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IOWA CITY — The first alarms of the herd’s arrival sounded Tuesday.
The Iowa City/Coralville Area Convention & Visitors Bureau on a daily basis monitors hotel space in the area. Here was the report Tuesday morning: 13 or 14 hotel rooms left in the entire town, a few at the Super 8 and maybe a few others sprinkled elsewhere.
“This game is very much like a big conference game in terms of demand,” CVB president Josh Schamberger said. “I love the NDSU fan base and was glad to see them on schedule when it happened many years ago. This is exactly what I expected.”
The North Dakota State Bison fans have plans for your city, Iowa City people.
On Friday night at the Marriott Coralville Hotel & Conference Center, there is the Bison Nation Pep Fest, including speeches from the NDSU president and athletics director.
The Bison tailgate is happening Saturday morning. The northeast student parking lot at West High School opens at 6 a.m.
A green-and-gold crowd of 7,000 to 10,000 is expected. Iowa officials predict 7,000 Bison fans will be in Kinnick Stadium Saturday for NDSU’s battle/crusade against No. 11 Iowa (2-0).
“I think all of that speaks for itself,” NDSU offensive tackle Landon Lechler said with a laugh. “They’re crazy and it’s great. This probably has been three or four years in the making for a lot of fans, planning-wise. It’s great, it’s awesome to have that up here.”
There will be many, many “Das Horns” at the Bison tailgate. That is a horn with an NDSU logo on it that carries 24 ounces of ... let’s not kid ourselves, beer, yeah, let’s go with beer.
“There will be a lot more fans here (Saturday) than there were from the Iowa State contingent,” said Iowa deputy director of athletics Gene Taylor, who spent 13 years as NDSU’s athletics director before coming to Iowa City in 2014. “They’re used to traveling. If you’ve ever seen them to the Texas routine and the 20,000-plus people, it’s cool to see.
The “Texas routine” is a reference to where the FCS national title game is played, Frisco, Texas. The Bison (2-0), currently No. 1 in FCS, are the five-time defending FCS national champions. They’ve also beaten five consecutive FBS teams, including at Iowa State in 2014.
When Taylor arrived in Fargo, the Bison were a Division II program. It was winning, but it only drew 5,000 or 6,000 fans for home games. One of the first things Taylor did was put every Bison game on TV.
“People thought we were nuts, why would you do that?” he said. “Once people started seeing us and we kept winning, it just became this passion that grew and grew.”
Taylor said 30,000 NDSU fans showed up at the Metrodome for 2006 and 2007 games against Minnesota.
“That’s what tipped the scale in terms of fandemonium,” Taylor said. “There were probably 30,000 fans. It was almost like a big bowl game. From there, it just kind of fed upon itself.”
It’s still feeding and feeding and feeding. So, let’s try to get inside the Grand Poobah Hat (it’s the big buffalo hat a lot of NDSU fans wear, you’ll know it when you see it) and see who these good folks from the Peace Garden State are.
North Dakotans do not mind driving. It’s only nine hours from Fargo to Iowa City.
“We’re a big rural state, so driving isn’t a big deal,” said Troy Goergen, an NDSU senior associate director of athletics for external operations. “People are used to driving somewhat longer distances to get places.”
NDSU fan Dan Beecher says it’s only eight hours to Iowa City from Fargo.
“Piece of cake,” he said. Beecher quickly interjects that it’s a much shorter drive than Frisco, a 16-hour monster.
With driving as a key element for most NDSU fans (they fly, too, the school has taken as many as four charter loads of fans into Frisco), you need the right rig. Beecher bought a 1991 bus, an out-of-service Greyhound Lines bus. He gutted it except for a few of the seats. He installed a “usable” bathroom. There’s a kitchen, a double bed, a twin bed and then there’s a 50-inch TV on a door that opens on the side.
The bus is draped in green and gold. The custom designs can get elaborate and NDSU does need to approve if they include school logos. Beecher’s bus has been approved (there is a small fee involved, but he was happy to pay).
“Instead of saying, ‘No, you absolutely can’t use our logo,’” Goergen said, “we figured having a lot filled with custom buses with our logo is better than having a bunch with altered logos and wrong logos. That’s one tiny example of giving our fans some creative freedom to get behind it.”
