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Inside the relationship between Craig Bohl and the assistants that know him best
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Inside the relationship between Craig Bohl and the assistants that know him best

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LARAMIE — Gordie Haug vividly remembers the start.

An assistant at his alma mater, Bemidji State, eight years ago, Haug helped work football camps during the summers. He got to know many of North Dakota State’s coaches, including head coach Craig Bohl, during that time.

A spot then opened up on Bohl’s staff.

Haug applied and was ultimately hired as the Bison’s running backs coach in 2012, becoming part of the Football Championship Subdivision dynasty Bohl built in Fargo during his 11-year tenure. NDSU went 29-1 with Haug on staff and won the latter two of three straight FCS national championships.

That kind of success won’t be something Haug soon forgets. Neither will his first impression of the man he’s been working for ever since.

“You kind of get that presence, you know? You walk in the room, and he’s got that head-coach presence. It was there,” Haug said. “But more importantly, on the interview, he really challenges you as a coach and asks you tough questions. He doesn’t really want to recruit you. He wants to know exactly what type of man you are and what you know about the game. That’s what really impressed me about him.”

When Wyoming offered Bohl the chance to move to the Football Bowl Subdivision level following the 2013 season after firing Dave Christensen, Bohl asked Haug to go with him as the Cowboys’ recruiting coordinator. The veteran coach also brought Steve Stanard, Kenni Burns, offensive line coach Scott Fuchs, offensive coordinator Brent Vigen, defensive assistant AJ Cooper and cornerbacks coach John Richardson with him to Wyoming, where the group faced a far different challenge at a middling program. The Cowboys were coming off back-to-back losing seasons and had five such seasons in the previous seven years before Bohl’s arrival.

It was a rebuild project that would take not only plenty of work but a lot of trust among coaches who had been doing this together for a while.

“I think it was just a little bit of a trusting in him based on his trust in (athletic director) Tom (Burman) at the time in particular,” said Vigen, who doubles as the Cowboys’ associate head coach. “What Tom’s vision was, what we could do with that and why he was the right person. So I think there were conversations about, ‘OK, why are you excited about this job?’ So if you’re excited because of X, Y and Z, then we should be.”

Stanard, Burns and Fuchs were all let go and subsequently replaced, and Bohl eventually added Jake Dickert, another one of his assistants at NDSU, to his staff as safeties coach before the 2017 season. Bohl promoted Dickert to defensive coordinator once Scottie Hazelton left for the same position at Kansas State in January.

Bohl had six former NDSU assistants on his staff at the beginning of this season after hiring Willie Mack Garza as the Cowboys’ 10th and final assistant following Dickert’s promotion. But Garza resigned in October after being charged with DUI.

With half of his staff still comprised of coaches he’s been with for years, Bohl has Wyoming trending in the other direction. The Cowboys are in the midst of their fourth straight bowl-eligible season and could get to eight wins with a victory at Air Force on Saturday to end the regular season. If Wyoming can get it, it would match the most wins the Cowboys have had in a single season during Bohl’s tenure.

• • •

Bohl spends a lot of his time at practice standing around the 50-yard line watching Wyoming’s offense and defense at different ends of the field against the scout team. During individual drills, he hops from position group to position group.

Some days, he’ll linger a little longer to watch certain positions go through certain drills. But Bohl rarely if ever meddles with what his assistants are doing.

“He gives you confidence and opportunity,” said Cooper, who coaches the Cowboys’ defensive ends and coordinates the special teams. “He gives you a job, and he’s not a micromanager. He’ll ask questions about things here and there, but I’ve been coaching for him since 2007. He’s not a guy that stands by your hand and says, ‘Why are you doing this? What are you doing here?’ He lets you coach your position.”

Like many head coaches, delegating responsibilities is something that’s taken some time for Bohl. It’s gotten easier, Bohl said, as the trust with his longtime assistants has strengthened over the years.

One example that immediately comes to mind for Bohl is a call by Vigen late in NDSU’s semifinal against Georgia Southern in the 2012 FCS playoffs. Facing a 20-16 deficit and fourth-and-3 from GSU’s 5-yard line in the waning minutes, Vigen sent in a quarterback draw for Brock Jensen. Three consecutive timeouts were called as Bohl and Vigen mulled it over.

“I wasn’t completely sure about it,” Bohl said. “I called a timeout, and there was a lot of chatter on the phone. And (GSU) called another timeout, and I said, ‘Are you sure? He said, ‘Yes, I’m sure.’”

Bohl could have vetoed the play just like he could any of Vigen’s calls now if he wanted. But that’s not what Bohl does.

“And the quarterback hit his head on the goalpost,” Bohl said, referring to Jensen’s ensuing 5-yard touchdown run that sent the Bison to the national championship game.

Bohl and Vigen have been working together longer than any assistant on Bohl’s staff. A former NDSU player who was already on the Bison’s staff when Bohl was hired there in 2003, Vigen stayed on and was elevated to passing game coordinator and quarterbacks coach before becoming Bohl’s offensive coordinator in 2009.

