Last year, North Dakota State head coach Craig Bohl did what Alabama's Nick Saban couldn't: He won his third straight national championship.
The term "dynasty" gets thrown around at the slightest hint of a three-peat these days, and for good reason. Including Bohl, only a handful of coaches at any level of college football have accomplished that feat. Legendary Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne didn't get it done. Bear Bryant never did it, either, as a consensus champion. Saban came close, winning BCS titles with the Crimson Tide in 2010, 2012 and 2013, but the one in between eluded him.
With his 2011-2013 FCS championship trifecta, Bohl, joined the ranks of Jerry Moore (Appalachian State), Bob Reade (Augustana), Lance Leipold (Wisconsin-Whitewater), Larry Kehres (Mount Union) and Mike Van Diest (Carroll), cementing himself among coaches in the modern era with at least three straight national titles. And Bohl went through the FCS playoffs to get it done.
In 11 seasons as the Bison's head coach, Bohl won 104 games, highlighted by those three consecutive national titles.
Since the end of the 2013 regular season, two of the main architects of the Bison dynasty have departed. On Dec. 8, Wyoming named Bohl its new head coach. In June, former athletic director Gene Taylor announced he was taking a deputy AD job at Iowa.
It's been a time of transition for North Dakota State ever since, but that doesn't mean fans are giving up on the "four-peat" just yet.
"The pressure is to go out and find the next Nick Saban," said Taylor.
Little about North Dakota State gives the impression of a stepping-stone job—other than it doesn't compete at the highest level of college football. The program enjoys a passionate fanbase that ranked among the best in Division I Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) attendance in 2013.
It has a stable administration that constantly supports its athletics program through funding and facility improvement. Above all, the Bison have had steady success with 11 national championships.
Under new head coach Chris Klieman, the Bison are looking to maintain their success. From a stunning upset over Kansas State in 2013 to an appearance on ESPN's College GameDay, few football programs at the FCS level have received the kind of exposure in recent years that North Dakota State has.
"When we talk about someone leaving, whether it’s me or Craig, it’s not about the individual," Taylor said. "Do you have a culture for winning and success? Do you have a culture that people want to support?
"That was in place long before I was at North Dakota State."
A Turnaround from Humble Beginnings
North Dakota State wasn't always a powerhouse. It's easy to imagine a small program from Fargo, North Dakota, offering little to college football.
Before the first wave of championships began at the Division II level in the 1960s (1965, '68 and '69), North Dakota State hadn't had a coach with a winning record since before World War II.
But then came head coach Darrell Mudra (went on to coach at Arizona and Florida State) who guided the Bison to their first Division II title. Ron Erhardt, who would later coach the NFL's New England Patriots, succeeded Mudra and won another two. Then came another four in the 1980s (1983, '85, '86 and '88) with Don Morton, Earle Solomonson and Rocky Hager.
The program established itself as one of the consistent powers in Division II. Its next challenge was to conquer Division I.
In 2004, early on in Taylor's tenure as AD, the university moved up to what was then known as Division I-AA. It was a risky move that not every program made successfully. There are more strenuous financial obligations, including more scholarships (36 to 63) to support.
Furthermore, NDSU wasn't sure what conference it would be joining. Keeping boosters, coaches and recruits confident in the future was difficult.
"The NCAA had come up with a new set of rules because a lot of schools were moving up [to Division I], and they weren’t ready. Financially, they were struggling," Taylor said. "So the NCAA said you get a five-year probationary period. You don’t get to compete for championships, share in NCAA money, can’t win a conference championship.
"There was a lot of anxiety during that time."
Not to mention a coaching change. The program was trending down under Bob Babich, so Taylor hired Bohl. Because of the NCAA restrictions, the Bison weren't able to compete in the Division I playoff despite winning 10 games in 2006 and 2007.
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Every program boasts about the team-oriented players it recruits. However, with no opportunity for a championship, the players who transitioned the Bison to Division I did so knowing they were only there to lay the groundwork.
They would not be able to hang championship banners next to the ones from the '60s and '80s.
"They didn’t get a chance to do that," Taylor lamented, "but they helped build us to where we are today."
That would soon change, however. By 2010, the Bison were competing in the Division I playoffs. The three-peat title run began the following year.
Establishing the Attitude
Defense is a source of pride for North Dakota State, which, dating back to the Hager era, has exclusively hired defensive-minded head coaches.
In 2011, Klieman joined Bohl's coaching staff as a defensive backs coach following a successful stint at another FCS power, Northern Iowa, where he was the defensive coordinator. In 2012, he took over the same responsibilities with the Bison.
"You have to take chances. You have to continue to network. You have to continue to better yourself and challenge yourself as a coach," Klieman said. "It was time for a new challenge."
Klieman is an Iowa native and a Midwestern guy familiar with the Missouri Valley Football Conference, formerly the Gateway Conference. There's an attitude in the region, he says, that favors sound defense and good field position.
Klieman, like so many coaches at North Dakota State before him, is rooted in that mantra. North Dakota State had a stout defense in 2013, allowing just 11.3 points per game.
