It couldn't have been a more miserable winter day in Fargo,
N.Dak. A blanket of ice covered the town and a fierce wind
whipped through the fields where, in less biting weather, wheat
and corn grow. But inside the Bison Sports Center at North
Dakota State, the collective mood could not have been warmer.
The Bison women's basketball team was about to tip off against
Briar Cliff College, from Sioux City, Iowa, and over the din of
a raucous crowd the P.A. announcer had just run through the
starting lineups and introduced college basketball's winningest
coach of the '90s. Come again? The decade's most successful
college hoops coach? Not in Chapel Hill, Knoxville, Lexington or
Storrs? In Fargo?
Yah, Marge. You betcha.
The coach's name is Amy Ruley, and although you may not have
seen her team play--North Dakota State has been on national TV
only once in the last two years, a tape-delayed appearance on
ESPN--Ruley has quietly erected the most dominant basketball
dynasty since John Wooden's. Entering this season, her teams
were 207-16 in the '90s and had lost only three games in the
last three years. When the team's archrival, North Dakota, upset
the Bison in the postseason tournament last year, it ended
Ruley's string of four straight NCAA Division II titles. "You
look back and it's nice," says Ruley modestly. "I'm always more
concerned, though, with the team I have now than with the ones
Downplay it as she might, Ruley's success hasn't escaped others.
An annual rite of spring sees several Division I programs trying
to lure Ruley with promises of heightened visibility and greater
financial opportunities. Recent suitors have included Purdue,
Illinois, Minnesota and Long Beach State, and in the last year,
a handful of WNBA and ABL teams contacted her about head
coaching positions as well. But just as surely as Fargo receives
its first snowfall before Halloween, Ruley graciously declines
and remains on the plains.
"The question for me is why would I want to leave, and I guess I
haven't come up with a good answer yet," says Ruley. North
Dakota State, as she sees it, offers the best of both worlds: a
big-time program without the appurtenant pressure. "You look at
the crowd interest and the community support we have, the
quality of athletes we're able to recruit and the school's
commitment, and for me North Dakota State may as well be a
Division I program."
She has a point. How many other teams in Division II, men's or
women's, average more than 3,000 fans a game, have all their
games aired statewide on radio and have a lucrative sponsorship
arrangement with Nike? For that matter, how many others can get
away with charging $9 for a single-game ticket?
A scrappy guard for Purdue in the days before female athletes
were deemed worthy of scholarships, Ruley came to North Dakota
State as coach in 1979 at the wizened age of 23. "I thought it
was a good place to start," she recalls, "but my goal then was
to stay a few years and move on." The Bison had had only five
winning seasons in the 13 years before her arrival, but Ruley
needed just two years to turn them around and get them into the
postseason, a destination that hasn't eluded them since 1985-86.
Thanks to her five Division II titles and the 100% graduation
rate of the four-year players she has coached, Ruley has
cultivated quite a reputation throughout the region. Just as
schoolboys in North Carolina once dreamed of playing for Dean
Smith, girls in the Upper Midwest grow up envisioning spending
four years with Ruley. "I came to Coach Ruley's basketball camp
when I was in seventh grade, and I always knew this was where I
wanted to play," says forward Rachael Otto, who grew up in New
Rockford, N.Dak., and spurned Division I schools such as Iowa to
play in Fargo. "All over the state people know her and respect
her as a coach who loves to teach and who cares about her
Though Ruley grew up in Indiana, she hardly fashions her
coaching style after Bob Knight. "Teaching is what I enjoy most
about the job, but I'm not a yeller," she says. "I guess my
theory is that no one goes out there trying to screw up."
Instead she considers herself a disciple of a dispassionate
fellow Hoosier, Wooden. "I've never met him, but you can't help
be in awe of his knowledge of the game and the way he carried
"Above all, I think Coach Ruley is a great explainer," says
forward Brenna Stefonowicz, who was named Miss High School
Basketball for North Dakota in 1994. "Most of us come from
common backgrounds, mostly small towns, and this program is a
perfect fit for us."
In fact, of the 14 women on the current roster, all hail from
either the Dakotas or Minnesota, usually from minuscule farming
communities with names such as Mandan, Minto, Rhame and
Watertown. "I'm not averse to recruiting elsewhere, but it just
seems as if our style is consistent with their upbringing and
their values," says Ruley, a proud daughter of the Indiana town
of Lowell (pop. 6,248). "A small-town work ethic goes well with
what we're trying to do here. These girls work hard, they're
serious about their academics, and they're involved in the
That last claim is no exaggeration. The players regularly give
speeches to schoolkids in town and participate in the "adopt an
athlete" program on campus. Last spring, when the Red River
jumped its banks and threatened to ravage Fargo, as it did Grand
Forks 70 miles north, virtually every student-athlete at North
Dakota State--including every member of Ruley's team--could be
found helping residents prepare for the worst. Ruley, whose
property to the north of town abuts the river, awoke one morning
to find more than 100 volunteers unloading sandbags in her
backyard. "You see a sight like that and you hear about how your
team has helped people save their property, and you know you're
doing things the right way," she says.
"Everyone who plays here feels strong ties to the community, and
during the floods it was only natural that we would help out,"
says Kasey Morlock, a three-time All-America who ended her
career last season as the school's alltime leading scorer and is
now an unpaid student assistant with the team while she finishes
her degree in electrical engineering.
Not that there aren't drawbacks to this Little House on the
Prairie zeitgeist. Several seasons back Ruley told her team that
an upcoming opponent had a reputation for trash-talking. "I
explained that to prepare, they should talk trash to each other
when we practiced," says Ruley. "After a few minutes all I heard
were a couple girls yelling out things like 'switch.' Finally I
asked why I wasn't hearing any yapping. They all said, 'How do
you talk trash?' They had no idea what to do."
In the game against Briar Cliff, there was no discernible
trash-talking--just wildly entertaining end-to-end basketball,
peppered with plenty of passing, accurate free throw shooting
and sound fundamentals. Even during one rocky stretch, when her
team coughed up the ball, Ruley's demeanor remained unchanged,
her voice never meandering from stern instruction into yelling.
By the game's end, as autograph seekers maneuvered to accost the
coach, the Bison had claimed a 105-95 victory. Yet another
opponent left Fargo having gone through the basketball
equivalent of the wood chipper.