North Dakota State's defense had been dominant in the 2011 Football Championship Subdivision championship game. But its offense couldn't make a dent against top-ranked Sam Houston State.
Craig Bohl — the former Nebraska defensive coordinator who had ushered the Bison from Division II football to this very moment — chose to pull out a trick play “from our hip pocket.” A fake punt.
It was a risk, but a well-calculated one. A tactic Bohl said he learned from his former boss, Nebraska coach Tom Osborne, who practiced trick plays weekly, just in case he'd need them.
“You don't just put a gimmick in and practice it twice,” Osborne said.
So Bohl worked the fake all year. With the Bison trailing 6-3 in the third quarter, punter Matt Voigtlander took the snap inside his own 30, followed two pulling blockers around the left side, and ran for the easiest 27 yards you'll ever see before the Bearkats' punt returner tackled him.
“Coaches are competitive,” Bohl said recently while remembering the play. “Our environment is not static. There are certain times you have to take risks.”
One play later, North Dakota State scored a touchdown on a 39-yard screen pass. Ninety minutes after that, NDSU had a 17-6 win and its first national title since transitioning to Division I. Though he was traveling that day, Osborne got to watch most of the game.
And nearly 10 years to the day after Bohl's Husker defense was pummeled by Miami for 472 yards in the BCS national title game to cap the 2001 season, his Bison defenders held the FCS' No. 1 offense 33 points below its scoring average with 210 total yards. It was the peak of Bohl's successful climb in Fargo.
He's 75-31 in nine years. His team set attendance and season-ticket sales records. North Dakota State games are televised statewide, and one game last year, Bohl said, received a 52 share — half of the state's TVs tuned in to the Bison. Some argue that NDSU football still plays second fiddle to University North Dakota hockey — the Fighting Sioux coach is paid more — but that it's even an argument is a kind of achievement.
Bohl's a celebrity in Fargo, recognized on the street, a frequent guest on radio and TV shows. He's a power player in the FCS, having hired away rival Northern Iowa's defensive coordinator last year. He's an FBS giant-killer; NDSU knocked off Kansas and Minnesota in the last two years, while Iowa, Iowa State and Kansas State loom on the schedule.
The second act of Bohl's coaching career has been full of risks rewarded. Switching to Division I, and sitting out years of FCS playoffs when NDSU might have been the best team in the country. Hiring staff members good enough to leave in a few years. Stepping up recruiting efforts in Nebraska, where the Husker walk-on program remains a strong pull.
And perhaps the biggest risk: taking the NDSU job just months after the end of the first act, when he'd been fired at Nebraska. He chose more responsibility as a head coach instead of slipping back into the pool of Division I assistants.
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“I was almost worried for him,” said new Nebraska basketball coach Tim Miles, who coached at North Dakota State from 2001 to 2007 and still talks regularly with Bohl. “But he has such confidence. Such vision. To be fired is very difficult, and I don't know that anybody could have handled that better than Craig Bohl.”
That vision was harder to see in the last 15 games of Bohl's tenure as NU's defensive coordinator under head coach Frank Solich.
The sharp decline started with the 2001 Colorado game, a 62-36 disaster of gaping holes and long Buffalo runs. Years later, Osborne asked Shawn Watson — CU's offensive coordinator in 2001 and later the Huskers' play-caller for three years — how Colorado had so badly exposed Nebraska's defense.
By putting a guy in motion, Watson told Osborne. NU's safeties kept rotating toward the wide receiver or tight end, so CU ran counter plays away from the motion. A lot of them.
“Always a game of chess,” Osborne said. “I guess Shawn won that day.”
Said Bohl: “We get gashed by Colorado, and we just saw this transition.”
That 37-14 loss to Miami. A 40-7 loss at Penn State in 2002, followed by a 36-14 loss at Iowa State. The 49-13 loss at Kansas State, where NU gave up 415 rushing yards. Big play after big play.
After a 28-13 loss to Colorado at home to end the 2002 regular season, Solich fired Bohl. A year after that, Solich was fired himself.
“This game is humbling,” Bohl said of those final years at NU. “Not every day is going to be a Chamber of Commerce day.”
Since coaches “don't have a rewind button,” Bohl said, he rarely thinks of 2001 and 2002. He keeps in touch with NU offensive line coach Barney Cotton — a Husker teammate in the late 1970s — and running backs coach Ron Brown. He talks to Osborne occasionally. And when NU's A.D. called him while searching for a basketball coach, Bohl offered a strong recommendation of Miles — who roomed with Bohl during coaches' caravan tours and has become a close friend.
“I trusted Craig's judgment,” Osborne said. “He'd seen Tim operate up close and personal.”
But Bohl hasn't returned to the NU offices, and despite some mutual openings on the schedule, NDSU didn't schedule Nebraska in football. There's no plan for it in the near future, either.
back in 2003, the Lincoln native didn't spend much time unemployed. He saw the job open at North Dakota State and angled for it. Don't play on your heels, Bohl likes to say. Play on your toes.
NDSU moved to Division I FCS in 2004. Bohl had to sell football recruits on a school not yet eligible for the FCS playoffs. He did it; NDSU was ranked fifth in the final 2006 Sports Network poll and ninth in 2007.
“He was very skillful in that,” said Miles, who had to sell basketball recruits on the same long-term plan.
Bohl said he modeled his program after Osborne's, which had a “very profound” effect on his coaching philosophy. Run the ball. Stop the run. High-volume repetitions in practice. Practice trick plays. Limit the number of FBS transfers. Welcome small-town kids who can play multiple positions.
“We don't play eight-man football, but we play nine-man football here,” Bohl said of North Dakota's lower-division high school programs.
Nebraska high schools are now a target. Bohl signed three from the state in his 2012 class — Sam Hahn of Tri County, Bo Liekhus of Bellevue West and Derek McGinnis of Crete — to complement Nebraska contributors he already has on his roster: defensive end Kyle Emanuel of Schuyler, safety Christian Dudzik of Omaha Skutt, and tight end Garrett Bruhn and center Jesse Hinz of Beatrice. Dudzik started last year as a redshirt freshman, and Emanuel is poised to start in 2012.
Bohl, 53, has often returned to Lincoln in recent years to watch his son, Aaron, play football at Lincoln East. Sometimes, Bohl, who has a pilot's license, flew himself. Other times, North Dakota State provided a pilot for him. The motorcycle Bohl once rode down the Pacific Coast Highway doesn't come out so often anymore. A risk he chooses to bypass more often.
One risk Bohl could take: an FBS head coaching job. He interviewed for the Minnesota job in 2007, but the Gophers picked Tim Brewster instead. Now Bohl doesn't talk about openings.
Said Miles: “Craig Bohl can coach anywhere he wants to. But he's loyal.”
Bohl also doesn't touch the ongoing debate between hockey and football in his state. The UND hockey team has been to four Frozen Fours since 2005. The Fighting Sioux fans pack what many believe is the nicest arena in college hockey.
But NDSU football sells out the FargoDome — one of the toughest venues in FCS — and has the 2011 national title. UND hockey hasn't won one since 2000.
“I have a sign in my office that says ‘Just coach the team,'” Bohl said. “Whenever I get in that mind-set, I turn around, look at that sign and say to myself, ‘Just coach the team.' That's what I'm doing.”
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