When Dan Jackson returned to South Dakota State as a graduate assistant coach in 2012, the Jackrabbits were a pretty good FCS program. As a linebacker for the Jacks in the early 2000s, Jackson was around for the start of SDSU's transition from Division II to what was known as Division I-AA at the time.
It didn't take long for the Jackrabbits to become a Top 20 team in the FCS, reaching the first round of the playoffs in 2009. But the program remained stuck in that tier of the national FCS picture for several years. SDSU returned to the playoffs in Jackson's first year on staff and made the second round in 2012, 2013 and 2014 with a first-round appearance in 2015.
Meanwhile, the rivals to the north at North Dakota State, who made the D1 transition alongside SDSU, had won five straight national titles from 2011-2015, defeating SDSU in every regular-season game and twice in the playoffs during that run.
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The Bison became an elite FCS program while the Jackrabbits remained good, but not great. Being just good wasn't enough for SDSU, though. The Jacks had a mindset of winning championships. Where the program was at in the early 2010s simply wasn't where it needed to be to reach that level.
Improvements and changes needed to be made. And they were.
Thanks to a huge facelift in facilities and a new, aggressive approach to recruiting, the Jacks have gone from a Top 20 team unable to get past the second round to a Top 5 team in the FCS that made the quarterfinals in 2016 and the semifinals these last two seasons.
“We’re light-years different in terms of recruiting and facilities," Jackson, who now holds many titles as the assistant head coach/special teams coordinator/cornerbacks coach/recruiting coordinator, told HERO Sports. "And even in our mentality and flipping the mindset of the community and the university from being a team that wanted to win and desired to win, to a team that has won and is really hungry for more and more and more.”
“The growth has been difficult to try and explain," Jackson added. "The cool thing is that the one thing that has remained consistent is the vision of the head coach (John Stiegelmeier), who the head coach is, how he treats people and how he lets you do your job. I don’t know a lot of places that go through all of this growth with the same head coach.”
The next step for the program comes Saturday. The Bison, ranked No. 1 coming off of their seventh national championship in eight years, visits Brookings to take on No. 3 SDSU. To add to the hype of this game, ESPN's flagship college football show "College GameDay" is broadcasting on campus Saturday morning.
The fact that ESPN is rolling into town to broadcast on campus is a far cry from where SDSU was at in 2012. Back then, the program had its challenges when recruits came to visit.
Coughlin–Alumni Stadium was an aged structure with a rickety press box and a beat-up grass field. And the practice area and facilities were not on par for a Division I program.
"In 2012, we didn’t have the things that we needed for a student-athlete to really leave here and say he was his best," Jackson said. "The practice fields were old and holey and beat up and there wasn't a lot of grass on them all the time. The game field was even worse at times in terms of the condition. The old locker rooms were disgusting. That was before the Dykhouse Student-Athlete Center. There was no video board. I didn’t let my family sit on the visiting side stands because I was worried about their safety."
Building relationships with recruits through the phone is vital. But Jackson notes that if the first impression for recruits when they come to campus turns them off, it's hard to overcome that. The staff spun the facilities as positively as they could and made it an emphasis to have the recruit and his family "feel the genuine, caring and passion and energy that we had for their son. We were able to get some really good players because of how we made them feel and because of the vision.”
The vision began to take root.
Updates in facilities throughout the 2010s have dramatically improved. The Dykhouse Student-Athlete Center was completed in 2010 and housed the locker rooms and coaches offices. In 2014, the Sanford-Jackrabbit Athletic Complex opened as one of the best indoor practice facilities in the FCS that also benefited other SDSU programs. And on the site of old Coughlin–Alumni Stadium resurrected beautiful Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium that was completed in phases in 2015 and 2016.
“The one thing that the facilities have done is it validates what we tell (recruits)," Jackson said. "When we say our vision is to win championships and then they came to the facilities we used to have, those two things didn’t match up. If you really want to win championships, you’d have better facilities. So our facilities helps validate our message of wanting to be a championship-caliber program.”
The Jacks still landed high-quality recruits that bought into the vision in the early 2010s. But with championship-level facilities going up, the staff realized they had to adjust their recruiting strategy and how they evaluated talent if they wanted the play on the field to match the shiny new digs.
At the time, SDSU took an unorthodox approach.
“Our recruiting changed greatly," Jackson said. "We took a stand on we wanted to evaluate, scout and find the best players in the Midwest first and before everyone else. Once we find those guys, we had a huge push FCS-wise. And I know the guys up north initially bristled up and they still give us a hard time and I can care less, in that we offered a lot of guys early. Because we did our homework early and we got to know the kid as early as we possibly could legally, we offered a lot of kids. As soon as we felt that they were a guy that we could win a championship with, we got him on campus and we offered him. We got aggressive at the right time, I believe, in recruiting when it wasn’t the trendy thing to get aggressive and offer people."
