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Tom Dennis, Forum News Service, Published December 09 2013

Herald editorial: How did coach Bohl do it?

GRAND FORKS - OK, so the payoff may not be a $1.5 million a year contract, which is the deal Craig Bohl reportedly will be getting for leaving North Dakota State University in favor of coaching Wyoming’s football team.

Still, UND and NDSU faculty members who can’t believe the kind of money that success in sports can bring should realize that a couple of ladles-full from that gravy train could be theirs, too.

All they have to figure out is this:

What makes for a successful coach?

How did Bohl go about racking up his astounding 41-2 record over the past three years at NDSU? Can we put into words the blend of charisma, football knowledge and strategic thinking that makes for a winning coach?

And wouldn’t it be fascinating to have a “fly on the wall” look at the Bohl’s past few years at NDSU?

The academic who could study Bohl’s coaching approach, analyze it using principles of psychology (and politics and business, among other fields) and translate the result into plain English would have a book contract before the year is out.

Thinking about these things is part of what makes sports so fascinating and, for so many people, so much fun. When then-Brig. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, as West Point’s new superintendent in 1919, instituted a rule requiring all cadets to participate in sports, he knew what he was about. No other arena in American life offers a closer approximation of battle or a fuller test of pure leadership skills.

The competition and the fact that each game’s results are immediate and inarguable puts “survival of the fittest” on stark display. We may not like the side of ourselves that enjoys watching such contests; it’s clearly the same instinct that used to pull crowds into the Colosseum to watch the gladiators.

But it’s in us, and it’s part of humanity’s core being. That makes it worth understanding and analyzing in detail — and that’s where academics could help.

Many writers have tried to get inside a coach’s head. John Feinstein’s in-depth look at Bob Knight and the Indiana Hoosiers, “A Season on the Brink,” may be the best-known.

But to this day, there’s nothing close to a proven formula for successful coaching, as shown by the fact that a week before Wyoming hired Bohl, the athletic director there fired the previous coach for not winning enough games.

So, what set Bohl apart? Why did he succeed where so many others in college football have failed? What lessons in leadership can people learn from his example?

A professor who’d like to solve a colorful and fascinating cultural riddle should consider finding out.