Bohl, Wyoming football players turn page on ‘bad movie’ that was 2020
LAS VEGAS, Nev., -- Craig Bohl will be the first one to tell you his team underachieved in 2020.
"It was a bad movie," he said. "... That sometimes gives you a little fire under your butt to get going."
On the flipside, Wyoming's eighth-year head coach will be the last one to make excuses.
It's no secret that the Cowboys, like every program in the country, faced their share of adversity last fall. Losing starting quarterback Sean Chambers for the season on the third play from scrimmage was simply salt in the wound, adding to a laundry list of issues brought on by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
There were the opt outs: five on defense and one on the offensive side of the ball. There were a pair of disciplinary actions, too. Victor Jones was suspended midway through the season. Freshman Cameron Smith was let go for good just before the Cowboys hosted Boise State in the season finale.
Contact tracing led players to quarantine for weeks. The entire incoming freshman class was sequestered in the dorm rooms during fall camp.
Then there was the passing offense, ranked 113th in the nation, averaging just 153.3 yards per outing. Wyoming's two-win season also included the first loss in five years to Border War rival Colorado State and a setback against a New Mexico team that had lost 14 straight.
The list goes on.
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Bohl said once the season came to an end, he immediately turned the page to 2021. After a pair of passionate press conferences to conclude the campaign, Bohl added there was one thing left to do.
"I took a hard long look at myself in the mirror and said, 'I got to do better,'" Bohl said at the annual Mountain West Media Days in Las Vegas. "... As a coach, you can be pretty damn transparent with (players) and say, 'hey, I didn't do the best I could, and by God, you got to get your butt in gear. You're a better player than that. I can coach better.'"
What did Bohl see when he looked in that mirror?
"I think, some complacency," he said bluntly. "I think, we needed a better clear vision of what our offense, defense and special teams needed to be. I didn't create enough of a vision for our coaches to come in -- it's not like I'm going to micro-manage that group -- but there were some things that ... it just didn't look like Wyoming football, in my mind. I took ownership of that. Were missing the mark here. We grinded through a lot of stuff this offseason, saying we have to get things right on offense, defense and special teams. I'm really excited about what can come because last year was not good."
Bohl made an assurance to league commissioner Craig Thompson before the makeshift season got underway last October -- The Wyoming Cowboys would be ready to play every week. Bohl kept that promise. His squad never had an outbreak that forced a cancelation. However, even he didn't know how difficult it would be to keep such a pledge in a time filled with such uncertainty.
Wyoming's middle linebacker Chad Muma admitted it, Bohl was hard on players last fall. He took the virus serious, wearing a face shield and carrying a six-foot wooden stick with him to practice that he would use to force social distancing. As a team captain, it was part of Muma's obligation to make sure his fellow college classmates didn't act like typical students. No bar hopping, no restaurant visits, no unnecessary contact with anyone who wasn't being tested three times per week and going through protocol.
"We had a team policy," Muma said of keeping players away from downtown when all establishments were open and masks weren't required. "... It was huge for our year because if we had guys coming down with COVID, they're out. That might take out an entire household, position group or a locker room. It might take everyone out."
Xazavian Valladay, the Mountain West's leading rusher over the past two seasons, agreed that his head coach was more strict than ever last fall. That even included back-to-back weeks when Air Force and Utah State were forced to cancel games in Laramie.
"We were always going to stay sharp regardless," Valladay said. "Even if it felt like fall camp for three more weeks, we're always going to be good at something because practice makes perfect."
What became apparent to Bohl early on was the very foundation his program has been built on was under attack from the pandemic and all that came with it. His players couldn't eat together. Weight room sessions were segregated. The locker room could only host so many players at one time.
The family atmosphere was all but lost.
"I can tell you that the the the elements of Wyoming football are built around a team attitude of closeness," Bohl said. "You use the term culture and things like that, well, what COVID did, where you're trying to build a program and when you use that as your ace in the pocket, it just ripped all that stuff out. I mean, it made people be individuals. That's just not who we are."
There's more uplifting news when it comes to the 2021 campaign. So far, things are on track to start as normal. Montana State is slated to be inside War Memorial Stadium Sept. 4 for the season opener. The Cowboys are also returning 95% of their roster from a season ago, including a healthy Chambers under center.
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Tim Polasek is now the new offensive coordinator, replacing Brent Vigen who spent the first seven seasons in Laramie with Bohl. He will be on the opposing sideline in just 37 days.
Bohl said he spent the offseason helping "re-engineer" this offensive attack. For an old defensive coach, he joked that he has never spent so much time in offensive meetings. Bohl's smile is back. His passion, now aimed at the right things and the hope a new season could bring. His chats with players, always filled with unwavering honesty, leave him feeling more confident than ever.
Despite playing "bad cop" in 2020, few left the program. The word "championship" was mentioned by every Wyoming player during the spring.
"There's something completely different," Muma said about this locker room. "I was thinking back to 2019. I think that we had this idea that maybe, 'hey, we can go the Mountain West championship.' We have a good team. But, I think it's nothing compared to how we are and how our team is right now. We've kind of had this championship mindset going for a while.
"We talked in the wintertime that you don't become a champion when you're holding up the trophy, you become a champion when you're preparing to be one."
Bohl is certain about one thing, even at 63 years old, there's a renewed sense of energy for him.
"You're damn right there is."
- Just the facts: Wyoming's 21 Mountain West conference titles and counting