Now, the Jacks didn't offer 500 recruits like you see some Power 5 schools doing now. SDSU had a strategy in place.
"We would say that we have to find the 10 best kids in the Midwest and for every scholarship spot, we need to offer 8-10 guys," Jackson said. "Then, because we did all the research early and we got them offered early, we can focus on those 8-10 guys at each position. And because everyone else was still coming through and they didn’t feel good about offering guys early, they had a lot wider net casting while we were able to hone in on 8-10 guys. We get to know them so well, that they can’t imagine not coming here. We trusted our evals. We didn’t wait for other schools to offer, which is something we had done in the past.”
SDSU stepped up its branding, too.
2012 really wasn't that long ago in terms of social media and its importance. At the time, the football program didn't have a Twitter account. Those types of accounts were created for the main social media platforms. The Jackrabbits started putting their vision for the program in video form with the help of Matt Holland, who's now at Indiana, and his multimedia expertise. SDSU also began to round up student coaches and taught them how to use Photoshop so they can get graphics to recruits.
Those efforts have paid off as the Jackrabbits continue to take steps forward as a top program in the FCS. SDSU's new approach to recruiting years ago has proven to have worked out with the product you see on the field in recent years. The Jacks have become a rare FCS team that can reload after losing a standout senior class.
The outside perception of the 2017 team was that it was SDSU's best chance at a national title. The Jacks had two dominant senior pass-catchers in Dallas Goedert and Jake Wieneke along with a junior record-setting quarterback Taryn Christion. They fell short in the semifinals and national expectations for the team dropped entering 2018. But last year, new names like Cade Johnson and Adam Anderson stepped up and the passing game got even more explosive statistically.
It was the same story entering 2019. Folks weren't sure how the Jacks would look with Christion gone. In has stepped redshirt freshman J'Bore Gibbs and SDSU is currently 6-1 with the lone loss coming to Minnesota, a 28-21 game that the Jacks feel they should've won.
The weapons surrounding Gibbs, as a whole, are as talented as ever. SDSU has improved its offensive and defensive line play over the years, as was proved in the Minnesota game when the big fellas went toe-to-toe with Big Ten players. The Jackrabbits have developed depth at every position, allowing them to reload every season and make deep playoff runs. All of this stems back to how SDSU adjusted its recruiting to reach the top tier of the FCS.
What kind of influence has NDSU's success had on SDSU? Jackson thinks it's helped the Jackrabbits.
“Anytime FCS football is highlighted, it’s a positive in recruiting," he said. "One thing I talk to kids about is they can go to the MAC, but when they see programs like NDSU or us competing on such a high stage and they come to those games and see the quality of football. Or they see the NFL guys that we’ve had and the NFL guys that (NDSU has) had, their success helps everybody in the FCS in terms of relevance. They’ve consistently been a championship program and I respect them so much, and I think now people are seeing us as a consistent Top 5 program every year and we’re starting to garner that same respect. Obviously we have not won the national championship and we understand that, but it’s cool to consistently win. I definitely think that they’ve helped everyone in the FCS with the attention they’ve brought and we look forward to being that team that’s doing it on our own.”
Saturday is the next step in the evolution of SDSU football. Not only with "College GameDay" highlighting Brookings, the campus and the program, but also because of the opportunity to play the No. 1-ranked Bison. SDSU has beaten NDSU twice in the last three regular seasons in 2016 and 2017, but the Bison got the last laugh with a quarterfinal win against SDSU in 2016 and a national title in 2017. Last year, the Bison won back the coveted Dakota Marker and also defeated SDSU in the semifinals inside the Fargodome.
A win Saturday puts the Jackrabbits on a great path to earn a No. 1 or 2 playoff seed and make the Bison have to win a road playoff game before reaching the national championship.
While the SDSU coaches are by no means looking that far ahead in terms of seeding implications, they are aware of how big Saturday is in the short term (winning the MVFC title) and long term (continuing to elevate the level of recruiting). The marketing effort is in full force with videos and graphics not only going out to recruits, but to the country via social media to grow the SDSU brand. More than 300 recruiting tickets are being used for recruits and their families to get them on campus to witness the spectacle of "GameDay" and to see the facilities and the quality of football being played on the field.
All of this has become the norm for the Jackrabbits. But as Jackson put it, this is all light-years ahead of where the program was at just seven years ago.
“The 'GameDay' thing is something we’re going to embrace," he said. "We’re proud of our guys and we’re proud of our school. It’s one of the biggest things in our university's history in my opinion."
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