Bison-Sioux rivalry documentary airs on PBS
“When They Were Kings” features intensity of NDSU-UND sports
Published: Thursday, September 20, 2012
Updated: Thursday, September 20, 2012 11:09
After three years in the making, the original broadcast of “When They Were Kings: The NDSU-UND Rivalry” took place on Tuesday of this week, but the 90-minute program can also be watched this coming Saturday night at either 7 or 9 p.m.
An Aug. 17, 2012 media release stated that Prairie Public’s Matt Olien, producer and writer of the documentary, gathered stats and file footage spanning two decades to compile information about the two-sport rivalry. The show takes an in-depth look at the intensity surrounding the annual gridiron contest from 1981 to NDSU’s last year at the Division II level in 2003. During a stretch in the 1990s the two universities’ women’s basketball programs accounted for winning eight out of nine national titles, which included dramatic moments on the court when matched up with one another.
In addition to archival video footage, the documentary is built upon reminiscences and analysis from key players and coaches, including Rocky Hager (NDSU Head Football Coach 1987-96), Roger Thomas (UND Head Football Coach 1986-98), Gene Roebuck (UND Women’s Basketball Coach 1987-2012) and Amy Ruley (NDSU Women’s Basketball Coach 1979-2008).
“I know it’s exciting for NDSU to win a national title in football Division I, and it’s exciting for UND to go to the Big Sky, but playing Robert Morris or Portland State isn’t the same as playing NDSU or UND,” Olien said. “Dale Lennon said off camera that he thought bringing his Southern Illinois team into the Fargodome a couple of years ago would kind of be like when he coached UND, but it wasn’t the same thing.” Due to their unmatched success in winning four national crowns in the 1980s and one more in 1990, most of the football segment is dedicated to the Bison. However, the documentary displays how the Sioux were able to bounce back and eclipse the NDSU mystique by taking the Nickel Trophy home in 10 of their final 13 meetings. Losing that game always left a sour aftertaste with players and fans alike, no matter what else went on during the rest of the season.
By way of establishing themselves as a national power first, the lady Bison fill the majority of the film’s basketball section. They set the tone for the 1990s decade by winning five NCAA championships from 1991 to 1996. Eventually breaking through, the Sioux women would go on to garner three straight Division II titles of their own beginning in 1997. The two were often ranked 1 or 2 in the country at the same time and drew significantly more fans than the men’s teams for home games.
“I think that the documentary will appeal most to NDSU and UND alums, who experienced that rivalry and that success in those times,” Olien said. “Yes, they are Division I now, but that is still a part of their history. If you go to NDSU it doesn’t just say ‘national champions 2011.’ It has their other banners from the ‘80s, too, and nobody’s trying to act like that never happened.”
Despite the likelihood that “When they Were Kings” will ultimately be more popular with alumni and fans who experienced the glory years firsthand, Olien believes that it will give those who didn’t have that opportunity a good feel for the electricity that came with Bison-Sioux week.
“It’s just exciting to see it,” Olien said. “You can tell by listening to Ed Schultz and Pat Sweeney that it’s exciting to be there. You can feel their excitement from the play-by-play. No disrespect to anybody, but you just don’t get the same type of excitement from the SDSU game.”
To illustrate his point, Olien commented on a Bison fan chant.
“When the Bison won the national title last year, what did the players start screaming? It was ‘Sioux Suck,’” he said. “How was that the first thing on their mind when they just won the national title? Yet, somehow it was.”
More than twenty athletes representing the four teams were interviewed in the making of this PBS program, including former long-time NFL veterans Jim Kleinsasser and Phil Hansen. UND’s Sheri Kleinsasser and NDSU’s Jen Rademacher, who was a member of four national championship teams, are among the players who share their thoughts on the basketball side of the rivalry.