Craig Bohl out to establish his system, success at Wyoming

Thursday February 20th, 2014

After capturing three consecutive FCS titles at NDSU, Craig Bohl is out to turn Wyoming into a winner.
Courtesy of University of Wyoming athletics

Craig Bohl built a football powerhouse at North Dakota State University, the type of program in which players and coaches expect to compete for an FCS national championship every year. Fans, too. So it makes sense that when Bohl and his wife visited the Rose Bowl in January, Leia Bohl took one look around the scenic Pasadena stadium and said to her husband, "Honey, this is great -- can we play in this now that you're at Wyoming?"

Forgive her, but she's used to the big game.

"I told her, "Yeah, we can, but we've got some work to do first," Bohl laughed. "Our first step is figuring out how to work our way up to the Mountain West championship."

The winner of three consecutive FCS national titles, Bohl, 55, inherits a Wyoming program that has played in the postseason just three times in the last 10 years. He has a long to-do list that will eventually include reaching for championships. But before the Cowboys can start thinking about bowl games, they need to locate a quarterback.

Gone is record-setter Brett Smith, an Oregon native who gave MWC defensive coordinators headaches for the last three seasons. Backup Jason Thompson, who was presumably next in line, followed former coach Dave Christensen to Utah in mid-January when Christensen was named the Utes offensive coordinator. That means the starting job will likely fall to Aaron Young, a junior college transfer who is already on campus, or rising sophomore Tommy Thornton, who attempted just four passes in 2013.

"If you come in with a veteran quarterback, the opportunity for success goes up. But every year you deal with different challenges," Bohl said. "Certainly you want some maturity when you're playing Oregon or Michigan State. ... This was the challenge placed in front of us, so we'll roll up our sleeves and get to work."

Still, finding a new signal-caller is only the beginning of Bohl's transition to Wyoming. He also plans to implement the system that won him 104 games at North Dakota State, which includes a pro-style offense (the Cowboys ran a spread before) and a 4-3 defense (they previously ran a 3-4). A completely new scheme with a mostly old roster will present some issues: Wyoming, for example, only has one returning tight end, according to Bohl.

Laramie, a town of around 30,000, isn't for everyone. But when Bohl told the hiring committee, "if you can recruit to Fargo, you can recruit to anywhere," Wyoming athletic director Tom Burman believed he had found the right guy.

"This is a hard job," Burman said. "It's a niche job. You've got to be able to recruit kids who can survive in Laramie. Over time, I think [Bohl] can do really well here. He wants to develop a recruiting philosophy where we're recruiting kids from the Midwest and northern part of the country. During the interview process, he sold me. His personality is pretty infectious."

Bohl first caught Burman's eye back in August, when the Cowboys were on their way to Nebraska. He watched enough of North Dakota State's 24-21 upset of defending Big 12 champ Kansas State in Manhattan, Kan., to walk away "so impressed" by the Bison's physical brand of football. When Wyoming fired Christensen on Dec. 1 following a 5-7 season, Burman said Bohl was at the top of his list. Seven days later, Wyoming announced his hiring.

A defensive back at Nebraska in the late 1970s, Bohl served as the Cornhuskers linebackers coach when his alma mater won the 1995 and '97 national championships. Recruited by Wyoming out of high school, Bohl grew up vacationing in the Laramie area; because of his history with the state, he believes, "there's a potential for greatness here." It might be cold, windy and snowy (Wyoming typically takes football recruits snowmobiling during campus visits, a very "only-in-Laramie" move), but the way Bohl sees it, "You're going to get a great degree and play championship football -- after that, there's not a lot of time for anything else." The scenery, he says, isn't as important as what happens inside the stadium.

Still, he was impressed by the facilities. Wyoming has consistent support from private donors, and a matching program from the state legislature helps the school make upgrades when needed. The football operations building might not be new (the $9.4 million facility opened in 2001), but the practice facility (an $11 million project opened in '07) is one of the best in the MWC; when the Denver Broncos were preparing to build a new indoor facility of their own last year, they came to Laramie to tour the Cowboys'.

Despite its 27-35 record over the last five years, Wyoming typically draws a big crowd at War Memorial Stadium. That's the result of being the only show in town -- and one of the only shows in the state.

"One thing I say to student-athletes all the time is, 'There are not many places in the country people would pay to watch a women's basketball game,' which is what happened in 2007 when our women's team played Wisconsin," Burman said. "We might be a little isolated and a little cold, but our fan base loves this university."

In a unique twist, Bohl was hired by Wyoming in early December, but opted to stay with North Dakota State through the Bison's championship run, a move Bohl describes as "two institutions doing what's in the best interests of all student-athletes involved." Because of NCAA rules, Bohl couldn't leave Fargo and recruit for Wyoming, something that led to a lot of late nights prepping for NDSU's next opponent and watching 2013 Cowboys' film to figure out who and what the team needed to recruit.

"Coaches typically aren't great multi-taskers, but if we were going to be successful, we needed to be," said Bohl, who is still living out of a hotel while his family boxes up its life in Fargo. "We drank a lot of Starbucks, Mountain Dew and Red Bull to survive."

Once the NCAA coaches' convention ended, Bohl and his staff -- he brought almost everyone with him from North Dakota State -- hit in the road in "a mad scramble, canvassing the country." Wyoming ultimately signed 22 prospects on Feb. 5, including three quarterbacks.

"We're bringing recruits in (in January) and heck, I knew more about them than our current players," Bohl said. "We're still in the process of guys coming up to the office and getting to know their names."

While he memorizes the roster, Bohl is searching for ways to tinker with current personnel to fit his pro-style approach. He'll probably convert a few players to different positions (the team needs a few more tight ends and defensive linemen), but he'll wait until spring football starts on March 24 to make any major decisions. Already, he has reshaped the Cowboys' strength and conditioning program, a change that players felt immediately.

"I'm pretty sure that on our first day of workouts, at least half the team threw up," said Dominic Rufran, a wide receiver who caught 75 passes for 960 yards and eight touchdowns last season. "It was definitely a shock to us. They say this is going to be one of the hardest springs of football that we've ever had."

Rufran didn't know much about Bohl when he was announced as the Cowboys' next coach, but when the rising senior heard that Bohl was one of the winningest coaches at the FCS level, "I thought, 'I can definitely get behind that.'" He likes that Bohl has an expectation of excellence, and sees his intensity even at Wyoming men's basketball games, where Rufran says Bohl takes it upon himself to "go over and pump up the student section, trying to bring us all together. You can tell he has a passion for the game, and he's used to winning."

Bohl signed a five-year contract with the Cowboys, but Burman doesn't expect overnight success. However, he thinks Wyoming will win a few games it isn't expected to in 2014 because there is plenty of room for defensive improvement. Burman knows rebuilding takes time, but says the Cowboys "are not going to settle for five wins. We want to win eight, nine, ten games."

As Bohl has already found out, his wife is expecting at least that many wins, too -- along with some picturesque bowl destinations.

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