Erik Burgess, Published December 31 2013
NDSU football coach Craig Bohl: The Forum's Person of the Year
He’d pack up his Harley-Davidson and rip through the back roads of the Minnesota north woods. It’s in the open country that Bohl is totally carefree, able to clear his mind of all the Xs and Os, the depth charts and news conferences.
But over the years, the motorcycle joy rides petered out as the North Dakota State head football coach laser-focused on one thing: winning.
He’ll lead the Bison to a third consecutive FCS national championship game Saturday against Towson University. A win will cap off an undefeated season.
Bohl, who will leave the Bison after the game to coach the Wyoming Cowboys, is also the winningest coach in NDSU football history with a 103-32 record.
It wouldn’t be entirely accurate to say Bohl put NDSU football on the map. Others before him helped do that, like Joseph Chapman, the university’s former president who made the call to move athletics from Division II to Division I; and Athletic Director Gene Taylor, who hired Bohl as head coach after he was fired from Nebraska in 2002.
But what Bohl did here was perhaps more lasting, friends and family said in recent interviews. He made the Bison name stand out on that map, a glowing beacon of green and yellow.
In doing that, he made Fargo and North Dakota stand out, and for that reason, Bohl is The Forum Area Person of the Year for 2013.
“To be selected, it’s a great honor, and it’s humbling,” Bohl said. “I look at it and go, wow; maybe it’s more than just winning a bunch of football games.”
Serious as a …
It’s the Monday before the FCS quarterfinal game against Coastal Carolina, and Bohl’s office on the second floor of the Fargodome is pretty much pristine, save for the slice and a half of pepperoni pizza on a paper plate sitting on the corner of his desk.
“I’m going to die of a heart attack,” Bohl jokes, scrambling to hide the greasy slices. “That’s my lunch, by the way!”
It’s a strange thing to say, considering not 10 minutes before, the 55-year-old coach was talking about his life being consumed by coaching.
“A lot of times, that’s a problem with Division I football coaches. You know, some of my friends have had heart attacks and things like that. It’s very competitive and there’s a lot of external pressure, and there’s a lot of internal pressure. You want to excel.”
That’s the way Bohl is – serious, when he’s not joking.
“He’s all business,” said Victor Gelking, a pilot and friend who lent his personal plane to Bohl when the coach was learning how to fly. “We joke once and a while, but he’s pretty much all business. He knows where he’s going in life, that’s for sure.”
For Bohl, the seriousness is about being poised and setting the best example for his students. That’s why you’ll more than likely find him in a neatly tailored suit before and after Bison games. That’s why you won’t often see him run out onto the field to bark complaints at a referee – although he did that once during the Coastal Carolina game, which the Bison went on to win 48-14.
“I would never yell at the ref! I give them some encouragement,” Bohl joked in his office, with his booming, staccato laugh.
The joking side comes from decades of coaching experience, Bohl said, and figuring out that not every student athlete responds well to a shouting match.
“He gets to know the players on a very personal level and knows that there are some people that react good to a little chewing out and some people will react better to more of the coddling and nurturing,” said Steve Walker, a former NDSU quarterback.
Walker recalled a crucial moment during a game against Cal Davis in 2006, when the Bison were down big at halftime and he expected a red-faced Bohl to shout up a storm in the locker room.
But Bohl remained calm, Walker said, and the team ended up with a comeback victory.
“When you really are coaching at your highest level, you recognize how to reach in and be able to touch a guy’s heart,” Bohl said. “That’s hard to do.”
Shooting for big fish
With success in football come shortfalls in other areas of Bohl’s life, and finding time to be a father has been one of those challenges, his son Aaron Bohl said.
When Bohl was an assistant coach for the Nebraska Cornhuskers in the early 2000s, a young Aaron Bohl would see his father for maybe two hours a week.
“When he left Lincoln, where I lived, to come up to Fargo, he said there’s two things he wanted to do,” said Aaron Bohl, now 19 years old and playing football at Minnesota State University Moorhead. “He wanted to become a better son and become a better father.”
Bohl has gotten better at being a dad over the past few years, his son said. They spend more time together, playing golf or grilling steaks, but still the pressures of the job take up an extraordinary amount of time for Bohl.
“He really doesn’t ever get away from that coaching mode,” Aaron Bohl said.
In 2003, Craig Bohl’s first year as NDSU’s head coach, he led the Bison to a shocking 25-24 victory over the FCS powerhouse Montana Grizzlies in Missoula. More surprise victories would come over the next decade, but eventually they stopped being so surprising.
