As Dan Larson puts it, “football is football.”
It doesn’t matter where you are or who’s taking the field. The game remains the same.
That theory was seriously put to the test for the former UW-Eau Claire head coach now in his first year as running backs coach for Division I FCS power North Dakota State.
The results haven’t shaken his belief in the concept.
“It was a little bit of a change to switch to a very different coaching role,” Larson said. “But football is football, and recruiting is recruiting. The levels might seem different, but the Xs and Os and expectations you have for players have stayed very similar.”
Larson left his position as head coach at his alma mater early in January, moving up from the Division III ranks to work with the class of the FCS. The Bison have won seven national championships in the last eight years.
North Dakota State is under new leadership this year, with Matt Entz taking over as head coach following Chris Klieman’s departure for Kansas State. Larson was brought aboard shortly after.
“You walk into a program like this, and the standards for how you go about things are already set in place, so you just jump right in,” Larson said. “It was a little bit of an invigorating feeling from a professional standpoint, just learning something new.”
A lineman in his playing days for the Blugolds, Larson has led a group of running backs that have helped the Bison average over 300 rushing yards per game entering the playoffs this year.
“They’re extremely detailed in their work,” Larson said of his backs. “And one of the biggest things is the quality of offensive line and quality of tight ends we have here allows us to be really good running backs. It’s a collective effort, we don’t have one running back who’s over 1,000 yards. We’ve got four, five guys who take the field every week and fulfill their role well.”
That collective effort is part of the reason North Dakota State is 12-0 this year and garnered the No. 1 seed for the FCS playoffs.
Moving up to the best the FCS has to offer has exposed Larson to a new level of excellence, but the history of the program doesn’t affect the day-to-day operations at all. In fact, it hasn’t come up much at all in Larson’s experience.
“Honestly, it was very apparent when I got here that whatever success has happened in the past doesn’t equate to success that’s going to happen now,” Larson said. “Coach Entz doesn’t talk about previous success. After each week, the previous win doesn’t get talked about much anymore.”
Of course, being surrounded by top-quality programs and players isn’t anything new to Larson. He coached in the WIAC for three years, a league that offered some of the top talent and most dominant programs in Division III.
“I was very fortunate to coach in the best Division III conference in the country, so maybe it was on a different scale, but you saw really good competition every week,” Larson said. “Here it’s just on a little bit different stage and a little bit different level.”
He’ll get his first taste of the Division I playoffs next week when the Bison open their campaign in the second round. He previously coached in the Division II playoffs with Minnesota-Duluth before returning to Eau Claire.
He’s still looking for his first national title, although he helped Minnesota-Duluth win the Mineral Water Bowl as offensive coordinator in 2015.
“I’m excited for this opportunity in a couple weeks here with NDSU,” he said.
Larson could not comment on the scandal involving the UW-Eau Claire football team after five Blugolds were suspended last week following a series of group chat messages revealing comments targeting the school’s Black Male Empowerment group.