FARGO, N.D. — The Denver Broncos announced their plans to build a $35 million indoor training complex earlier in November. And if the team has their sights sets on winning a Super Bowl, it might be wise if they rarely utilized it.
Just ask North Dakota State head coach Craig Bohl.
Bohl’s NDSU Bison have won the last two national championships in the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) — formerly Division I-AA. Entering this year’s playoffs as the No. 1 overall seed, a third straight title looks like it may be in the cards.
What makes Bohl’s Bison so tough?
It certainly doesn’t hurt that they live in Fargo, N.D. With an average winter temperature of 16.8 degrees, it’s the fourth-coldest city in the U.S. — a place where nose hairs freeze in a single breath.
Is it because the Bison stick to the running game in an effort to neutralize those nasty elements? Nope. Why? Because in 1992, someone at NDSU had the good sense to open the Fargodome, an indoor stadium that shields the Bison’s home games from those elements. In their dome sweet dome, the Bison pass quite often, and quite well. Their quarterback, Brock Jensen, is the fourth-rated passer in the FCS.
But Bohl knows that his team’s road to the FCS championship isn’t shaded by a dome. It goes through the bitter-cold, including outdoor stadiums like those in the Bison’s Missouri Valley Conference.
And that’s why Bohl’s Bison rarely hold practices in their dome.
“When I was a young coach, I heard Woody Hayes say, ‘If you’re going to fight in the North Atlantic, you have to train in the North Atlantic,'” Bohl said, quoting the former Ohio State University legend. “It’s one of the truest things I’ve ever heard.”
And that’s why just practicing outdoors isn’t good enough for Bohl.
Leading up to big games, like their 2010 playoff contest against Montana State University, when the game-time forecast calls for blustery, below-freezing conditions, Bohl fires up the lights on his team’s outdoor training facility, and leads 8 p.m. training sessions.
During the team’s final practice leading up to that 2010 game at Montana State, the Bison spent two hours practicing in temperatures of -4 degrees. The windchill was -20. Two days later, the Bison downed heavily-favored Montana State 42-17 in “balmy” 13-degree temperatures.
Bohl not only credited the blowout win to the night practices, he went so far as to say he owed it to his team to subject them to those brutal practice conditions.
“I think you do your players an injustice if you don’t consistently expose them to the elements they’re going to face on game day,” Bohl said. “When you’re at those night practices, you hear your cleats crunch ice because the turf is frozen. Players need to hear that, they need to feel that and they need to convince themselves, ‘It’s not as cold as I think it is.'”
Therein lies the key for Bohl.
Getting his players — a good deal of whom hail from tropical climates in Florida — to a point where they can not only withstand, but master the bitter cold isn’t about getting them prepared physically. It’s about getting them prepared mentally.
“That might sound like an overstatement, but after a lot of years of doing this (almost 30, to be exact) I really don’t think it is,” Bohl said. “When it comes to mastering the elements, it’s mind over matter.
“Physically, the ball is going to feel like a rock. You’re not going to physically be able to do the same things you can do when it’s warm,” Bohl continued. “But you have to convince yourself that those physical limitations aren’t going to prevent you from accomplishing your goal.”
So while others fret about things like Peyton Manning’s in cold weather games, Bohl shrugs. Such a correlation is inevitable in the mind of the element-hardened 55-year-old.
On the other hand, when he sees his players cringing on the sidelines during a frosty contest, Bohl says he cringes right back.
And that’s why it seems safe to assume that Bohl may have been discouraged to see one of his players shoving both gloved hands inside a specially-designed hand-warmer and both sleeved arms under an Eskimo parka while wear this expression on his face.
It was a look Manning often showed during the Broncos 34-31 loss to New England last Sunday, in a game that featured 22-degree temperatures. In case you’re wondering, the average temperature in East Rutherford, N.J. in early February, the site and date of this season’s Super Bowl, is 31.5 degrees. Manning now owns a 2-6 record in those types of temperatures.
Between now and then, the Broncos might insist the facial expressions their quarterback makes in the cold are trivial. Bohl’s coaching staff would tend to disagree.
“We think body language and other subtleties like that are critical,” Bohl said. “You’ve got the guys who, when it’s cold, they put on a t-shirt. And when it’s really cold, they put on another t-shirt. Then you’ve got guys who are wearing hooded sweatshirts under their helmets.”
Which player do you want in your corner when the temperatures start to drop?
It seems like a valid question. That said, Bohl knows it’s far less applicable when it comes to the NFL, a league in which coaches own far less autonomy. Players unions and cash-consciousness owners make it hard to force million-dollar players out into the cold for practices on a regular basis.
Yes, hard-nosed coaches like Jack Del Rio will be able to nudge their pros out the door for a practice or two. The Broncos did just that during one of Denver’s snow days last week. Bohl doesn’t think that’s enough.
And while he hasn’t yet spent any time coaching in the NFL, Bohl did spend seven seasons coaching at the University of Nebraska. In a state without an NFL team, the university’s football players have often been treated like professional athletes.
Case in point: the $15 million indoor practice facility the Cornhuskers built for their football program in the 1990s. At the time, it was comparable — if not superior — to any practice facility in the NFL.
And Nebraska head coach Tom Osborne rarely used it.
“That used to baffle me,” Bohl said. “What’s the point of having this multi-million dollar indoor facility if we’re always going to practice outside?”
Two national championships later, Bohl said, “I quit asking that question.”AlertMe