In the wake of yesterday’s hiring of Gene Taylor as the new Director of Athletics at K-State, we thought it would be a good idea to get to know something about the man straight from the horse’s mouth — or the Bison’s mouth, as it were.
To that end, we reached out to Joe Kerlin, the editor of Bison Illustrated. Yes, that’s right, there’s a shiny full-color magazine devoted to a school that doesn’t even play FBS football, because as anyone who’s seen College Football Gameday’s two trips to the tundra, North Dakota State fans really do care that much about their program.
Indeed, it’s possible there are few schools quite as culturally similar to K-State when you get right down to it. They’re originally an ag school, they’ve been deprived of the ability to have a law school or med school by their Most Hated Rivals, and they’ve compensated by becoming a legitimately notable STEM center and building a truly beautiful campus.
These people are our people. So let’s see what they have to say.
Jon: How involved was Gene Taylor with the Fargo community at large? Was he considered to be approachable and receptive to fan concerns?
Joe: Gene and Cathy Taylor were an integral part of the Fargo community. Fargo is an intimate area and if you stick around long enough, you'll become acquaintances with just about everybody, especially when you're the athletic director of a naionally recognized Division I program.
Of course, with the amount of success NDSU had across almost all of its programs, it's easier to be open in the community and gracious with your time. But it never felt like Gene put up a front with anyone. What you got with Gene was truly him. There was no "face" he put on for the media or the most critical Bison supporters.
His daughter Casey, who got her undergrad at NDSU, and son Jared understood their father's role in the community and were model kids. In fact, Jared signed with Northern State (Ed. Note: D-II school in Aberdeen, S.D., not far south of Fargo), and is one talented quarterback. Absolutely he was approachable.
Was he receptive to fans concerns? Yes, but he was never a guy to side with popular opinion; he wanted to make the right decision. Case in point, taking NDSU to Division I, which was an unpopular decision at the time (crazy, I know).
Jon: When Taylor resigned to take the job at Iowa, how did the Bison fanbase feel in the moment?
Joe: Unbelievably sad. He wasn't only the leader NDSU needed, he was the perfect administrator for this community, for the reasons I listed above. But I need to be clear: NDSU fans aren't naive, they know the game. They understand where NDSU sits on a national scale and if there's bigger money at a more established program, coaches and administrators will jump at the chance. NDSU has seen it time and time again. Craig Bohl, Tim Miles and Saul [Phillips] all chased the dream.
Gene was doing just that. We knew he wanted to lead an FBS, Power 5 program... and here he is, about to take on the challenges at Kansas State.
Jon: We know about what Taylor accomplished with the programs on the field, and have a general idea of how he improved fundraising and revenue. Are there things he did during his tenure (with infrastructure, for example) that particularly stand out?
Joe: Gene Taylor should have a statue at North Dakota State. Going Division I was a pie in the sky for many NDSU fans. He made it reality. He understood the landscape and saw the potential in Fargo before Noah Hawley.
(Ed. Note: For the culturally unaware, Hawley is the showrunner in charge of the FX series Fargo.)
What I mean by that is he saw the Fargodome as a valuable asset. It's now the most feared stadium in the FCS. He took the Bison Sports Arena and raised $41 million to renovate the facility into a Divison I-class building for NDSU Athletics employees and student-athletes. He was the brainchild for that facility. A great place for that statue, right?
I also want to mention what he meant to the athletic staff. Many, many of the people working underneath Gene at NDSU saw him as a mentor. He would take people out for a beer or come over to their homes to see their families. The staff at NDSU took Gene leaving for Iowa the hardest for sure. Fortunately, Iowa isn't too lengthy of a trip from Fargo and I know many people on staff who have gone down there to visit Gene. These are relationships that mean something bigger than college athletics.
Jon: When making a hire, especially one from outside, did Taylor seem to have any specific things he looked for that you could readily identify?
Joe: It's so cliche, but culture, culture, culture is what Gene looked for. That’s why you see so many current head coaches coming from within the program. Football head coach Chris Klieman, men's basketball coach Dave Richman (and Saul [Phillips] before him), softball coach Darren Mueller, volleyball coach Kari Thompson, and wrestling coach Roger Kish. They were all groomed within the NDSU program and promoted to lead their respective teams because they understood the culture at NDSU. And the last time I checked, these programs are still rolling.
Jon: Finally, from your perspective do you think Taylor will be a good fit in Manhattan and with Kansas State?
Joe: Yes. I'm shocked Minnesota didn't jump at the opportunity to drag him to Minneapolis, but a part of me thinks he was waiting for the perfect opportunity. That wasn't at Minnesota. It's in Manhattan.
Joe (@joebisonmag) was kind enough to get back to us promptly even though he’s on vacation, for which he has our endless gratitude. Please go give Bison Illustrated a visit; site content — indeed, the magazine itself if you can pick it up in person — is free, and we recommend a two-parter Joe wrote in February about how NDSU’s dynasty was built. You can also follow them on Twitter at @bisonmag.
So what do you think? Does learning more about what Gene Taylor meant to the Bison make you more excited for the hire? Or is there something within these answers that gives you pause instead? Let’s talk!