Asked what his crew plans to do in Iowa City, Beecher had a question of his own. “What’s there to do?”
There’s the tailgating and the drinking of the beer and the game.
“Oh, we’re good at that,” Beecher said. “We’re good at making our own parties.”
Along with all of the winning, like the amber waves of winning, winning and winning and winning, NDSU embraced the party aspect of tailgating. About 10 years ago, Taylor helped lead an effort to change Fargo city ordinance that banned alcohol from tailgating areas.
“They (NDSU fans) come out, they party hard, but they’re good partyers,” Taylor said. “They don’t raise hell. They’re good solid fans who care passionately about their program, just like Iowa fans do.”
Taylor told a story about the Bison’s first trip to Frisco. The hotel where the alumni event was held ran out of beer (sound familiar, Iowa people?). NDSU fans were buying beers out of cases.
“I walked out and there were a bunch of police officers,” Taylor said. “I thanked them for being there, and one said, ‘You know what? You’re the nicest drunk people I’ve ever met in my life.’”
The police told Taylor they actually sent officers home because they knew there wasn’t going to be any trouble.
The vibe NDSU seems to stick by is “be cool, have a few beers, enjoy the game and, remember, be cool.”
“I run into people who always say ‘You have the nicest fans,’” Goergen said. “It’s more about having fun than it is about getting drunk. I think our fans love to partake in tailgating and with that comes a few beers and a few cocktails, but at the end of the day, they’re out there to support the team and support each other.”
By the way, the Iowa administration has relaxed tailgating rules for 11 a.m. kickoffs this season. You can tailgate into the night after Saturday's game.
The Bison have 12 native North Dakotans on their depth chart this week. That caught Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz’s attention. Iowa has regularly recruited Nebraska and South Dakota, but has yet to make it that far north. Ferentz sounded intrigued.
Lechler is from Beach, N.D., along the Montana border.
“I’m from the western part of the state, so a lot of people think people don’t even exist over there,” the 6-7, 298-pounder said. “I’m from the middle of nowhere.”
Remember that part about getting the Bison on TV? That’s what hooked Lechler when he was a kid on his family’s farm and ranch.
“When I was young we had three or four channels,” said Lechler, who played 9-man football for Beach High School. “One of those was the NBC affiliate. We were able to watch the Bison growing up. There’s a tremendous amount of pride to play here in Fargo and be a part of the Bison tradition.”
You know your fan base has reached “fandemonium” level when the town it’s traveling to has run out of hotels on Tuesday. Another sign is when it’s willing to wear a funny hat. The Green Bay Packers have the “cheeseheads.” The North Dakota State Bison have the Grand Poobah Hat, which is known as “The Furry Buffalo Hat” and is on sale online from the NDSU bookstore for $24.99.
“As the Bison, we have a unique animal,” Goergen said. “Some people call it the ‘Grand Poobah’ hat, and it does have that ‘Flintstone’ look to it.”
Of course, there’s flair. You have to have more than just the Poobah hat.
“Everybody has to have the hat,” said Justin Swanson, NDSU’s assistant director of athletics for marketing and fan engagement. “If one guy has it, the next guy has to have it, but it has to be even bigger. We’ve graduated levels from a ‘Junior Poobah’ to a ‘Major Poobah’ to a ‘Grand Poobah.’ It’s always how can you make it bigger and better than the next guy.”
It doesn’t end with “Grand Poobah” hats. NDSU’s fandemonium has spawned super fans who everyone NDSU recognizes.
There’s the “NDSU Pope.” His name is Jon Haug. His pope hat has a picture of NDSU coach Chris Klieman and says “St. Chris.”
There’s also “Disco Inferno.” His name is actually Todd Wahl and he’s a police officer from Fargo. On game day, he’s “Disco Inferno,” a man dressed in vintage disco clothing.
“I would be willing to bet Disco will be in Iowa City,” Goergen said. “He typically wears one of the Poobah hats. He’ll be wearing gold pants and platform shoes. He’ll more than likely stick out.”
Iowa counters with “Hawkeye Elvis.” We’re headed toward a cultural clash of epic proportions.
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