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Published November 08 2013

The New York Times: 'Winning with panache at North Dakota State'

FARGO, N.D. — A rack of green-and-gold North Dakota State attire looks out of place inside Straus Clothing, the fine men’s store that has served North Dakotans for more than 100 years. A photograph on the display provides context. It shows Craig Bohl, N.D.S.U.’s football coach, disembarking from the team bus in a stylish dark suit and print tie sold in the display.

Bohl, 55, a former player and assistant coach at Nebraska, models himself after Tom Osborne, the former Cornhuskers coach. Because Osborne wore suits and ties every day except for practices and games, Bohl does, too. And Bohl, a Straus customer for years before signing a clothing deal with the store, does not scrimp.

Recently, Bohl appeared for his weekly news conference at the Fargodome in a dark blue Joseph Abboud windowpane suit, a diagonally striped tie and black Salvatore Ferragamo tassel loafers, an ensemble befitting basketball fashionistas like Rick Pitino and John Calipari. Rick Stern, an owner of Straus Clothing, said Bohl used to bring his mother, Roberta, to pick out his ties. Now, he needs no help.

“There are a few people who have a real fashion sense and project it,” Stern said. “He’s one. It’s not something you can teach.”

Bohl’s style, like his football philosophy, is a throwback to when college coaches dressed in something besides sweatshirts and the best teams wore down opponents by running the ball.

With a roster of overlooked players from Minnesota and North Dakota, the Bison have won consecutive national Football Championship Subdivision championships and are 8-0 and ranked No. 1 in pursuit of a third. Appalachian State is the only university to win three consecutive F.C.S. titles. N.D.S.U. takes a 17-game winning streak, second longest in Division I after Ohio State’s 21, into Saturday’s annual Harvest Bowl game against Illinois State at the Fargodome.

Since 2011, the Bison have posted Division I’s best winning percentage (36-2, .947), slightly ahead of Alabama (33-2, .943) and Oregon (32-3, .914). N.D.S.U. has beaten four Football Bowl Subdivision opponents in four years, most recently the defending Big 12 champion, Kansas State, in this season’s opener on Aug. 30, and is 7-3 against F.B.S. teams since 2006.

“A lot of our guys come from the farm or hard-working backgrounds, and we’ve leveraged that as we’ve developed our football team,” Bohl said in his office last month. “It goes a little counterculture to the way college football is now, with spreads, up-tempo offenses and all those other things. We’ve taken a blue-collar approach on playing hard-nosed, physical, disciplined football, great defense, controlling the football. That’s how we’ve won.”

This season N.D.S.U. leads the F.C.S. in total defense (245.3 yards per game), rushing defense (78.5 yards per game) and time of possession (34 minutes per game), and has outscored teams, 54-6, in the fourth quarter. It fashioned a long, late touchdown drive to stun Kansas State, 24-21, and two fourth-quarter touchdowns in a 24-23 Missouri Valley Conference victory over Northern Iowa on Oct. 5, then No. 4 in the F.C.S. rankings.

“If we played an F.B.S. schedule, I think we would definitely make it to a bowl game,” said middle linebacker Grant Olson, a senior from Plymouth, Minn.

“I don’t think there’s a team in the country that would absolutely destroy us, 70-0, or anything like that. Obviously, there are teams that have more talent than we do. I won’t deny that either. But I think we could hold our own with a lot of teams out there.” Bohl starts by recruiting players like himself.

A walk-on defensive back at Nebraska, Bohl grew up in Lincoln, Neb., rooting for the Cornhuskers. He turned down an offer from Air Force to stay home. Injuries, mainly a gruesome broken leg sustained in practice, limited his playing time. But he asked Osborne if he could stay on as a graduate assistant.

That three-year gig led to full-time assistant coaching jobs at North Dakota State and four other universities before Osborne brought him back to Nebraska as linebackers coach in 1995, the year Osborne won the second of his three national championships. Osborne retired after the third, in 1997.

“Coach Osborne left a profound effect on me, as far as dealing with people, principles of football, how we structure the program,” said Bohl, who keeps a photo of Osborne and Charlie McBride, the former Nebraska defensive coordinator, in his office.

“I’m not saying we’re just like the old Nebraska teams in the ’90s,” he said. “But a lot of our principles are grounded on the things I experienced as a player.”

With more than 100 players on his roster, Bohl organizes two offensive and defensive scout teams, as Osborne did, so his first- and second-teamers can scrimmage simultaneously. That gives each group more practice snaps, leading to better conditioning and fewer mistakes. Bohl further mirrored Osborne by getting a pilot’s license so he could fly to see recruits.

“He has often mentioned he’s trying to do certain things we did here, and he felt he profited from his experience here,” Osborne said in a telephone interview. “I don’t know if we’ve ever talked about that, about being the role model. It would probably be a little embarrassing for him, and it would be a little embarrassing for me, too. If that’s the case, I’ll certainly take it as a compliment.”

After Osborne retired, Bohl eventually rose to defensive coordinator. Osborne’s successor, Frank Solich, fired Bohl and two other defensive assistants after a 7-6 regular season in 2002, Nebraska’s worst in 41 years. North Dakota State snapped up Bohl to lead a program reclassifying to Division I-AA from Division II.

Now, Bison football rivals University of North Dakota men’s hockey as the state’s biggest draw. The Bison sell out the 18,700-seat Fargodome, an indoor arena so loud Olson needs hand signals to relay defensive calls.

With football driving revenue, the athletic department budget grew to $17.5 million from $5 million in 2001-2, Athletic Director Gene Taylor said. Bohl’s success brought ESPN’s “College GameDay” crew to Fargo in late September, broadcasting downtown near the Fargo Theatre. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think they would be in Fargo,” Bohl said.

Though Bohl initiated talks for an eight-year contract extension through 2020, everyone from his boss to his tailor fears a major B.C.S. school may lure him away. Bohl said he last interviewed for a job after the 2006 season, with Minnesota, which hired Tim Brewster. The Bison beat the Gophers in Minneapolis in 2007 and 2011, victories Bohl and his players cherished.

“I think you’d be naïve to think people haven’t had him on the phone,” said Pat Simmers, who coached with Bohl at N.D.S.U., Tulsa and Wisconsin and oversees the university’s Team Makers booster group as senior associate athletic director. “Not that he won’t be gone someday, but it would take a pretty good job to get him out of here.”

Bohl, who married a Fargo radio personality in 2010, will discuss only the job he has. He said he has enjoyed living in a small city where he can leave his Chevy Tahoe unlocked.

“I understand that when you’re a young coach, you want to find what the big time is like,” Bohl said. “For me, I’ve had the good fortune to coach in two Fiesta Bowls, a Rose Bowl, two Orange Bowls, all the different major bowls, games, playing for national championships.

“When you find a place that fits your value system, the allure of ‘what the big time is’ is not such a big hook. That, for me, has dissipated.”

His style, however, has not.