After 15 years together, Bohl said their relationship is to the point that “we kind of almost know each other’s movements before something happens.” Bohl is in tune with the game plan every week and has a feel for which calls may work and which may not against certain teams in certain situations, but Vigen reiterated that his boss doesn’t interfere.

“I think that’s maybe the biggest thing,” Vigen said. “He’s hands on enough to know that if he doesn’t agree with something or has a suggestion, he’s going to give it on both sides of the ball. At the same time, he’s not going to dictate and tell you what to do. I think he understands as a head coach, there’s a lot of other hats he has to wear.”

Bohl said he understands the significance of not always being second-guessed as an assistant and particularly as a coordinator. He used to be both at Nebraska, where he coached linebackers under Tom Osborne before calling the shots for Frank Solich’s defenses from 2000-02.

“I think it’s important,” Bohl said. “I know as a coordinator, I always appreciated autonomy knowing what framework you had there.”

• • •

Cooper and Richardson have a unique perspective of Bohl’s style having both played for him. Cooper was a tight end at NDSU from 2004-05 while Richardson was a two-year starter at corner from 2007-08.

After a cup of coffee in the Canadian Football League, Richardson returned to finish his degree at NDSU, where Bohl gave him a spot as a student assistant. He moved up to a graduate assistant role before coaching NDSU’s corners from 2012-13.

Whether he’s dealing with a player or a coach, though, Richardson said Bohl’s transparent approach doesn’t change.

“He’s pretty much straightforward with you,” Richardson said. “That’s something in today’s world and society where that’s not necessarily how it is. Everybody tries to sugarcoat a lot of things and don’t tell you exactly how they run their program and how things are. When I came in, what I realized was he tells you where he sees you, and that’s how it is.”

Cooper wasn’t necessarily looking to get into coaching once he was done playing. After being released by the Green Bay Packers during training camp in 2006, Cooper said he planned to finish his criminal justice degree and return to his native Arizona to become a border patrol agent. But Bohl gave Cooper the chance to be a student assistant upon returning to NDSU.

“As I get into it more and more, he mentioned it one day, he was like, ‘You seem like you’re enjoying this,’” Cooper said.

Cooper became a graduate assistant for Bohl and eventually a full-time assistant at NDSU. For Cooper, it was not only the hands-off approach Bohl took but the conviction Bohl had in the process to eventually build a winner that was appealing.

“We have expectations, and they’re very, very clear here,” Cooper said. “This is the expectation of your position group and for you as position coach and for you as a recruiter. And just his ability to see the big picture and not get caught up in the little things. Having a vision of where he wants to take a team each year and then where he wants to take a football program.”

And while Bohl has yet to bring a championship to Wyoming — the Cowboys were close in 2016 when they lost to San Diego State in the Mountain West title game — he’s a strong believer that defense is the key to getting there. The Cowboys could finish in the top 50 in the FBS in yards and points allowed for the third straight season.

That foundation is one of the reasons Dickert decided to rejoin Bohl at the FBS level three years ago after stints as a defensive assistant and coordinator at the FCS and Division II levels.

“You want to be a head coach someday, and you formulate how you want to do it,” Dickert said. “And I always came back to Coach’s style — how we ran it, the importance of defense, the emphasis, kind of how we teach our guys the culture and all of those things.”

• • •

During the season, Haug, whom Bohl promoted to running backs coach before last season, said it’s pretty routine for the coaching staff to work as many 16 hours alongside each other each day. Putting in that many hours means they’re all spending more time with each other than their own family, which is essentially what Bohl and the assistants have become.

“Any time you’re together as much as we are anyway, you feel like that. Let alone year after year after year,” Vigen said. “There’s a bunch of us that have been together for over a decade now. Yeah, I think it becomes much more than just a calling. And I think it makes it that much more special when you have success and you go through the ups and downs and ultimately you come out on the right side of it.”

And like many families, there are disagreements from time to time.

“Those are the times you grow the closest and you learn more and more about each other as a staff and as men,” Richardson said. “The thing is our families all hang out together, too. Our kids do, too. Of course we’re not always going to see things the same way, but at the end of the day, what’s best for our team? We all come to a consensus about it and once it’s final, it’s final. We all run with it.”

Said Bohl, “Sometimes it gets pretty heated, but there’s trust and understanding. I’ve been on staffs before where it was just constant yelling, screaming and arguing. It’s not like that.”

All of Wyoming’s assistants are working with Bohl toward the same objective. At this point, some of them couldn’t envision doing it with someone else.

“I couldn’t imagine working for anybody else,” Haug said. “We just work really well with each other, and he really cares about you as an individual and a staff member.”

Follow UW athletics beat writer Davis Potter on Twitter at @DavisEPotter.

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College Sports Reporter

Davis Potter is the University of Wyoming athletics reporter. An Alabama native and 2011 Auburn University graduate, Potter joined the Star-Tribune in 2018 after five years covering Ole Miss and the Southeastern Conference. He lives in Laramie.

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