Ruley’s NDSU Legacy Still Hard To Put Into Words

Amy Ruley left North Dakota State University after 38 years at the school, announcing Thursday she’d taken a fundraising job across the Red River at Minnesota State University Moorhead. And so closes a remarkable chapter, although in truth, Amy’s chapter publicly closed at NDSU when she stepped down from coaching the Bison women’s basketball team in 2008.

I covered dozens of Bison women’s basketball games from the time I became a sports columnist in 1997 until Ruley retired from coaching. The teams I covered early were excellent. As time went on and the Bison moved into Divison I, they became less so. South Dakota State and the University of North Dakota had surpassed the Bison as the class of the region by the time Ruley retired. Sometimes, my honest words about the state of the Bison program caused friction between Amy and me. Mostly, though, it was positive words and a fine professional relationship. (And little did we know that the Bison women’s team would soon slide into near-obscurity and remain there after Ruley retired.)

Because of that slide and the near-empty home arena in which the Bison now play, it’s often hard to remember how popular Ruley’s Bison were. For games against fiery coach Gene Roebuck and UND, crowds at the Bison Sports Arena were often in the 6,000 range. NCAA Division II title games played in Fargo drew 7,000. Repeat: For D2 games. It was remarkable.

And Amy built all that. She has been honored by NDSU and employed by the place for nearly four decades, so the school owes her little (it would be nice if they’d name something after her). Sometimes, as it appears in this case, it’s just time to move on to a different job. But for the fun of it, I looked up an old column I wrote about Ruley on the day she coached her last game for the Bison, March 3, 2008. And some of the things her program did remain astounding.

Remember, too, she’s a breast cancer survivor.

Even though Ruley has been out of the spotlight for some time now, it’s worth saying about her time at NDSU: It was a helluva run.

Ruley’s legacy hard to put into words

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Trying to compress Amy Ruley’s legacy into 600 words or less is like trying to capture the Red River in a thimble. Where do you begin? And, really, how effective are you going to be?

There were 671 victories, five national championships, a 32-0 season, 49 wins in a row, tons of playoff appearances and conference titles. There was the induction into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, and other halls of fame. There were coach of the year awards, All-Americans and Players of the Year. There was a successful battle against breast cancer.

Ruley is a pioneer, a legend and one of the country’s best-known women’s basketball coaches. Right here in little Fargo, N.D.

She is, as her boss and friend Lynn Dorn pointed out, a one-name sports celebrity in these parts. When you say “Amy,” fans know who you mean.

Amy stepped down Monday after 29 years as the coach of the North Dakota State women’s basketball team, saying the time was right to move into a job as a fundraiser. She coached her last game Monday night against Centenary at the Bison Sports Arena.

Sitting courtside at the scorer’s table was Collette Folstad, the official timer for NDSU women’s basketball for the past 24 seasons. Folstad herself is a pioneer for women’s sports. She actually started the Bison women’s program in 1965, wanting to provide an opportunity where none had existed.

Folstad started with big dreams but little else. She was given no uniforms, no money, no attention, no support.

And so, in trying to tack some perspective onto Ruley’s legacy, perhaps it’s best we look to Folstad.

“We played four games, and not many people wanted us in their gymnasium. We were allowed to practice Saturdays at what is now called Bentson Bunker Fieldhouse – if there wasn’t a men’s game there,” Folstad said. “We were allowed to practice Sundays – if we pushed in the bleachers, swept up the popcorn off the floor and cleaned the pop spills left over from the men’s game the day before. Nobody really cared. My folks and about 10 other people showed up to watch the games.”

Folstad coached NDSU for four years and later became a successful high school coach before retiring in 2002. She’s been NDSU’s timer since 1984.

That vantage point allowed Folstad a close-up view of her dreams coming true. Ruley became head coach in 1979, and the victories soon flowed. She built the Bison into a national powerhouse, winning five NCAA Division II national championships and making the semifinals four other times. Five title games were played in Fargo before sellout crowds. The Bison, from such humble beginnings, were on nationwide television.

“When I would sit in the Bison Sports Arena for those national championship games, the place filled with 7,000 or more people, that was my dream coming to fruition,” Folstad said. “I never saw a reason why we couldn’t be a draw and why we couldn’t be successful like the men’s team. I didn’t want to take anything away from the men. I just thought we could have the same thing. And we proved we could.

“Amy – and Lynn and the administration – made it happen. They opened doors and provided that opportunity for all of these young women.”

Women’s basketball became one of the Big Three sports at NDSU, with football and men’s basketball. It was an idea entirely unthinkable not too many years earlier. Ruley was the architect. It was the realization of a dream. As legacies go, that’s tough to trump. And it only took 594 words.