FREMONT, Neb. — It was Wednesday morning and I was in search of Craig Bohl. So I headed up to see his old friend Jeff Jamrog.
Bohl comes to Lincoln, back home, this week as Wyoming football coach. He grew up in Lincoln, played for Nebraska and then coached the Huskers.
And then was fired by the Huskers.
This is Bohl’s first time back in Lincoln since that 2002 season. It’s not exactly the prodigal son returning. But is it closer to the bitter son coming home? The vengeful son?
Earlier this week, Bohl told an ESPN.com reporter he has no hard feelings. “I learned a long time ago that it’s about the players and staying focused on the task at hand,” he said. “A lot of my colleagues are probably in the same situation I’m in, and you get to be pretty darn compartmentalized. That’s the real focus.
“I do track a score, and Mike Riley is a friend of mine … so in passing you track. OK, you look at the ticker and Nebraska won. I saw some plays last year where they beat Michigan State and I saw their bowl game, so that’s exciting.
“But as far as really diving in and having a heartbeat like you are part of the state or part of the coaching staff? It’s really not that way.”
I grew to know Bohl when he followed Charlie McBride as defensive coordinator for Frank Solich in 2000. He was a good man to talk football with, a big-picture guy who could get introspective. Before each game, home or away, he would leave the locker room, buy a hot dog and go sit on a bleacher in the empty stadium and soak it all in.
I don’t believe Bohl is bitter or out for revenge this week. And that’s good. Because there’s no reason.
As of Oct. 27, 2001, when No. 3 Nebraska beat No. 2 Oklahoma, Bohl was doing a nice job. But then came the avalanche in Boulder. And blowout defeats in 2002 to Penn State, Iowa State and Kansas State. Another loss to Colorado ended the regular season at 7-6. The collective hair of Husker Nation was on fire.
Bohl was fired along with longtime secondary coach George Darlington and defensive ends coach Nelson Barnes.
NU had several issues: Solich was learning how to run a program, the dynasty coaching staff looked tired and recruiting had slipped.
Solich was suddenly on the hot seat and threw Athletic Director Bill Byrne a bone. Bohl looked overmatched. He was an easy scapegoat.
One of the assistants who was spared: Jeff Jamrog.
A year later, Solich was fired by Steve Pederson, and Jamrog and almost everyone else on staff was looking for work.
Historians will debate the merit of that domino move, but one piece of history is solid: Bohl made out great.
He took over as head coach at North Dakota State. And while Nebraskans rolled their eyes, Bohl was preparing to show what he had learned while playing and coaching under Tom Osborne. He won three straight FCS national championships at NDSU.
He became a hot commodity. He reportedly was offered jobs in Power Five leagues — bottom-feeding, coach-killing jobs — and smartly turned them down.
Bohl said yes to Wyoming, a place with football history, a place where coaches have won and moved up to jobs where you can win more.
It’s been 14 years since Bohl was fired from Nebraska. Solich won the Big 12 and coached for a national championship. But of all the former Osborne assistants who became head coaches in that time, one could argue that Bohl has been the best of them all.
He ended up better than most who get fired. He found his coaching “fit.” Or, as Jamrog says, he found a good door.
“One door closes and another one will open,” Jamrog said.
The occupation of college coaches has more doors than a hotel. And that’s not a bad analogy, because college coaches are smart to rent, not buy.
When Bohl signed up with Osborne, long-term stability was the norm in Lincoln. But then NU began to resemble most programs in college football.
Tell Jamrog. The Elkhorn Mount Michael kid was a walk-on for Osborne in the mid-’80s. And then he got into coaching. And house-hunting.
Jamrog has been an assistant at South Dakota, UNO, New Mexico State, Nebraska and Western Illinois, head coach at Minnesota State and then back to NU as director of operations for Bo Pelini.
He’s been on staffs fired three times, including both stints at NU — after winning 10 and nine games.
After Shawn Eichorst dropped the guillotine two years ago, Jamrog didn’t pout. He got busy. He was in line to be Jim Harbaugh’s director of operations at Michigan, until Harbaugh hired a high school coach in Ohio who, according to Jamrog, had a couple of five-star players.
Last year was Jamrog’s first outside a stadium. He was the finance director for a car dealership in Lincoln.
Then the head football job at Midland University opened up.
One door closes, another opens.
This impressive campus in the middle of Fremont — an NAIA school with 24 total scholarships — looks like Jamrog’s perfect fit. He’s spent years recruiting Nebraska kids, with contacts at countless eastern and northern Nebraska high schools. He’s been a small-college head coach. He has former Huskers Mike Caputo and P.J. Smith on his staff. Former Nebraska football recruiting coordinator Dave Gillespie is the athletic director.
Life in the small football building is another world from Lincoln.
The coaches’ offices are down the hall from the locker room. Sitting squarely in the middle of one section of lockers is a pool table.
“That’s our players’ lounge,” Jamrog said.
Jamrog’s office is huge, but it has to be, to have room for the giant couch and chairs and conference table. This is where Jamrog brings recruits and has staff meetings. All in one room.
It’s a place to coach football. For a coach, paradise.
“One door closes and another one will open,” Jamrog said. “It’s not on your terms. You pray at night and you hope it will turn out.
“Things happen for a reason. You have to put things in perspective. God doesn’t care if you’re coaching at Midland or Nebraska. It’s about making a difference in young men’s lives.”
Jamrog, who was defensive line coach for Bohl at NU, keeps in touch. They still trade texts. Last year, Jamrog stopped in Laramie and got a tour of the facilities.
He’s not surprised that Bohl grew into the star that he is today.
“You could tell he thought like a CEO,” Jamrog said. “He’s an outside-the-box thinker.
“He’s taken the blueprint of Nebraska and coach Osborne to North Dakota State and Wyoming. He’s going to get a lot of reps. One time, he moved a kicker to defensive line in practice because they were a man down, and he was going to make sure they got the same amount of snaps.
“I know he had some opportunities for bigger jobs and turned them down, because he felt he couldn’t win there and he didn’t think it would be a good fit. In Laramie, the hard-nosed and ruggedness fits perfectly for Craig.”
Bohl went through another door and found his fit. That’s why Jamrog thinks Bohl won’t harbor any bad feelings when he walks back through the Nebraska door on Saturday.
“He’s long past it,” Jamrog said. “Initially if you lose your job, there’s anger. But you have to get past that quick. It’s a job where most people move on. I don’t think Craig lives in the past. The success he’s had alleviates some of the feelings, too.”
Jamrog said he knows of a Division I assistant who makes “a lot of money but is miserable” because he’s in a dysfunctional program. The guy is thinking about getting out of coaching.
“To me, to be able to get up every day and be excited about what the day is going to bring, that’s a good place to be at,” Jamrog said. “And have a chance to win.”
That’s the Craig Bohl who will return to Memorial Stadium on Saturday. Coach. Survivor. And really good at both.