Published Wednesday, September 4, 2013 at 9:09 pm / Updated at 9:34 pm
Shatel: Moving on, former Husker coaches thrive
Southern Miss at Nebraska
When: 5 p.m. Saturday
Where: Memorial Stadium
Radio: 1110 AM KFAB

“Yes, Coach Bohl is in. He's expecting your call. Hold, please.”

Craig Bohl. I hadn't heard that voice in more than 10 years.

It was always a friendly voice. When Bohl was linebacker coach and then defensive coordinator at Nebraska, from 1995 to 2002, he was a guy always willing to talk football and everything else. Like hot dogs.

I always remember him talking about going on road trips, and how he liked to come out of the locker room two hours before the game, buy a hot dog and sit in the empty stadium and take it all in.

There is a lot more to talk about with Bohl these days than hot dogs.

Well, maybe not.

“I'd rather not talk about Nebraska or my days at Nebraska,” Bohl said. “Hope you understand.”

Understood. That's another chapter of his life. The pages, the ones with Frank Solich and Colorado, have yellowed and been turned.

What I'm more interested in is the Craig Bohl who picked up the pieces from getting fired at NU in 2002, took the head coaching job at North Dakota State, created a two-time Football Championship Subdivision national champion and became a hot coaching prospect at the ripe age of 55.

How does one go about doing that?

“One thing you learn,” Bohl said, “is to pick up your whistle and keep working.”

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Don't look back. Move forward. That certainly worked for Bohl, who popped back into the news last Friday with a stunning upset of Kansas State.

It's worked for another former Nebraska assistant, too. Guy named Shawn Watson. He was run out of Lincoln after the 2010 season. The negative cloud above Watson was so bad he reportedly put on a hat and glasses to go to the store so he wouldn't be spied.

Look at him now. Watson is a football celebrity, running the offensive machine for eighth-ranked Louisville. He's the guru for Heisman candidate Teddy Bridgewater, who threw for 355 yards and five touchdowns in the Cards' opener against Ohio, coached by Solich. It's either a small world or there are a lot more former Husker coaches out there than there used to be.

Like Bohl, Watson has taken the high road when asked about Nebraska. He's turned down requests from Nebraska media. He knows we're not going to ask about the Kentucky Derby or Rick Pitino's suits.

Watson, always a class act here, was asked about leaving NU at last season's Sugar Bowl. He said, “Just a difference of philosophies. Really, that's about all I want to say about it.”

However, he did add, “You go through a lot at Nebraska and ... the best way to put it is I just wanted to get a peace about the business and coaching. I just wanted to coach.”

Most coaches tell you that if you haven't been fired, you haven't been a coach very long. The business is full of nomads who move around, beat the posse, stay too long, find another chalkboard, another short contract.

The lucky ones fall into something good. Like a football-mad place in Fargo, N.D., willing to make the commitment. Including move up to FCS from Division II.

“I'd always wanted to be a head coach,” Bohl said. “I remember I interviewed for the Oregon State job and Dennis Erickson got it. I had no problem going (to Division II). This is a great program with great people who have a passion for the sport. Being a head coach is a totally different skill set, but it really fit.”

Pick up the whistle, keep moving. You never know what's waiting. Louisville coach Charlie Strong hired Watson in February 2011, the same month that Bridgewater left the Miami Hurricanes because coach Randy Shannon had been let go.

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Watson and Bridgewater clicked. Their bond is what you see on the field. It's not the first time for Watson, who had that relationship with Joel Klatt at Colorado and Joe Ganz at NU. Some on the NU staff said Watson lost his way the last couple of years, got too caught up in his scheme with Zac Lee and then Taylor Martinez. Now, he can see clearly again.

Last year, Watson was mentioned for the Auburn head coaching job. There will likely be more mentions after this season. There's no way anyone could have imagined that after that 2010 Holiday Bowl.

OK, maybe the great philosopher Ron Brown.

“The margin for error is so small,” said Brown, NU's running backs coach. “You see that in the sports world, the acting world, the music world. How many stories are there out there where it looks like a miss, then it's an incredible story somewhere else?”

Brown is a success story, too. He was fired with Solich's staff in 2003 after a long career at NU. He went to work with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in Omaha. He might have thought his coaching career was over. Then Bo Pelini, who was fired along with Brown, got the Nebraska job and brought Brown back.

Brown still talks with Bohl, but hasn't kept up with Watson. He's happy for both. He knows what they went through. He knows what they're feeling.

Getting fired “is hard,” Brown said, “and it's magnified because it's so public. Craig and I were both part of national championship teams. We coached in the (2001) national championship game. Then all of a sudden you're being fired. It's this roller coaster.

“How do you move on? You just do. Resiliency has something to do with it. Belief in what you're doing. There has to be some ground zero, some level thing you come back to for perspective. For me, it's been my faith. But it doesn't make it any easier.”

It can go the other way, too. Brown told the story of Tom Osborne, after the collapse of the 1990 season. Osborne gathered the NU staff, warriors who had been through it all. He told them flatly if they had another job opportunity to take it. Osborne couldn't promise anybody, including himself, would be there the next year.

“He rebounded. He had resiliency,” Brown said. “Everybody just kind of went with him. He made some decisions and led the way.

“That's the beauty of life. That's why we tell our kids, tell our players, don't ever give up. You never know what's around the corner.”

Bohl won't talk about the past. But there's still a lot of Nebraska in him. He's kept those connections. He still visits his parents and other old friends in Lincoln every year. He's always got several Nebraska kids on his roster. And anyone who saw the Bison's final, hammer-and-nail game-winning drive at K-State last Friday saw a drive right out of the Osborne playbook. Confidence, guts and efficiency.

No surprise there. Bohl used the Osborne playbook to get back on his feet 10 years ago.

“Coach Osborne really helped me back then,” Bohl said. “He taught me the importance of looking forward, improving every day. He said things may not go well in your life, but it's an opportunity to improve as a person. If you stay bitter, it just gets in the way of what you could be doing. Of something better.”

You could say that getting fired might be one of the best things to happen to Bohl, and to Watson. But that's not true. Getting fired is not the blessing. Picking up the whistle and moving on? That's it.

Just one more question, coach. How are the hot dogs in the FCS?

“I don't eat those anymore,” Bohl said. “As you get older, you try to be healthier.”

He's not getting older, he's getting better.

* * *

Video: "The Big Ten Preview Show"

Contact the writer: Tom Shatel    |   402-444-1025    |  

Tom Shatel is a sports columnist who covers the city, regional and state scene.



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