Bulldogs’ winning ways prompt more fans to wear their pride

Where my ’Dogs at? These days, they’re everywhere.
The University of Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs are on shirts. Hats. Car windows. Even cupcakes. (My favorite is chocolate, with gold frosting.)
It wasn’t always this way, though.
As a child growing up in Duluth, the only thing I knew UMD for was a hockey team that never won quite as many games as I’d hoped.
“I remember 15 years ago, when if you only looked in the crowd and not on the ice, you wouldn’t know what teams were playing based on what fans were wearing,” UMD sports information director Bob Nygaard said. “Apparel or sporting your school colors is the most visible sign of school pride. Nothing is a bigger marketer tool than getting your image out there on everything from stuffed mascots to notebooks.”
The past decade-plus has brought expansion — I can’t remember a day during my time there as a student that something wasn’t under construction — and with it, a grip load of students.
Sure, new facilities have made UMD a more desirable institution, but I never saw anyone wearing a T-shirt with the Swenson Science Building on it. It wasn’t until the school’s recent athletic success that it got something that all the fundraising, top-notch courses and ever-rising tuition costs could never buy — swagger.
It began in 2008, when the Bulldogs went undefeated in football and won the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division II championship for the first time in school history.
I didn’t attend a football game in my four years at UMD, but I couldn’t have been happier than I was jumping in front of my TV with my maroon Bulldogs T-shirt on that day.
“Part of the reason I came here was they were already coming off a national championship,” said Chase Vogler, a junior from the Twin Cities area.
He’s now the Bulldogs’ starting quarterback and held that position last year when they again won an NCAA title — in an unbeaten season.
In 2009, the UMD men’s hockey team made a remarkable playoff run highlighted by becoming the first No. 5 seed to win the Western Collegiate Hockey Association Final Five and a final-seconds comeback in an NCAA regional game.
I almost tore my Bulldogs T-shirt off Hulk Hogan-style after watching Evan Oberg’s tying goal with 0.8 seconds left in the third and Mike Connolly’s overtime winner in that game against Princeton.
The volleyball and women’s hockey teams had impressive seasons, too, bookended by the women’s hockey team’s NCAA Division I titles in 2008 and 2010 — cementing the respect they earned in 2001, 2002 and 2003.
Then in April came the icing on those gold-frosted cupcakes: The Bulldogs won their first NCAA Division I men’s hockey championship — in overtime, nonetheless — in their home state. And I witnessed it from my third-row seat along with my younger brother, Josh, and thousands of fans in Bulldogs gear.

Kenny Reiter

Junior goaltender Kenny Reiter led Minnesota Duluth to its first NCAA Division I men's hockey title April 9, 2011, in St. Paul. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

All this happening on national TV suddenly made UMD a “sexy” school.
In the past year, I can’t walk downtown or fill up at the Spur or buy ant killer at Marshall’s Hardware without seeing people decked out in Bulldogs clothing. And it’s not my imagination. As of the end of May, UMD had sold a quarter-million dollars in NCAA championship-related apparel in 2011, Nygaard said.
“People like to come in and get their championship stuff as well as other stuff and support their team,” said Caroleen Zylka, who works at UMD Stores.
Not to mention the explosion of another Bulldog-embossed item — the championship ring.
Can’t buy that.

Jimmy Bellamy is the multimedia editor at the Duluth News Tribune in Duluth, Minn. Contact him at (218) 723-5390 or jbellamy@duluthnews.com. This column originally appeared here.