On high ground: Craig Bohl brings FCS magic to FBS’ toughest job
His team had just pulled off the biggest upset of the opening week of the season. Craig Bohl’s Bison of North Dakota State had gone into Manhattan, Kansas, and didn’t just beat the defending Big 12 champs, they mauled the Wildcats, outrushing Kansas State 215-41 in primetime on a Friday night national stage.
It marked the fourth year in a row Bohl’s FCS powerhouse had beaten an FBS program, but for the former Nebraska assistant who came into the game against K-State as the two-time national champs, something was different that night.
"That gave me a firm conviction that this model will work (at the FBS level), and it’s probably time to move on," Bohl recalled.
"I have a great deal of respect for Coach (Bill) Snyder, and I thought, ‘OK, this formula works. We’re gonna do everything we can for this football team, but the stars are probably gonna align for me and my chapter at NDSU is probably gonna come to an end.’"
He was spot on. NDSU went 15-0 to win a jaw-dropping third consecutive FCS national title, but before the Bison made it a three-peat, Bohl made what — at the time — seemed like a stunning move, accepting the Wyoming head coaching job. For Wyoming, though, it appeared to be quite a coup. Bohl not only had won three national titles in a row, he also had an eye-catching 7-3 record against FBS teams in his 11 seasons with the Bison, including going 4-0 the past four seasons.
But the new job will be a very heavy lift for the 55-year-old. The Cowboys managed just three postseason appearances in the previous decade. Wyoming, with its limited recruiting base, is one of the toughest jobs in the sport, with some joking the school is the "farthest, highest and coldest" in college football.
Joe Glenn, another huge coaching success in the lower division, also thought he could turn Wyoming around. Glenn had won two Division II national titles and then a 1-AA national title. However, in six seasons in Laramie, Glenn took the Cowboys to only one bowl game and after six seasons, going 30-41, he was fired.
Bohl, a veteran defensive coach and Tom Osborne disciple at Nebraska, though, saw Wyoming as an ideal fit for him and his system.
"There’s a lot of similarities in the people of Nebraska, North Dakota and Wyoming, which made the transition as smooth as I had hoped for," Bohl said last week. "I had a marvelous experience working for Tom Osborne and saw the model that we had set up there. There was a stretch where that group was 60-3. The last three years we were 43-2 and there are a lot of similarities. We’ve both got a great commitment from our players and our coaches. We had a plan and everybody knew their role. Some of it comes back to good old-fashioned work ethic, and that’s an easy thing to say but tough to do."
Bohl’s system is "scary similar" to what Osborne did at Nebraska a generation ago, he says, from the practice routines to the offseason program to a pro-style heavy running game (albeit with less option) that prides itself on being "a very physical, disciplined, team-oriented bunch — just like the ‘90s at Nebraska" or what the coach hopes will be now known as Cowboy Tough Football.
In 2013, Bohl’s team averaged a gaudy 5.95 yards per carry — second-best in the FCS — and were No. 1 in third-down conversions at 55 percent. The Bison also led the nation in third-down percentage defense and scoring defense. Bohl is convinced his blueprint will work again at the FBS level, and he feels like the more the college game has changed, the more that has actually benefitted his system.
"I know that we’re counter-culture with what’s going on with offense in college football, especially with the hurry-up offenses," he said. "We’ll sit there and snap the ball with two seconds left and play great defense and try to win the game 10-9. Or (like) against Kansas State, hope to wear the other team down. We’re gonna be a run-first football team."
He says he knows his team won’t instantly have the kind of success he was having at NDSU, but when asked how realistic it is to expect the Wyoming Cowboys to be a top 15 program in the next five years, Bohl wasn’t hedging.
"It takes years and years to build the rep of a great academic institution," he said. "It takes four years to build a football program. So the proof’s gonna be in the pudding. We’ve got a lot of work to do, but if you look at Year 3 to Year 4, there should be a significant improvement in our program."
Bohl arrived preaching a "those who stay will be champions” mantra, and his confident tone immediately got his new players’ attention.
"He’s definitely got some swagger to him," said senior Dominic Rufran, the team’s leading receiver. "I’d never experienced anything like that from a head coach. He comes in and is saying, ‘We can and will be champions.’
"Before I think we thought, ‘We have a chance.’ This is something different. He makes his players really want to work hard and be disciplined for him."
Making the transition more challenging for Bohl’s staff is the fact his scheme is so different from the rapid-fire, spread system Dave Christensen ran — and recruited for — at Wyoming for the past five seasons. The receivers, who used to just try to find soft spots in zones, now expect to see much more man-defense and are challenged to try and beat people more in one-on-ones and working the deep ball. One of the first big changes Bohl made was "double repping," where two sets of offensive and defensive units are running plays at all times.
"It’s definitely different for sure," said Rufran. "But it does give everybody on the team a fair chance, and that way you’re not gonna have many Negative Nancies trying to say they never had a shot (to show what they could do.)"
Bohl knows what he is getting into. He is friends with Glenn. He also made the four-hour drive up to Buffalo, Wyoming, to visit Joe Tiller, the former Cowboys coach. He gets it. Bohl said he had the opportunity to move up and try his system a few times before, but those other programs didn’t seem like as good of a fit as Wyoming does for him now.
His recruiting plan is to get two scholarship players from in-state every year and recruit Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas very hard. California, given the Cowboys’ Mountain West ties, will also offer talent. He’ll find tough kids, and he’ll build around them.
He does inherit a team with nine starters back on defense, although that group ranked No. 111 in total defense last season. The really bad news: Bohl has to replace five starters on offense including Brett Smith, the team’s outstanding QB. Worse still, backup QB Jason Thompson is also gone, having transferred to Utah, where Christensen ended up as a Utes assistant. Upcoming road games at Oregon and Michigan State also look brutal.
"We’re down to the third guy, but he’s gonna do great," said Bohl through a big grin. "Whoever that is, he’s gonna do great."
Bruce Feldman is a senior college football reporter and columnist for FoxSports.com and Fox Sports 1. Follow him on Twitter @BruceFeldmanCFB.