North Dakota State entered the fall of 2002 with two football seasons remaining in the Division II North Central Conference, before it would leap into Division I athletics.
The proud Bison went 2-8, with the lone victories coming against Minnesota State Mankato and Winona State. Head coach Bob Babich found an escape hatch early in 2003 as an assistant coach with the St. Louis Rams and resigned.
Meantime, six hours to the south in Lincoln, Neb., Cornhuskers coach Frank Solich was trying to save his job after a 7-6 regular season. He fired Craig Bohl as defensive coordinator, along with defensive assistants Nelson Barnes and George Darlington.
Bohl had started coaching as a graduate assistant at his alma mater, Nebraska, from 1981 and 1983, and then landed his first job as a full-time assistant at North Dakota State in 1984.
This was 18 seasons later, but that small connection gave Bohl a couple of toes in the door at Fargo, and he applied to replace Babich.
Don Morton had been the coach that hired Bohl to coach NDSU’s defensive backs in 1984. The Bison went 12-1 that season, losing 18-17 to Troy State in the Division II national championship game (the Palm Bowl).
Morton used his successful run at NDSU to take his option offense to Tulsa, where he was 13-9 and then was hired at Wisconsin starting with the 1987 season. Bohl was with him at Tulsa and for two seasons at Wisconsin.
Unintentionally, Morton preformed a fine service for the Badgers by being a futile 6-27 during three seasons. He was fired in late November 1989, and replaced by Barry Alvarez, Lou Holtz’s dynamic defensive coordinator at Notre Dame.
And the rest is Badgers’ history.
And Bohl's hiring at NDSU was the start of a Bison history that has produced seven FCS titles (Bohl-3, Chris Klieman-4) in eight years, with first-year head coach Matt Entz playing for an eighth title vs. James Madison on Jan. 11 in Frisco, Tex.
Back in February 2003, as Bohl was convincing North Dakota State to hire him as Babich’s replacement, part of his pitch was that he would be able to put together a staff that could make the jump to Division I competition.
Bohl was hired and brought in coaches such as Barnes, Dan Enos, Pat Perles and Reggie Moore, while retaining Gus Bradley as a defensive assistant. Bohl gave the defensive coordinator position to Jimmy Burrow, a veteran coach and former graduate assistant working on defense for Bohl at Nebraska.
“Everyone was crowded into the offices at the old Bison Sports Arena,’’ said Tim Miles, then the North Dakota State men’s basketball coach. “A lot of coaches had young kids, and they were running all over the place. One was Jimmy Burrow’s kid … 7 or 8. He was around all the time.’’
The boy’s name was Joe Burrow. Jeff Kolpack wrote an insightful piece earlier this month for the Fargo Forum. He tracked down Perles, much-traveled as are most career football assistants, and received this yarn:
Joe Burrow was constantly firing a Nerf football in the crowded hallway, and Enos saw the throwing motion and predicted great things for the boy.
“I’m like, ‘Really, Danny?’ ‘’ Perles told Kolpack. “The kid is 7 years old and you’re telling me he already has a good throwing motion, and you can evaluate it at this age? He says, ‘Yeah.’ ‘’
Perles’ response was to joke with father Jimmy and other staff members. “I was like, ‘How about that guys, we have a Harlon Hill winner waiting for us …’ ‘’
Joey Burrow never would win the Harlon Hill Trophy as the Division II football player of year with that throwing motion so evident to Dan Enos (fired on Friday as offensive coordinator for the Miami Hurricanes, which is another tale).
What Burrow did win was the 2019 Heisman Trophy as the best player in college football, period. He will be leading No. 1-seed LSU into the College Football Playoff semifinals on Saturday against Oklahoma.
Young Joey was in Fargo for two years. In middle of that stay, Solich's decision to fire his defensive staff provded unsuccessful in saving his job. He was infamously fired by the Cornhuskers after a 9-4 record in 2003, sat out a season, and then landed at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio.
Solich hired away Jimmy Burrow from NDSU as a defensive assistant for 2005. Solich remains with the Bobcats, as did Burrow through 2018, before retiring in order to watch his son play a full schedule of games for LSU this season.
Tim Miles also wound his way to Nebraska, staying at NDSU through 2007, moving to Colorado State for five seasons, and then getting fired late last March after seven seasons at Nebraska.
Miles is doing some TV work, still living in Lincoln, and fully intending to return to coaching. And he now says with feigned bravado:
“As Joe Burrow pointed out while he was in New York to receive the Heisman, the first trophy that he ever received was from me. He attended my basketball camp in Fargo. And at the end of that camp, we gave him the trophy as an outstanding player.
“He was an All-State point guard in Ohio, you know.’’
So did you see a kid who could have had a basketball future?
“You want me to say, ‘Yes,’ right?’’ Miles said. “He was 7! What I do remember is a young kid who had great enthusiasm for being involved in athletics.’’