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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NDSU's Bohl stays the course

FRISCO, Texas -- Phil and Roberta Bohl, 75-year-olds who have been married for 56 years, got reacquainted with Interstate 35 on their drive this week to Texas.

Craig Bohl
NDSU football coach Craig Bohl (Forum file photo)

FRISCO, Texas -- Phil and Roberta Bohl, 75-year-olds who have been married for 56 years, got reacquainted with Interstate 35 on their drive this week to Texas.

"We've been down this road so many times, I think we saw some of the same barns that were there years ago," Phil said, hours after they arrived here in Frisco on Wednesday afternoon.

Years ago, the Bohls would travel this road from their home in Lincoln, Neb., to watch their son play or coach for the University of Nebraska football team. They rarely missed a game.

But for the last nine years, the road has taken them north to Fargo where their son is now the head coach for the North Dakota State football team that will play for a Football Championship Subdivision national title today. During those years, the Bohls have missed only one Bison game (home and away), and that was because a hurricane prevented them from traveling to Louisiana.

The Bohls have followed every step of their son's football career, ever since he was a most valuable player for a Pop Warner League team in Lincoln, ever since he decided to walk on and play football at Nebraska, ever since he became an assistant coach at Nebraska and ever since he was named the 29th head coach at NDSU back in 2003.

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The road for Craig Bohl has had its ups and downs -- from being a hard-working but seldom-used cornerback for Nebraska teams that played in an Orange Bowl and Cotton Bowl to suffering what amounted to a career-ending injury, from being an assistant coach for Nebraska teams that won two national titles to being fired as a defensive coordinator only one year after appearing in a national championship game.

"It was gut-check time," Bohl said. "That was really hard when you get let go at a school that you grew up with and adored. At that time, I kept wondering what was I going to do?"

What Bohl has done has resurrected a tradition-rich Bison program into a national power once again. And he did it while NDSU was making the transition from Division II to tougher competition at the FCS level.

"I know Craig had this vision of being here in Texas," Phil said. "And by golly, he got it done."

Injury leads to coaching

As an 11-year-old growing up in Lincoln, Bohl and his buddies routinely squeezed through a fence at Nebraska's Memorial Stadium and hid in the bathrooms before the gates officially opened on game days. Illegally, they became part of the 80,000 fans that have filled the stadium for decades.

Bohl and his buddies would often work their way to the sideline, where they collected discarded chin straps from Nebraska greats like Jerry Tagge and Johnny Rodgers.

"I don't think we'd get away with that today ... security was a lot different back then," Bohl said.

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Back then, Bohl was the oldest of two children for Phil and Roberta -- who both worked for the telephone company in Lincoln. Roberta was an operator. Phil worked his way up the ladder from a linesman to a management position.

"My dad was a blue-collar type of guy," Bohl said. "He was up at 6 a.m. every morning ready to go to work."

It must have rubbed off.

"Craig was always a hard worker," Phil said.

Especially in football, his favorite sport. Bohl had a scholarship offer to play football at the Air Force Academy. His dad was in the Air Force. But Bohl decided to walk on at Nebraska.

"I was not a gifted player," Bohl said.

"He was a good player, a good athlete but didn't have that blazing speed," said Tom Osborne, the legendary coach at Nebraska who won three national championships. "But he was a hard worker."

Osborne, who compiled 255 wins at Nebraska from 1973 to 1997, clearly remembers the day when Bohl broke two bones in his leg during practice when he was a redshirt sophomore in 1978.

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"A blocker hit him below the knees," Osborne said. "I remember that to this day. It was a fairly serious injury."

Bohl said his outstretched hands missed the blocker and his helmet.

"It sounded like a gun shooting off when he hit my leg," said Bohl, who after being in a cast for eight months, returned to the team for two more years. "But my playing time was very limited."

Bohl suffered a shoulder injury his senior year. That's when Osborne asked Bohl if he would be interested in coaching Nebraska's freshman team.

"Ever since then, I have not gone to work a single day in my life," Bohl said with a smirk. "I know I felt much more comfortable coaching than playing."

The Tom Osborne influence

To this day, Bohl often credits Osborne for his success -- which at NDSU has been 74 wins, only 17 shy of Rocky Hager's school record.

Osborne established a process that he rarely wavered from, even during some 9-3 seasons which were considered down years at Nebraska back then. He stressed the value of hard work. He developed a coaching staff that became cohesive. He recruited area kids with work ethic and sprinkled in some speed and blue-chip talent from around the country.

"All those things we brought here (NDSU)," Bohl said. "It's a carbon copy."

"That's quite flattering," Osborne said. "Craig knows football and he is a very hard worker. Those are two things that are critical to being a successful coach."

Even after a 3-8 record just two seasons ago at NDSU, Bohl relied on the things he learned from Osborne. Bohl said he made some tough, long-term decisions in cleaning up a program littered with players getting in trouble with the law or grades. He dismissed and suspended several top-notch players, including running back Sam Ojuri, who has since cleaned up his act and is one of the leading rushers for this year's team.

Gene Taylor, NDSU's athletic director who hired Bohl, sees that same even-keel, no-panic demeanor in Bohl as he saw in Osborne. But he also saw enthusiasm, even during his job interview.

"He stands up and pretends to get under center," Taylor recalled. "He's really getting into this description, with sweat coming off of his bald head. I just loved that enthusiasm. The kind of pushed him to the top of our list."

Happy at a different level

About the time Bohl was fired as Nebraska's defensive coordinator, he went through a divorce. Now remarried at the age of 53, Bohl's three children from his first marriage will be at today's game.

Morgan, a junior at Nebraska, is interning in the athletic department. Mallory is on track to get her physical therapy degree at Nebraska Wesleyan. Aaron, a senior at Lincoln East, wants to play college football, possibly at Minnesota State Moorhead.

"He doesn't quite have the quickness for the Missouri Valley," Bohl said. "It just shows there is a level for everybody."

Once at the premier level of college football, Bohl has now found a home at the FCS level. He left Nebraska with a $207,000 payment. At NDSU, he has a base salary of $196,668 but with incentives that could push his deal over $300,000. He received $10,000 for winning the Missouri Valley Conference title. He received $15,000 for hosting three playoff games. And he could get $15,000 for winning today's game.

"The big time, the shining lights, it's not all what it's cracked up to be," Bohl said.

Phil and Roberta agree. Instead of flying a Nebraska flag in front of their Lincoln home, they now hang NDSU's green and yellow colors -- mistaken by numerous neighbors for Notre Dame.

"I remember asking Craig after he was let go at Nebraska if he was sure he wanted to keep coaching," Roberta said. "He told me 'yes, mom, I do.' I'm glad he did. He's working with good people and good program. He seems happy."

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