I take issue with Port's article for lots of reasons, so let's break a couple down.
He has issue with Bresciani calling NDSU one of the biggest and best universities in the nation. Port said this:
But do we know the question that was asked? The first part of the answer from Bresciani is key:
So what is that niche? I'd imagine it's a question phrased like " What does it mean to be on such a visible stage like ABC on a Saturday in January?"
In that case, Besciani isn't stating NDSU is one of the biggest and best universities in all the land. He saying it's one of the biggest and best universities still playing football on national television on a Saturday after the first week of January. And in that case, he's 100% correct.
The rest of your post is obviously 100% correct. Yeah, if UND cured cancer that would be a bigger deal than anything any university has ever done in sports. There's nothing saying you can't have that great mix of the four things you mentioned. And nothing in Port's article touches on that.
What he does say is this:
He then goes on to say that it doesn't, but I disagree. There's nothing that says a great scientist isn't also interested in football, or hockey. The same can be said for every career line. If NDSU football, or UND hockey, winning attracts students who have great potential in their career field to a smaller university because they also like hockey... that's a positive for those schools. Does it make the university better? Probably. It's not all about funding and the current set of professors. It's about attracting quality students. I guarantee UND and NDSU have attracted students they normally wouldn't have because of the success of their athletic teams.
But just like Port can't prove the opposite, I can't prove the positive. But which is more likely?
Sports aren't only a pleasant distraction. They're the most visible part of a university for a lot of potential students. If you think athletics don't play a decision in many a student's choice of university, then we'd be seeing much higher attendance at universities that only focus on academics.