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Craig Bohl retires from UW football and leaves a legacy of consistency

What are your thoughts regarding Governor Gordon’s State of The State Address?
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What are your thoughts regarding Governor Gordon’s State of The State Address?

Ride for the brand. Cowboy tough. Those are trademark slogans of University of Wyoming (UW) football, and Craig Bohl understood the meaning of those words from the moment he was hired in 2013.

“I also understand how important football is in the fabric of this institution,” he said at a press conference 10 years ago. “Not only this institution, but around the state. Whether you're in Sheridan, Casper [or] Thermopolis, this is the state team.”

Bohl brought a history of success to Laramie. He was an assistant coach at the University of Nebraska – his alma mater – during their dominant run in the 1990s. He won three national championships at the lower-tier FCS level as head coach at North Dakota State.

UW Athletic Director Tom Burman was looking for someone with a strong track record to build a culture at Wyoming. The program had just fired Dave Christensen after multiple mediocre seasons.

“I began developing a plan and a set of goals of what I thought the University of Wyoming needed to move us forward in our football program,” Burman said in 2013. “Those goals: A coach who has developed a culture of toughness, a coach who has recruiting ties in a geographical region where we can be successful…But most importantly, a coach who cares about his players and embodies the culture of his university.”

In the first few years under Bohl, things didn’t go so well. The team won just six games in two seasons and suffered several key injuries. A 26-7 home loss against Colorado State in 2015 was a particularly painful result.

But through all those challenges, Bohl was building a foundation by convincing talent to come to Laramie. Maybe the most well-known acquisition was Josh Allen: a little-known prospect from a farm town in Central California.

“I walked into his home and said, ‘Listen. I've traveled all around the country. You're the one that we want. We're going to build our program on you,’” Bohl said in an interview with CBS Sports Radio. “And mom began to break down and cry. And dad was there. They’re a neat family that comes from a farm. And he was a Cowboy through and through.”

Allen became the starting quarterback in 2016. That season started extremely well. The Cowboys beat Boise State – who was ranked 13th in the nation at the time. It was the first win for Wyoming over a ranked opponent since 2002, and the Pokes finished with eight wins and ended a five-year bowl game drought.

Bohl didn’t look back after that year and is now the longest-tenured coach in program history. He’s had just one losing season since 2016 and has consistently finished in the top half of the Mountain West conference. He’s also delivered some huge upset victories – like a 37-31 victory over Missouri in 2019 and a thrilling double-overtime win over Texas Tech this season. And Wyoming has owned the Border War rivalry against Colorado State, winning seven of the last eight contests.

Bohl has also sent more players to the NFL than any other coach in the program, including Logan Wilson, Chad Muma and Marcus Epps. Allen was drafted seventh overall by the Buffalo Bills and is now one of the biggest stars in the sport.

At a press conference announcing his retirement, Bohl said one of his greatest joys was being a mentor to young players.

“I sat in countless numbers of living rooms with bright-eyed high school seniors who believed in us and came to our program who didn't shave. They came as young men,” he said. “[They] embraced me with tears, saying, ‘Thank you. I came in as a young man and I'm leaving as a man’.”

Things weren’t perfect under Bohl. The team never earned a national ranking and never won a Mountain West championship. At times, fans have complained about the team’s lack of offensive creativity and conservative play calling.

But for UW Athletic Director Tom Burman, he’ll remember Bohl as a coach who earned the respect of the Cowboy State.

“You could drive from Greybull and come to a game in Laramie. And you knew that that group of players and that group of coaches were going to be prepared,” he said. “We're going to play hard and we're going to leave everything on the field. That hasn’t always happened.”

Burman has already named current defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel as the next head coach. Sawvel doesn’t have experience leading the program at the highest level of college football and will need to adapt to life without Bohl. But he has an old-school style, wears his heart on his sleeve and loves playing tough.

“Our biggest goal is we want to play harder, faster, smarter and do it longer than our opponent. That's what it comes down to,” Sawvel said.

Jay Sawvel, the new head coach of the University of Wyoming football team, stands at a podium addresses the media while wearing a suit.
Courtesy of the Wyoming Athletics Department.
Jay Sawvel came to Wyoming in 2020 and has coached defenses at the University of Minnesota and Wake Forest University.

Sawvel has a challenging task ahead of him, which is to stay relevant and successful amidst a changing college football landscape. Athletes can now get paid, as well as transfer more easily to schools with bigger opportunities and paychecks. The Mountain West Conference could also add Oregon State and Washington State – two programs with long, successful histories – to become more competitive.

But Sawvel said he’s confident in Wyoming’s infrastructure. The team set an attendance record this year, and the university recently built brand-new athletics facilities to attract more athletes. War Memorial Stadium in Laramie is also undergoing renovations in the next couple of years.

“I'm very blessed that, in a first-time head coaching job, I'm not coming into a situation where I have to replace an entire department,” Sawvel said. “It's like a four by four relay. He (Bohl) ran the first three laps of it. And he’s handed me a baton with a couple hundred meters to go. Everything's in place for us to take steps and have great success and continue to build on what’s here.”

Bohl said he’s ready to let someone younger step in and he can enjoy his horses and golf. He’s previously served as the president of the American Football Coaches Association and he may continue in that role. Not matter what, he’s likely to remain a passionate advocate in the sport of college football.

“I think it's important to adhere to the ideals of the scholastic model…We damn sure want to win every game. And we'll think about some of the highs and lows of these wins and losses. But what we will most cherish is the opportunity to have a chance to mentor and develop young men,” Bohl said. “We cannot lose that. And I'm a little bit concerned [that], if we get off track of those things, we're going to start to have some of those things begin to deteriorate.”

For now, Bohl has one more rodeo in him. He’ll coach the Cowboys in the Barstool Sports Arizona Bowl on Dec. 30th. If he takes home a victory, he’ll finish his Wyoming career with a winning record.

Will Walkey is a contributing journalist and former reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. Through 2023, Will was WPR's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. He first arrived in Wyoming in 2020, where he covered Teton County for KHOL 89.1 FM in Jackson. His work has aired on NPR and numerous member stations throughout the Rockies, and his story on elk feedgrounds in Western Wyoming won a regional Murrow award in 2021.
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