Finally, November football at Fargodome

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FARGO, N.D. (AP) - Supporters of an indoor football stadium in North Dakota’s largest city helped sell the project more than two decades ago by telling residents they would no longer have to watch those college playoff games in snow and subzero temperatures.

Turns out, they wouldn’t be watching playoff games at all _ until now.

After dominating small college football for a quarter of a century and playing host to dozens of playoff games at an outdoor venue called Dacotah Field, North Dakota State is about to make its first postseason appearance inside the city-owned Fargodome.

The Bison (7-4) play Robert Morris (8-2) on Saturday in the first round of the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision playoffs. The Fargodome has been home to the Bison since 1993 _ a year after they last played a playoff game.

“It’s about time,” said Jim McLaughlin, 85, a Fargo resident who was chairman of the dome’s steering committee in the late 1980s.

It was 22 years ago when Fargo residents were asked to approve a half-cent sales tax to help pay for the $48 million arena. The vote came at a time when the Bison were approaching their eighth Division II national football championship in 25 years, the most of any team at that time.

Robert Entzion, the NDSU athletic director back then and one of the promoters of the dome, said he expected the indoor facility to bolster recruiting, fundraising and attendance. He told reporters that while a lot of older fans attend games at the beginning of the year, they can’t stay through the whole season and playoffs because of the cold weather.

The measure passed with 61 percent of the vote.

“At that time everybody I talked to wasn’t going to vote for it. Then when it passed I don’t remember running into anyone who didn’t vote for it,” said Roger Gress, the Fargo parks director who was a park district planner at the time.

Dale Rust, 57, has been watching Bison football for about 40 years and never missed a playoff game at Dacotah Field. He and his friends initially opposed moving indoors.

“Most of my buddies didn’t like that idea. Our most memorable times were watching games outside in the snow,” Rust said. “But, in a nutshell, we’re getting older now and we don’t mind going inside.”

The last home playoff game was in 1992, when NDSU defeated Northeast Missouri State in front of 6,230 fans at Dacotah Field. The Bison moved indoors the next season, but several factors have worked against them in hosting another playoff game.

The awarding of home sites in Division II went from a bidding process _ in which the wealthy Bison had money to burn _ to a fairness doctrine based on records and ratings. The Bison also went through two coaching changes and they weren’t eligible for the playoffs for five years as they made the jump to Division I, a period NDSU athletic director Gene Taylor refers to as “purgatory.”

This weekend’s game is NDSU’s first Division I football playoff game.

“Once we got through this transition we felt that football should qualify for the tournament. Maybe not every year, but fairly consistently,” Taylor said.

The Fargodome holds more than 19,000 fans for football and as many as 25,000 for concerts. The building has never lost a dime. While shows like Bruce Springsteen and the Rolling Stones have helped make it a success, the “prime tenant is North Dakota State University football,” said Rob Sobolik, the Fargodome general manager.

Still, dome managers have reserved prime weekend dates in late November and early December for playoff games that never arrived.

“We’ve been waiting a long time to get these teams in for playoffs,” McLaughlin said. “We could have had some pretty good events in that time if we didn’t have to block off those dates.”

There have been eight Fargodome sellouts over the past five seasons, including a record 19,053 against South Dakota State in 2006. NDSU ranks 10th this season in FCS attendance with an average of 16,568 fans over six home games, with a high of 18,701 on Oct. 2 against Western Illinois.

Oddly enough, some fans have groused to dome officials about turning down the thermostat on game days to keep the players from overheating. Sobolik isn’t expecting any complaints this weekend.

“As I stare out the window at a foot of snow falling and predictions of more bad weather coming in, I would be pretty happy if I was sitting inside in an environmentally controlled venue versus sitting outside in this,” he said.

McLaughlin said he’s hoping to attend the game.

“If I can get a ticket,” he said, chuckling.

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