Texas. Pennsylvania, which has a higher population than Ohio, has just three.
Add in two pro football teams (yes, I’m counting the Browns) and another just south and west of here and the Penguins are never going to draw the type of devotion NDSU gets, particularly when so many fans prefer either Ohio State or Notre Dame.
North Dakota, meanwhile, has no FBS teams. Minnesota has one, but it’s 21/2 hours away and it stinks. South Dakota and Montana (the other two bordering states) have none.
For most people who live near Fargo, North Dakota State is the only game in town. That’s how the Bison have been able to build a football powerhouse in the second-coldest city in the country. And it’s how they’ve been able to pass up every other program in the country in just their eighth year at the FCS level.
“As I told Coach [Craig] Bohl before the game, we’re all chasing him,” Youngstown State coach Eric Wolford said after Saturday’s 48-7 loss.
YSU coach Jim Tressel used to talk about recruiting the “State of Youngstown — 39 of the 90 players on the 1991 team attended a high school in Mahoning or Trumbull County — but you can no longer build a national championship team with those types of numbers. There’s too much competition for a dwindling supply of talent.
Wolford has an eye for talent, but as someone in the program told me before Saturday’s game, he has too many defensive players who “look like Tarzan and play like Jane.” The Penguins are the football equivalent of Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini, relying on a terrific offense to overcome their defensive deficiencies.
If the Penguins want to compete with North Dakota State — and, as Saturday showed, they’re nowhere close — that needs to change. Because while the Bison have an advantage in the stands, they have a bigger advantage on the field.
Wolford won’t win a national title in his third year — or even a conference championship — but the Penguins need to make a lengthy playoff run to start closing the gap. To do so, he’ll need more than terrific athletes. He’ll need terrific football players.
Until that happens, the people of Fargo will keep drinking something other than Kool-Aid — champagne.