FARGO — It was their first shot at a Division I Football Championship Subdivision national title and for the 2011 North Dakota State coaching staff, there was no guarantee they would get another chance at it. So, it seemed, every waking hour was spent on football.
The defensive coaches spent so much time analyzing title-game opponent Sam Houston State that no snap went unnoticed.
“Not that we’re not doing that now,” said Bison defensive line coach Nick Goeser, “but you watch every play and you do everything possible because you never know how many opportunities you’ll have to play for a national championship.”
Nine years later, NDSU will be playing for its eighth FCS national title when the Bison play James Madison on Jan. 11 in Frisco, Texas. That first trip, however, was a breakthrough moment just for the fact NDSU had never done it before.
“We had great coordinators and a great group of guys,” Goeser said of the staff. “We had great camaraderie within that staff. We had a lot of competitive guys but when it came time to come together, I felt like we were pulling in the same direction and that was all about winning football games.”
Goeser and Tyler Roehl, who was an offensive assistant in 2011, are the only remaining coaches on the current Bison staff.
Former head coach Craig Bohl left NDSU after the 2013 season and remains the head coach at Wyoming, where he has a 36-40 record with three bowl appearances. Like they were at NDSU, his offensive coordinator is still Brent Vigen and his defensive ends assistant is A.J. Cooper. Defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton has that same position at Kansas State, where he works under head coach Chris Klieman.
“I remember sitting in a meeting room watching hours and hours of film with coach Hazelton,” Goeser said. “We did whatever we could to prepare out guys as best as possible.”
Klieman was the Bison defensive backs assistant in 2011. Offensive line coach Scott Fuchs has that same role at FBS University of Buffalo. Running backs/special teams coach Tim Polasek is the offensive line coach at the University of Iowa.
Wide receivers coach Kenni Burns is the assistant head coach/running backs coach at the University of Minnesota.
All of the FBS coaches worked in bowl games this year and most were successful. Buffalo, Iowa, Minnesota and Wyoming won their games. Kansas State, meanwhile, dropped a tight decision to Navy.
Polasek said the base of change started after the 2009 season that ended with a 3-8 record. It was a year that saw several players disciplined for a variety of reasons and although the Bison were in most of the games, it was evident that the ship was not headed in the right direction.
Bohl took the steering wheel and turned it starting with a double-repping system in practice. In essence, it meant an offense vs. defense situation on both sides of the field instead of half the team standing around watching the starters.
It made for more work for the assistants, who had to grade on film both practice sessions going on simultaneously.
“That’s when he totally made the commitment to say, OK, I believe in double repping, I’m not sure why I haven’t done it before but I’m going to do it now,” Polasek said.
Bohl also made a change in the philosophy of his staff. Instead of hiring assistants from the FBS, most of whom were recently released and looking for a place to land, he went the other direction. In the case of Goeser, he hired a Division II assistant from Minnesota-Duluth in 2010.
A year later, he got Klieman from fellow Missouri Valley Football Conference rival Northern Iowa to move to Fargo.
“I’ll say this, coach Bohl’s plan was coming to fruition,” Polasek said. “It was so clear and obvious we were on the upswing. He was totally committed to what everybody refers to as the culture now. I feel so strongly that it started with the bond of the players and (Bohl’s) plan was so clear. There was a unique clarity coming off of the 2009 season and the plan that was moving forward. And 2011 was a culmination of that effort.”
It only took until the third game of the season to see the results. That’s when the Bison were the better team in a 37-24 victory at Minnesota. NDSU won its first six Valley games and a 27-24 loss against Youngstown State at the Fargodome in the seventh game would prove to be the only loss that season.
The Bison took the No. 2 overall seed into postseason in a bracket that included Georgia Southern and Appalachian State. NDSU began its quest to Frisco with a 26-14 win in the second round over James Madison. That was followed by a 24-0 shutout of Lehigh in the quarterfinals and a 35-7 win over Georgia Southern in the semifinals.
The Georgia Southern win was perhaps a defining week for the defensive coaching staff, which got very little sleep in trying to prepare for the GSU triple-option attack. NDSU hadn’t seen a triple option since 2008.
“It was tough,” Bohl said after the game. “It stresses you a lot, because it’s a different style of football. There was a lot of stress that went into it.”