Dakota Days through the lens of President Gestring and AD Herbster
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Dakota Days through the lens of President Gestring and AD Herbster

Athletic Director David Herbster has spent most of his life on college campuses. It’s been 28 years since his freshman basketball season at Virginia Tech, and every paycheck he’s received since has come from an educational institution.

Despite this, Herbster has yet to celebrate a homecoming. Well, he said, he celebrates in a different way, because when you work for a university, the most anticipated week of the year is a production rather than a celebration.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever celebrated a homecoming, but I’ve certainly enjoyed putting it on for everyone else,” Herbster, who’s put on nine since taking the helm of the athletic department in 2010. “I celebrate Saturday night at home by putting my feet up and just trying to breathe … and finding whatever game is on ESPN.”

For the athletic department and the rest of the USD administration, D-Days is about “flow.” Pulling off a week brimmed with evening activities – punctuated by Saturday’s parade, tailgate and football game – requires smooth transitions, precise planning and constant communication, Herbster said.

This collaboration amongst the administration and the groups leading D-Days — USD Foundation, marketing, the Dakota Days committee — is much stronger than when he came to USD as an associate athletic director 2007, he said. It’s like planning a weekend getaway.

“I realize there are certain things that are always going to overlap, but it gives people the opportunity to choose what they want to do,” he said. “You’re trying to put your best foot forward on D-Days because you have people who come back one time a year.”

Dave Herbster signs letters of intent to recruits who have verbally committed to join Coyote athletics. Molly Schiermeyer | The Volante

Coordination between the university and the city of Vermillion has evolved as well, USD President Sheila Gestring said. This year, Vermillion businesses offered to sponsor student parade floats while USD offered to paint windows in return, a sign of growth compared to a decade ago.

“The communication and engagement weren’t there, at least from the top,” Gestring, who served as chief financial officer from 2010-2018, said. “There wasn’t this demonstration from the leadership that said ‘we are engaged.’ That changed about 2010-ish. The community is so engaged with the university now in comparison to then.”

Gestring said she’s seen another element of Dakota Days change since completing graduate school at USD: its temperament.

“I don’t think USD has the party reputation that is used to have,” Gestring said. “I don’t want to date myself too much, but it’s certainly much calmer here now than it was when I was of college-going age.”

MORE: The evolution of tailgate: location never stopped the party

Evidence still exists of what occurs during Dakota Days today, such as the annual D-Days video and AIGA’s sale of “Verm Drinking Team” sweatshirts, but the celebrations never reached the point of an overturned, enflamed car, as it did when Gestring as a student visited “that school to the north” during its homecoming, she said. 

For that, she’s glad — she said it makes her job a little easier.

“I just want everyone to have fun in a safe way,” she said. “In my mind, if I wake up Sunday morning and there have been no emergency calls about someone being admitted to the hospital or no one has been hurt, that’s a successful D-Days.”

As for the alumni returning to Vermillion for D-Days, some who lived through those crazier times, Gestring said she believes they still enjoy the week’s current atmosphere. 

Creating that atmosphere is the part of D-Days Herbster enjoys the most, he said, in addition to walking through tailgate outside the DakotaDome and sampling the food.

“It is D-Days, but it is homecoming,” he said. “When people come back, I love to be that host. It’s always fun to talk to [former fall-sport athletes] once they graduate and they can finally experience D-Days for the first time. They’re like, ‘this is fun.’”