Winning required a change in attitude for Jackrabbit football
South Dakota State's recent success against North Dakota State didn't happen until they believed it was possible. The teams will meet again in Texas for FCS championship on Sunday.
BROOKINGS — John Stiegelmeier remembers a time when the football rivalry between South Dakota State and North Dakota State was so one-sided that Jackrabbit players began questioning why they played the Bison.
Pulling a memory from his three-and-a-half decades on the coaching staff, Stiegelmeier thought back to moments before one of the Jackrabbits' many trips to Fargo, when a player made a comment that, given where the program is at in 2022, is a little hard to digest.
"When I got on the bus, he — this was one of our starting offensive linemen from years and years ago — said why do we even go up there (to Fargo)? We're not going to win," Stiegelmeier recalled. "I thought, we're going to change that mentality. And we have."
Competitive disposition aside, the player's underlying frustrations were understandable.
To say there were dark times for SDSU football in facing their fierce northern rivals is a severe understatement. Between 1964 and 2006, the Jacks went to Fargo 22 times and went 0-for-22 against NDSU, losing by an average score of 36-15. Overall during that span, SDSU had six wins to 37 losses in the series.
Even as recently as 2015, Stiegelmeier thought the Bison might have a psychological edge on his team, saying after NDSU defeated SDSU 28-7 in Brookings: "I'll tell you what I think is the difference between our programs. When they walk onto the field, they believe they are going to win. When we walk onto the field, I don't know that all 77 players who put on a uniform believed that we were going to win."
Since those remarks, SDSU has won five of seven regular-season meetings with NDSU, including a 23-21 comeback victory from Oct. 15 in Fargo earlier this season. It's difficult not to attribute that sudden change, at least in part, to the mentality shift that Stiegelmeier, now in his 26th season as SDSU's head coach, was long determined to spur finally taking hold.
'Part of our culture'
Following a loss at Montana State in last season's FCS semifinals, seven months after appearing in the program's first national championship during the spring 2021 season, SDSU offensive lineman Wes Genant and linebacker Logan Backhaus were adamant that going 11-4 with three postseason victories was not good enough. Multiple times they used the word "failure."
The words illustrated the program's evolved mentality and is a big reason why SDSU football has been one of the last four teams remaining in contention for a championship in five of the past six seasons.
"It's been a culture shift in the past couple of years," said quarterback Mark Gronowski. "... The goal and the focus of every single season is to win a national championship, and if we don't do that, then we don't feel like we have a successful season. I think it's just part of our culture now and it makes us work harder every single day."
That focus seemingly created a conflict between the ultimate goal of winning a title and one of the mantras Stiegelmeier instills in the program: go 1-0 every week.
However, any questions as to what remains the priority were quashed during a press conference on Dec. 29.
According to Stiegelmeier, the current class of seniors did not include winning a national championship on their list of goals for this season even though the classes that came before them all had done so. Though the Jackrabbits have not shied away from their desire to conquer the FCS in comments prior to and during the season, the focus is still very much on the process, not the end result.
"That is still our No. 1 thing. Coach Stig starts every single meeting with "Go 1-0 this week," Gronowski explained. "... We really just tried to focus on one at a time, but our culture assumes that we're going to be in that national championship."
"The 1-0 concept we've always done," Stiegelmeier added. "And if you're 1-0 every week, you have a chance to do this."
Checking all the boxes
Toppling the Bison has proved to be a much more difficult task for the Jackrabbits in the postseason. Between 2012 and 2018, SDSU and NDSU faced off four times in the FCS playoffs, each time in the Fargodome, with the Bison winning all four (three by at least 23 points).
But a strong argument can be made that this year's team represents the best opportunity the Jacks have had to flip that script, as the blueprint for success SDSU has followed shares many elements with the recipe that made NDSU a national power.
SDSU has the talent, familiarity and a certain confidence necessary to win a national championship on Jan. 8 in Frisco, Texas.
"Confidence is huge for us; it gives us a little bit of swagger that a team really needs to be successful," Gronowski said. "I think we're playing at our best when we're high in confidence, high in swagger and we feel like nobody can really stop us offensively or defensively. It's just really good to see that confidence with our team right now."