MADISON — The road leading into Madison, a town of roughly 7,000 and the home to Dakota State University, bears no markers of success in high school sports. There is no sign, like there is in Platte or Vermillion or innumerable other small towns across the country, boasting of state championships. There is a huge flagpole and a statue of a white buffalo.
It isn’t as if the Bulldogs of Madison High School hasn’t given the town anything to claim. The gymnastics program has had huge success over the years, its total of state titles reaching the double digits, and the boys basketball team won state titles in 2009 and 2010 and then 2013 and 2014.
But until recently, there was little pride in the football team, the life of many of those small towns with the state championship signs. In 2004, the Bulldogs were 0-8. After a few years of modest success, they went winless again in 2009. Participation and fan interest were down. When current senior Mason Leighton would go to games, he’d spend most of the time playing his own football games with his friends, rather than watching what was on the field.
Today, however, Madison’s football program is a power, coming off a Class 11A state title after making the championship the two previous years. The Bulldogs are 4-0 so far this year and are considered the best team in their class again. They’ve turned Madison into a football town.
The turnaround started with the hiring of Max Hodgen as head coach when Thomas Milne stepped down after the 2009 season. Hodgen, a native of the Omaha area, first came to Madison to play football for Dakota State. He finished his career with the Trojans in 1995 and got into coaching soon after, starting as defensive coordinator at Parker-Hurley in 1999 and becoming head coach in 2002. He joined Madison as an assistant in 2004, and apart from a year as head coach at Lennox, he has stayed with the Bulldogs ever since.
After Milne left, athletics director Bud Postma heard some voices pushing him to get rid of the entire coaching staff. Such a move is common in the coaching profession — if a head coach at the collegiate level is fired, his entire staff is often out the door as well. Postma got a different feeling from Hodgen, though.
“He had that ‘it’ factor that I don’t know that anybody can explain,” Postma said. “…but he has it, and I guess maybe I look like a genius now.”
That factor could start with Hodgen’s energy and eccentricity. At practice on Wednesday, Hodgen bounced around the Bulldogs’ practice field, hollering at players and coaches. He wore a sleeveless gray Dakota State shirt and a Nebraska Cornhuskers hat that looked like it had been thrown in the dirt and run over by 10 Tom Osborne teams.
When he’s on the sideline during games, he wears a cowboy hat. Hodgen started doing that in 2002, when he was, in his own assessment, something of a “loose cannon.” In one game, he yanked off his hat and headset and threw them on the ground, which wasn’t good for his reputation or for the headset.
A cowboy hat, in Hodgen’s assessment, would be tougher to take off and would do well to protect his balding head from the sun and the dangers of skin cancer. If the hat makes him look like a nut, he doesn’t care.
“It’s just kind of fun to bring a little levity to a game that everybody takes way too serious,” Hodgen said.
The levity hasn’t come at expense of winning, even if it took a few years. Hodgen came up as a coach running veer/option-style offenses heavy on rushing, and the Bulldogs ran a version of that before he took over as head coach. He made changes immediately, adopting a zone rushing attack that spread offenses like Oregon have popularized.
It didn’t work, and Hodgen didn’t like it. The Bulldogs went 2-6 in 2010, his first year, and after a 51-7 thumping against Sisseton in the third game of 2011, they scrapped that offense. The coaches picked up some wristbands from a sporting goods store and started on the installation of an up-tempo spread offense of their own, taking influences from Louisiana Tech’s air raid, the spread system that Roosevelt High School runs.
“We don’t have a ton of run plays, and we don’t have a ton of pass plays,” Hodgen said. “We dress it up with formation and a little motion and then try to execute what we do very well.”
“We didn’t invent any of this,” he also said. “We stole every darn thing out there.”
Hodgen had a solid crop of athletes early on, like receiver Carter Kasuske, quarterback Mitch Hansen and running back Brodie Frederiksen, and by 2012, the Bulldogs a winning program again, finishing 5-4.
That success boosted interest in the football program, with fewer athletes opting to focus solely on basketball or another sport. The Bulldogs had fewer than 40 players on their roster when Hodgen started, but that number has grown steadily. Madison has more than 70 players on its roster this season, and the school has to order more helmets and shoulder pads before the season to outfit everyone.
The relationships Hodgen has built off the field have also helped the football program. His energy on the field extends to the classroom — he teaches math and physics at Madison High — and he pays attention to the middle school team. When Bulldogs senior Austin Lohsandt was in eighth grade, Hodgen came up to him in the hallway and asked if he was going to play football the next year.
“I wasn’t sure,” Lohsandt said. “So he said, ‘Well, why don’t you just come out and check it out, and you might like it.'”
Lohsandt is now a 6-foot-8, 260-pound presence at left tackle for the Bulldogs and is receiving recruiting attention from schools like South Dakota State, North Dakota State and Northern Iowa.
This season feels different for the Bulldogs, and certainly for Hodgen. He was more “tightly wound,” he said, in 2013, partly because he wasn’t sure if and when Madison would get another chance at the state title. He’s been less tense since then, especially after the team’s title in 2015.
Hodgen is more well-known than ever, though, because the Bulldogs are a winning program and have a higher profile around town. Postma saw it firsthand this week.
“Yesterday, I was meeting with some sponsors and business people,” he said on Thursday.
“I wanted to talk business, and they wanted to talk football.”
Follow Ian Frazer on Twitter at @IanMcFrazer .