Photo by Hillary Ehlen
It almost seems impossible that someone could improve upon everything that Craig Bohl did for North Dakota State football. Coach Bohl arrived in 2003 to an NDSU program making the move to Division I and a program that had gone just 2-8 in Division II.
Bohl turned around the program immediately with two consecutive 8-3 campaigns. NDSU wasn’t used to losing in football, and Bohl quickly eliminated it.
The former defensive coordinator at Nebraska soon elevated North Dakota State to the top of the FCS. NDSU had 10-1 seasons in 2006 and 2007 and likely would have challenged for the FCS championship if North Dakota State had been eligible for the playoffs.
After very rough sledding in NDSU’s first two playoff eligible seasons, Bohl had a four-year run in which he went 14-1 in the playoffs, leading to winning three National Championships. Bohl also started NDSU’s dominance over the FBS. North Dakota State defeated Ball State, Minnesota, Central Michigan, Kansas, Minnesota again, Colorado State and Kansas State, all on the road, in Bohl’s time with NDSU.
Then on a cold winter night after a playoff win, Bohl was gone. Bruce Feldman reported that the head coach was leaving for Wyoming to take up the same position. The players found out on social media. It was a mess.
NDSU AD Gene Taylor made an expedited decision to call defensive coordinator Chris Klieman up the ranks of head coach. Klieman had only been with the program since 2011 and had one season of head coaching experience. It was a losing season at the Division III level no less.
Taylor said in the press conference introducing Klieman to his new job as Kansas State’s head coach that when he hired Klieman, he reminded him, “If you go 8-3 here and make the playoffs, that’s a bad season.” Klieman understood and promised more championships.
Here we are in 2018, and Klieman has delivered on that promise three times. If North Dakota State advances on to win the national championship in Frisco in January, he’ll exceed Bohl in that way. Win or lose, though, somehow Klieman has left this place even better than he found it.
The wins and losses are about the same. While those are how success in football is ultimately measured, there are also ways that you can see where Klieman has actually elevated Bohl’s program, which he now hands over to Matt Entz.
The easiest place to look is kind of in my domain: recruiting. It’s no secret that I work for 247 Sports’ BisonReport. Since Klieman took over the program and elevated Hank Jacobs to be in charge of his recruiting efforts, the Bison have secured commitments from Ben Ellefson over Purdue, Sean Engel and Lane Tucker over Wyoming, Dillon Radunz over Missouri, Trey Lance over Boise State, Sam Moore over Iowa and Noah Gindorff over Minnesota.
As of this writing, North Dakota State has five three-star athletes committed, including one player who chose NDSU over, oddly enough, Kansas State. If I’d have told you that in 2003 during the first few Craig Bohl seasons, you’d want me checked for a head injury.
NDSU is in a position now with their product on the field that FBS teams will hardly schedule them anymore. What used to be a year-to-year occurrence did not happen in 2017 or 2018 and won’t occur again until their matchup with Oregon in 2020. Klieman and Bohl basically have the big boys running scared.
Maybe more than anything, Klieman elevated the program simply by succeeding. It sounds simplistic, but just by winning and keeping a good thing going, Klieman transformed Craig Bohl’s Division I NDSU program into Bison football.
Just because NDSU’s incredible streak of national championships technically stopped when Klieman was the head coach in 2016 doesn’t mean it was some ultimate failure. In fact, the success he maintained is kind of unprecedented. Bohl’s two 10-1 teams headed by Walker, Mays and Dahl ultimately required 6-5, 3-8 and 7-4 seasons to rebuild. Klieman and his crew (which included Entz in a big way) went from Jensen, Crockett, Jirik and Dudzik to Stick, Anderson, DeLuca and Grimsley without anything but a single James Madison hiccup.
Bison football doesn’t belong to Bohl, just as it doesn’t truly belong to Klieman. It’s now a culture that survives almost on its own. The athletic department has ownership. The players have ownership. The fans have ownership. The coaches, of course, have ownership, but everyone has a stake in the team’s success.
Matt Entz now takes over a program that has proven it can win no matter who the head man is. That certainly doesn’t make Entz superfluous. Whether the Bison succeed or don’t over the next decade is going to have a lot to do with the decisions he makes and the quality of his leadership. He’s set up for success, though. North Dakota State is now the most well-oiled machine in college football.