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Patience was a virtue for Brent Vigen in becoming a head coach

Longtime Bison assistant made calculated steps in getting the top Montana State job.

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Montana State head football coach Brent Vigen chats with offensive lineman Taylor Tuiasosopo after practice on Thursday, Jan. 6, 2022, at the Toyota Stadium complex in Frisco, Texas.
David Samson/The Forum

FRISCO, Texas — Tick. Tick. Tick. Brent Vigen in the last couple of years could feel his head coaching clock moving, faster than it ever did. Assistant coaches don’t get younger in college football and Vigen was perhaps getting an itchy finger to pull the trigger on becoming a head coach.

Those thoughts go back several years, even to 2013 when Craig Bohl went from North Dakota State to Wyoming. Vigen, a Bison assistant since Bob Babich hired him as a graduate assistant in 1998, was approached about taking over for Bohl.

But he went with him to Wyoming as the offensive coordinator, grooming more experience at the FBS level.

“That was my main reason for that choice,” Vigen said.

But by the end of the 2020 season, he had been an assistant for 22 years.

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“Probably more urgency,” Vigen said of taking the next step. “I wasn’t as young as I once was but I was still looking for the right opportunity.”

Gradually, that opportunity started to unfold at Montana State. Vigen was familiar with the Bobcats when NDSU faced them in the 2005 regular season and the 2010 playoffs. Like NDSU and Wyoming, it’s a Land Grant institution with a long history of caring about football.

Former head coach Jeff Choate built MSU into a playoff-contending program and that included beating rival Montana four straight seasons. When word reached Laramie, Wyo., that Boise State was interviewing Choate for the head coach position (he later went to Texas as an assistant), Vigen’s ears perked up.

“If that comes up,” Vigen remembers thinking, “that is one I would want to pursue. It has all the elements I’m looking for.”

What elements? Vigen saw a program that drew good crowds at Bobcat Stadium. He researched the university and saw a school that was growing. He researched Bozeman and saw a town that was also growing.

He researched the administration, specifically president Waded Cruzado and athletic director Leon Costello, and liked what he saw. He went for it. On the flip side, Costello was looking for somebody to maintain a certain culture that Choate started.

He made note of Vigen’s success at the FCS level and at Wyoming, which was a train going the wrong way when Bohl took over. Costello liked that Vigen grew up in a coaching family; his father Randy Vigen was a longtime head coach and athletic director at Central Valley High School.

“In any transition there are going to be some obstacles you have to overcome,” Costello said. “But this transition went as smoothly as any of us could have imagined and I think that speaks a lot to Brent. It speaks to how he put together a team and how he leads.”

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The fact Vigen was never a head coach didn’t deter Costello, who said, “If you’re a coach, you’re a coach.” He knew he had a coach who could navigate through the FCS playoff system because he did that at NDSU.

And on Friday in Frisco, Vigen was participating in the customary pregame press conference for the Division I FCS national title game on Saturday at Toyota Stadium. The kid from Buxton, N.D., has taken a program on the doorstep and knocked the door down to Frisco.

As the head guy.

“You’re pulling different strings, I know that,” he said. “This trip in particular with the uptick of COVID, that’s probably worried me as much as anything. I’m more worried about stuff like that than what plays are going to be called. I think a lot about how you do things down here is how you plan for it. Obviously I had a real good road map and think our players and coaches have followed that. You have a different view of things.”

The Bobcats are 12-2, losing only 19-16 at Wyoming and the one flop of the season in a defeat at Montana. But MSU put that behind it and rallied its season in the playoffs beating Tennessee Martin 26-7, defending champion Sam Houston 42-19 and South Dakota State 31-17.

“I equate us to where we were in 2010 and ‘11 (at NDSU) a little bit, maybe on the cusp of doing more,” Vigen said.

He’s taken a lot of his style from Bohl, such as taking more of a CEO role and letting his assistants coach.

“Let them do their job,” Vigen said. “There are so many things to running a program that are necessary from a head coach’s perspective.”

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Like Vigen, NDSU’s Matt Entz was a longtime assistant before becoming a head coach for the first time in 2019. Like Vigen, he led his team to the national title game.

“Kudos to him, it’s much more difficult than I think people think,” Entz said. “All of a sudden, you’re a lifelong assistant, you’re looking at things through different-colored glasses, and now to be the guy in front of the room trying to lead your players and staff and sell the vision every day, there is a different set of demands.”

Vigen was in the Toyota Stadium press box in his previous three trips as the NDSU offensive coordinator. He’ll be on the field for the first time Saturday. The kid who watched his dad coach football as a ball boy or a statistician will be on the national stage.

“I know him being a coach and me being around his teams without question was my biggest influence in becoming a coach,” Brent said. “His influence is hard to quantify, but it’s pretty dang special.”

Jeff would like to dispel the notion he was around when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, but he is on his third decade of reporting with Forum Communications. The son of a reporter and an English teacher, and the brother of a reporter, Jeff has worked at the Jamestown Sun, Bismarck Tribune and since 1990 The Forum, where he's covered North Dakota State athletics since 1995.
Jeff has covered all nine of NDSU's Division I FCS national football titles and has written three books: "Horns Up," "North Dakota Tough" and "Covid Kids." He is the radio host of "The Golf Show with Jeff Kolpack" April through August.
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