Craig Bohl's past led him to Wyoming

Those who thought he should have waited for a 'better' job don't really know Bohl

Updated: August 10, 2014, 4:53 PM ET
By Austin Ward | ESPN.com

Beginning Aug. 3, we're counting down the days until the college football season starts with a look at the 25 most interesting people in the sport. Today we look at Wyoming coach Craig Bohl.

Maybe he wasn't born for Wyoming.

The family farm, after all, was near a small Nebraska town and his blue-collar parents raised him in Lincoln as a die-hard Huskers fan.

The Wyoming program didn't always want him either.

A scholarship offer disappeared after an injury late in his high school career, leaving him little choice but to go to Nebraska as a walk-on, where he could pay in-state tuition.

Even when the roles were reversed and he was the hot commodity and Wyoming was facing a tough rebuilding job, he could have easily looked elsewhere for his next challenge after winning three straight national championships at North Dakota State.

But in the end, Craig Bohl might have always been destined for Wyoming. And now that he's finally there after 11 seasons leading the Bison, it's hard to think of the old-school, pickup-driving coach anywhere else.

"I think fit is really important," Bohl said. "You have to look for opportunities that are going to be the right fit for you personally, and the state of Wyoming is a place that I've always appreciated and fell in love with.

"I think any great football program is going to reflect the nature and value system, the fabric of the people in the state that you are representing. I know this about Wyoming: They don't want bells and whistles."

The Cowboys won't have to worry about that with the straight-shooting Bohl. The coaching throwback endeared himself to his new players and the local fan base seemingly from his first day on the job thanks to a folksy personality, his willingness to return the embrace of his new home by praising the state at every turn, and vowing to "get rid of all those damn uniforms" the team wore in various combinations under predecessor Dave Christensen, attracting attention but often at the expense of tradition.

[+] EnlargeCraig Bohl
Andrew Dieb/Icon SportswireCraig Bohl turned North Dakota State into an FCS power, winning three straight national titles and posting a 104-32 (.765) record in 11 seasons.
And although he's already piling up victories off the field, that doesn't exactly translate directly to winning games. Bohl is certainly aware that he signed up for a difficult job with a program that has fallen far off the national map and was less recognizable than the one he just left, a school coming off back-to-back-to-back titles that played host to "College GameDay" a year ago.

But as the season wore on, even the rest of the North Dakota State coaches were beginning to get a sense that there wasn't much left to accomplish at the FCS level. And when longtime Bison assistant Brent Vigen first heard Bohl mention the possibility of moving to Wyoming, he hardly batted an eye.

"We still had some season left, but it just didn't knock me off my feet with surprise," Vigen, now Wyoming's offensive coordinator, said. "I think the core values here in this state and this university, the type of kids we can recruit really align with his philosophy and his experience both at Nebraska and North Dakota State. Now, if he would have told me he was looking at a school out east, maybe a school like UConn or something opened up, that would have probably surprised me.

"But you don't have to reinvent the wheel at a place like this, and I think in some way he probably felt it was exactly what this place needed -- a coach with his philosophy, a staff with our scheme and everything we're trying to do."

There's plenty for Bohl and the rest of his first staff with the Cowboys to do, and in some ways they're building entirely from the ground up.

The spread offense at Wyoming is being scrapped, and without fullbacks or big blocking tight ends on the roster he inherited, Bohl's smashmouth, pro-style attack is likely going to suffer through some growing pains. The defense is transitioning styles as well, moving away from the 3-4 and back to a conventional 4-3, with a Tampa-2 look in the secondary. And there's a lot of ground to make up with a traditional power like Boise State in the Mountain West Conference, rival Colorado State on the rise and a less-than-fertile recruiting area within the Wyoming borders.

But Bohl has always thrived on hard work, from the long days on the farm in Auburn, Nebraska, working in the pasture with his dad, cutting down trees and toasting the labor on a tailgate with a Budweiser, to building a perennial power at North Dakota State after learning the blueprint from Tom Osborne at Nebraska. And while it might have been easier just to kick back and keep rolling with the Bison, that probably wouldn't have made the evening drink taste as sweet.

"I think any coach will tell you that complacency is something that we all dread and fight," Bohl said. "You look at what you can accomplish, and for me personally, it didn't feel like we could accomplish any more than what we had.

"I knew this would be a challenge. I walked in the room and we didn't look like a Division I football team. That's a lot of work, and it's not fun. Coaches pound their chests, but a lot of guys don't want to do it."

Despite his affinity for and success with North Dakota State, Bohl didn't hesitate much before signing up for that work, and he's hit the ground running since moving to Laramie.

He's worked quickly to build relationships with his new players on campus. He's taken his new brown and white Dodge truck across the state to meet coaches and fans alike in even the smallest towns in Wyoming. And he's had his strength and conditioning staff stress the importance of being "Cowboy tough" and is preaching the value of "Riding for the Brand" to prospective recruits. And so far, his message appears to have struck a chord for a collective group coming off a rocky relationship that always seemed to be an odd match.

"He's a guy's guy, a straight shooter," junior defensive end Eddie Yarbrough said. "He doesn't try to high-hat you at all, he'll just talk to you like he's known you his whole life. People can relate to that ... and I feel like I grew up across the street from him.

"As a team, we're excited to go to war for him. We want to win for our coach."

The Cowboys are also very eager just to win after making only three postseason appearances over the last 10 years. And if nothing else, they hired somebody who has an awful lot of victories on his résumé.

But Wyoming has something else too. He may not be an official native son, but Bohl isn't a coach who has to work at fitting in with the Cowboys.

"To be a head football coach and to represent the state to where now you find the guy who is 85 years old, still lives in Gillette and is going to be damn proud about the Cowboys, that's a neat, neat deal for me," Bohl said. "I don't think if you go to a lot of other schools that's going to be a big deal. And that style of football that we want to play? It's not going to sell someplace else, and it's not going to work.

"You know what? I'm not going to work there either."

But at Wyoming, everything appeared to line up perfectly for what Bohl wanted. And now he's ready to ride.

Austin Ward | email

Ohio State/Big Ten reporter

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