Bohl amassed an impressive 13-1 playoff record and a 7-3 record over Football Bowl Subdivision teams, including this year’s 24-21 win over Kansas State.
Making the shocking victories normal was all part of his vision for NDSU. When Bohl was hired, he was quoted as saying he thought the Bison could successfully take on powerhouse opponents.
“We’re shooting for bigger fish,” Bohl said in a Forum story from March 1, 2003.
Today, Bohl laughs when he hears that quote read back to him. At the time, there were plenty of naysayers who thought NDSU would be eaten alive when thrown into the Division I-AA tank. Bohl said he wouldn’t allow himself to have the same attitude.
“The people of North Dakota, we’re hardworking, humble people, but it also serves as a two-edged sword because sometimes we limit ourselves,” he said.
Greater than football
Skeptics could argue that what Bohl did in his 11 years at NDSU affected nothing more than the school or the football program. Taylor would be the first to disagree.
It was the successful Bison team that brought ESPN to Fargo. The sports network giant filmed its weekly “College GameDay” broadcast from downtown earlier this year, with interviews and programming focused on Bohl, the Bison and North Dakota.
The national exposure Fargo received because of that broadcast cannot be overstated, Taylor said.
“It’s clearly greater than football,” Taylor said of Bohl’s impact. “If you look across the state and the region, the awareness of this institution beyond football is huge.”
The Bison brand is also more marketable than ever. Revenue the school brings in from selling most items containing the Bison logo has increased nearly twelvefold since Bohl’s arrival, from $35,598 in 2002 to $418,405 last year.
The success of the football program is a big reason for the growth in royalty dollars, said Troy Goergen, NDSU’s marketing director.
Bohl has also positively affected the greater community by bringing in young students and making them outstanding citizens, Walker said.
He teaches players to be accountable, respectful and professional, said Walker, who graduated in 2007 and now works as a financial adviser in Fargo.
“He gets the absolute best out of every player, not only making them a better player but a better person,” Walker said.
The Bison football program in no small way is “grooming future leaders of the community,” he said.
‘Just coach the team’
Bohl has repeatedly said he never in his “wildest dreams” imagined ESPN would come to Fargo. Perhaps this peak moment in his career at NDSU spurred the coach to look elsewhere for a new opportunity.
“If you’re successful and you’re driven, you do want to find that next challenge,” Taylor said.
Wyoming made sense for the coach, who has taken a handful of family trips to the Cowboy State in the past decade.
The coach’s office at the Fargodome is stuffed with trophies and memories from big games, but what stands out are two family portraits, taken years ago during a horseback trip through Wyoming.
Bohl, his parents and children are dressed down in faded denim, and there’s not a football to be found in either photo.
“That’s a different side of me,” Bohl said. Looking at one of the portraits, he begins to choke up before shifting his gaze to a plaque on his desk. Etched into it is a four-word phrase, flanked on either side by stampeding Bison.
“Sometimes, there’s a lot of things you can’t focus on,” Bohl said. “I turn around and look at that and remember: ‘Just coach the team.’ That’s my job. Just coach the team.”
At 55, Bohl said he is focused, energized and ready to coach a new team. He also said he can’t yet foresee the end of his coaching career. Some thought it would end in Fargo after Bohl signed an eight-year contract extension with the Bison earlier this year.
Then Wyoming came knocking.
“They say that every coach has a note in his desk – it just depends when you open it up – and it (says), ‘Your services are no longer required,’ ” Bohl said. “And I like to think I’ll know that.”
Bohl does have a note in his desk, but the message it contains is decidedly more promising. After fumbling through loose papers, he finds it – a creased, handwritten letter of congratulations written in purple ink from Kansas State head coach Bill Snyder, a coaching legend in Bohl’s eyes.
While the media was made aware of Snyder’s note to quarterback Brock Jensen after the 24-21 Bison win over K-State earlier this year, Bohl never publicly announced that he, too, had his own note.
It was a special moment cherished privately by Bohl, who said he considers the Wildcats the biggest fish of them all.
Still, Bohl said he doesn’t like to reflect on the past, and he hasn’t had time to consider his legacy at NDSU.
“I’ll say, you’re either green and growing, or ripe and dying,” Bohl said. “I think if you spend that much time looking in the rearview mirror, you’re not going to be able to accomplish some special things.”
Maybe he’ll have more time to reflect in all that open Wyoming air.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518