In each of Klieman's three years in Fargo, the Bison have led the nation in scoring defense.
Minor things change from coach to coach, like blitz or personnel packages. The overall model, however, remains the same. The Bison practice hard and play hard with the goal of wearing down their opponents.
That starts with workouts. Of all the hires Klieman made, none were more important than keeping strength and conditioning coach Jim Kramer.
"He was the No. 1 focal point," Klieman said. "I know Craig was trying to get him at Wyoming, and we were trying to keep him.
"Jim loves it here. He has a great bond with our players. They’re with the strength coach 12 months out of the year."
It was Klieman's biggest recruiting victory. New Washington coach Chris Petersen echoed that sentiment, telling Greg Bishop of Sports Illustrated about the importance of hiring good strength coaches:
They're everything. Finally people are starting to figure out how valuable [strength and conditioning coaches] are. They're starting to get paid better. I mean, they probably spend, and I don't even think it's a probably, they do spend more time than myself or the assistants with these kids. That was my first hire, and probably my most important.
Kramer is one of the many people who have molded the program that has defeated a Football Bowl Subdivision team each of the last four years, including last year's stunning upset of Kansas State.
At 74 years old, Kansas State coach Bill Snyder is still a living box score.
"We had a good offensive line last year," he said at Big 12 media days. "We averaged about four or five yards per rush."
"Against North Dakota State," he continued, "we averaged about 1.8 yards per rush."
North Dakota State's offense was just as impressive. The Bison had just one drive in the fourth quarter, but they made it count. An 18-play, 80-yard grinder that lasted 8:30 resulted in the go-ahead touchdown with 28 seconds left.
On the very next play, linebacker Grant Olson intercepted Kansas State quarterback Jake Waters, sealing the upset. The Bison had toppled the reigning Big 12 champs.
The Manhattan crowd, which just hours before watched an unveiling of Snyder's statue outside of the stadium named for the legendary coach, was blindsided.
How was it possible?
The Bison's fourth-quarter dominance revealed a universal truth about football, no matter the level: Good teams are excellent in the trenches since everything that happens on both sides of the ball before, during and after the snap begins right there.
"Everyone would say we’re a running team. I would say we’re 50-50 balanced team when games are not in doubt," Klieman said. "Once the game is in hand, then we’re probably 80 percent run/quick passes to try and wear someone down."
Recruiting has to match that philosophy. The Bison coaching staffs have historically tried to recruit the big Midwestern prospects you'd expect to find in places like Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa. Even in-state recruiting is a priority.
"We have to win in the State of North Dakota," Klieman said.
There are other places that Klieman calls auxiliary recruiting grounds: Kansas City, St. Louis, Florida and Arizona. The roster is sprinkled with players from those areas.
Almost all of the players were overlooked elsewhere, usually by Big Ten schools. They're an inch or two short, a hair slow in their 40 time, but they can play. And the coaching staff knows how and where to find them.
"If you have a guy who comes in and says he wants to build his program with a bunch of D-I and JUCO transfers, that changes your culture," Taylor said. "If you quit recruiting your base, that changes your culture."
The Bison have no intention of changing that.
Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss
Even through coaching and administrative changes, North Dakota has been able to remain largely the same. That's easier said than done.
Consider that Pitt once had three different head coaches in the span of a year: Dave Wannstedt, Mike Haywood and Todd Graham in 2010-11.
Bohl declined to be interviewed, but Wyoming released a statement to Bleacher Report. "Craig had a great time while he was the head coach of the Bison and has so many great friends still there," it read. "But he feels it is best for NDSU that he let them move forward and build their program without him commenting on the program now that he has left."
Sure, playbooks will be modified, as they are every year. But, most importantly, the players who were a part of three national championships remained the same.
"I told our guys, 'We’ve changed a lot of coaches, but we haven’t changed you players,'" Klieman said. "It's still your football team."
Retention rate is of the utmost importance. No matter how good North Dakota State has been, scholarship limitations mean less depth. Some players never receive full scholarships like they would in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
There simply isn't as large a margin for error when it comes to attrition as there is at the highest division of college football.
It takes leadership to keep the retention rate high. "We have great seniors. There just aren't as many," Klieman said. "But they were freshmen when we won our first national championship. They weren't the stars, but they've seen how a successful season goes."
Taylor and Klieman preached, almost verbatim, that buying into a culture is what breeds success. North Dakota State's culture has been about finding regional high school players who have a chip on their shoulder. "You have to understand who you are," Taylor said.
It's paid dividends. The Bison have been picked to win the Missouri Valley Football Conference this season despite the coaching change. A season opener against Iowa State is another winnable game against an FBS opponent. A victory against the Cyclones would only boost recruiting for Klieman and his staff.
As if North Dakota State needed more help. Summer camps are nearing 1,000 prospects per session. The brand of Bison football is as good as its ever been. The future is undeniably bright.
Still, it's hard not to look back at what has been an unthinkable journey. Klieman let out a chuckle as though he was still in a state of disbelief.
"Last year was a special year."
Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football at Bleacher Report. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
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