Bison's Craig Bohl is enjoying life atop FCS ranks
Craig Bohl is having the time of his life at North Dakota State.
His program is bidding to join Appalachian State as the only schools to win three straight Championship Subdivision titles. There was that season-opening victory over Kansas State. And this week ESPN's popular College GameDay show is setting up shop in downtown Fargo, N.D., in advance of the Bison's game against Delaware State.
''This,'' Bohl said, ''is the most fun I've had.''
Even more fun than winning national championships as an assistant coach in 1995 and `97 at Nebraska, his alma mater?
Yes, the 55-year-old Bohl said, because North Dakota State has risen to the pinnacle of the FCS only nine years after beginning the transition from Division II.
Along the way the Bison have won seven of 10 games against the Bowl Subdivision. The stunning 24-21 victory on Big 12 champion K-State's home field raised North Dakota State's profile to new heights, more than the FCS title-clinching wins over Sam Houston State the past two years ever could.
''All the stars aligned,'' Bohl said. ''It was great exposure for NDSU and it's going to have a long-term effect in recruiting and a positive effect on our athletic department. GameDay has been here all week. That exposure for our school, I don't know how you measure the value of it.''
A win over Delaware State would be Bohl's 92nd and make him the career leader at North Dakota State, a program with a long history of success built on the backs of players mostly from North Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
''When we made the transition to Division I, football was the one sport we wanted to get as successful as we could as soon as we could,'' athletic director Gene Taylor said. ''It was the revenue driver. But to think we were going to go out after a few years since the transition and win back-to-back national championships, I don't know if anyone could envision that.''
Bohl, whose first full-time assistant coaching job was at NDSU in 1984, interviewed with Taylor after he was let go as Nebraska's defensive coordinator in 2002. Bohl was a reserve defensive back for the Huskers in the late 1970s, and he said former Nebraska coach Tom Osborne remains his mentor.
During his interview, Bohl told Taylor that he planned to model the program after Osborne's teams. That meant emphasizing physical play on both sides of the ball and focusing on player development.
As Osborne did, Bohl makes sure to lock up top in-state players. Bohl visits each of the 94 football-playing high schools across North Dakota every May. Though only four starters are from North Dakota, 11 of the 22 players on the two-deep chart are from the state.
''You're not going to find a lot of our players on the Rivals.com number-of-stars list,'' Bohl said. ''Very few of them have had FBS or BCS offers. Most of the time they are guys who have been overlooked by a Big Ten or Big 12 school. But they have the work ethic and determination, and I think our program has done a good job developing that within a system.''
No player exemplifies the system more than fourth-year starting quarterback Brock Jensen. The native of Waupaca, Wis., had been recruited by Division II schools until North Dakota State swooped in after its top quarterback target signed with Central Michigan.
Jensen is 34-5 as the Bison starter and has led them to back-to-back 14-1 seasons. His signature moment came against Kansas State when he directed the winning 18-play, 80-yard drive that brought the Bison back from a 21-7 deficit.
Mixed in with blue-collar players like Jensen and linebacker Grant Olson, who once made 29 tackles in a game, are NFL prospects in cornerback Marcus Williams, who has 19 career interceptions, and 6-foot-6, 314-pound offensive tackle Billy Turner.
The football success has helped the school's athletic budget grow from $5 million to $17.8 million the past 10 years.
The school's 119-year football history is distinguished. North Dakota native Ron Erhardt coached the Bison in the 1960s before going to the NFL. Jim Wacker was there in the 1970s before heading to TCU and later Minnesota. Quarterbacks Jeff Bentrim (1986) and Chris Simdorn (1990) each won the Harlon Hill Trophy as Division II's top player, and the Bison won five D-II championships from 1983-90.
What once was a program that drew support from the Fargo area now brings in fans from every corner of the state, South Dakota and western Minnesota. Season-ticket sales have gone from 4,000 in 2004 to 12,000 this season, and Taylor said the 18,700-seat FargoDome is sold out for the third straight season.
Bohl's second straight FCS title earned him an eight-year contract extension, through 2021, that pays him a base salary of $206,000 a year.
Bohl said he has to tell himself to step back sometimes and look at what he's helped build.
''I understand this is really a pretty remarkable time,'' he said. ''What you want to do is make sure you're focused on the next opponent, but you don't want to forget about smelling some of the roses as you're going through it because we're in uncharted waters. In the midst of getting the next first down and winning the next game, you shouldn't forget to really appreciate these players who are doing these special things.''