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Emails reveal details of NDSU's efforts to retain coach Bohl

FNS File Photo North Dakota State head football coach Craig Bohl.1 / 2
FNS Photo by Michael Vosburg North Dakota State head coach Craig Bohl, left, is hugged by Athletic Director Gene Taylor after NDSU's win over Montana in Missoula, Mont., on Sept. 6, 2003. It was the first signature win of Bohl's career in only his second game at NDSU.2 / 2

FARGO -- With two consecutive national championships and another win against a big-time bowl team, fans may wonder how long Craig Bohl, the football coach with the most wins in North Dakota State University history, will be at the Bison's reins.

That was also one of the top concerns for NDSU officials working behind the scenes late last year on Bohl's eight-year contract extension, based on emails obtained by Forum News Service through an open records request.

President Dean Bresciani, Athletic Director Gene Taylor and the school's top attorney discussed terms to safeguard the school if Bohl leaves for a bigger football program, the emails show.

There's a one-year window banning Bohl from trying to bring potential NDSU recruits to his new team, though Bresciani sought a two-year ban. Part of Bohl's new contract requires him to pay the school $100,000 if he takes another NCAA head coaching job.

If he heads to a big-time, bowl-eligible team, Bohl would owe the school twice his current salary -- at least $413,000.

Those payouts were one of the final sticking points in negotiations before NDSU announced the coach's extension Jan. 1.

Emails indicate Bohl and his attorney asked for lower payouts. His previous contract had no such provisions.

A sports management and law expert said she's never seen a contract in which the school requires a coach to pay more in damages for taking a job in another division or conference.

In an interview last week, Taylor called them "just-in-case" provisions to protect the school and "make it harder for someone to come in and snatch him away."

Taylor said he believes Bohl would only leave NDSU for a high-end Bowl Championship Series team. He said it's not unusual for a successful coach to generate attention and speculation about stepping up to a larger program.

"What's unusual is when you have a coach that says, 'I'm committing to you, I want you to commit to me,'" Taylor said, stressing that Bohl led the push for a long contract extension.

In emails, Taylor and Bresciani also worried about how to structure a portion of Bohl's contract that would give him an administrative job for at least two years after his eight-year coaching contract expires.

Bresciani wrote: "The odds of him still being here/that becoming activated are marginal."

Rare provisions

Days before marching to a second straight national championship against the Sam Houston State Bearkats, NDSU announced it had locked up the celebrated coach for the long haul, through 2021.

In his 11th year coaching the Bison, Bohl has transformed the team into the top dog in the Football Championship Subdivision in the decade since making the jump from NCAA Division II. Tack on another undefeated start to the season and a recent visit to Fargo by ESPN's "College GameDay," and it's easy to see how Bohl has become a bona fide hero to the Bison faithful.

His new contract took effect Dec. 31, giving him a yearly salary of $205,503 with an annual raise of at least 5 percent, plus 3 percent of all home game ticket sales and $60,000 a year for media appearances.

Bohl also gets bonuses for certain types of wins, ranging from $2,500 for each Missouri Valley Conference Championship away game to $15,000 for recapturing the NCAA national title.

From June 1, 2012, to May 31, Bohl pulled in $367,843, according to state payroll records, making him the fifth highest-paid public employee in North Dakota.

Taylor said the rumors and speculation of whether Bohl will make the jump to a larger football program come with the territory of a successful team.

"I don't see coach looking at any opportunities. I really don't," Taylor said. "I feel the reason he wanted to (sign an extension) is so he didn't have to worry about that stuff."

Bohl, who has a longstanding policy of not discussing his future, did not respond to a request for comment.

"That's one of the first questions I always get asked when I sit down in front of mom and dad in the living room: 'Coach, how long are you going to be here?'" Bohl said at the Jan. 1 news conference announcing his extension. "When you make a commitment like this, I think it says an awful lot."

NDSU spokeswoman Laura McDaniel called the back-and-forth emails about Bohl's future "normal, responsible discussion about the possible outcomes of possible items."

"We do expect coach Bohl to remain at NDSU. The contract was written to encourage him to stay, by extending the term and including a buyout," she said.

Rayla Allison, a University of Minnesota professor and chief executive officer of the school's Sport Business Institute, said the payout provisions in Bohl's contract -- requiring him to pay the school more if he jumps to a bigger football program -- are uncommon. It's far more common to require coaches to pay damages for moving to a team within the same conference, she said.

Forum News Service requested head football coach contracts from the nine other top-ranked FCS teams. None of the coaches at the four schools who responded to the request -- the University of Montana, Montana State University, Towson University and Sam Houston State University -- had provisions similar to Bohl's payout structure in their contracts.

Allison said the one-year recruiting ban in Bohl's contract is not just unusual but likely unenforceable.

It bars Bohl from contacting current or potential Bison recruits for a year, unless Bohl's new team contacted the player before Bohl left NDSU or the recruit initiated a possible move to Bohl's new squad.

"These recruits are going to be good recruits, and people know about them," she said. "NDSU doesn't own that information."

Negotiating the details

NDSU school officials had just a few sticking points on Bohl's contract to iron out in the days before finishing the extension: his post-coaching employment at the school, buyout amounts and the terms of a recruiting prohibition.

In a Dec. 29 email, Bresciani expressed several concerns with the vague wording of what role Bohl would play after his contract expires.

"What is it we would have him do? And this isn't an environment where 'do nothing" will play," Bresciani wrote. "The other is how it would go over in the public (e.g. the guy gets let go and still has a job ... 'we' which will be made to be taxpayers ... pay for.)"

The signed contract calls on NDSU to negotiate a new position involving "fund-raising, instruction and/or other administrative duties" for at least two years after his contract expires. Bohl would be paid at least half of his salary during his last year as coach -- at least $152,500, if he receives a 5 percent raise each year.

"And seriously," Bresciani wrote, "the only reason he'll leave is a step up, so why all the bother."

In response to a contract draft in which Bohl and his attorney pushed to halve the amounts he'd have to pay if he left NDSU for another football program, Taylor wrote that he would "push for a higher minimum buyout for non-BCS job and work to get back to at least 1.5 of his salary for a BCS job."

In an interview, Taylor said the buyout terms were more arguments about "legalese" than major setbacks. The school's position -- requiring Bohl to pay NDSU $100,000 for heading to a non-BCS team and twice his current salary for taking a head coaching job at a BCS school -- were included in the final product.

"If a BCS school comes around, we wanted to make it enough that we could do a search and help us replace Craig if he did leave," Taylor said.

Taylor said the entire contract negotiation process was quick, expedited by the coach's desire to stick with the Bison.

"It's unfortunate that Craig is willing to commit to us ... and yet the question still keeps coming up. He's clearly said and done and proved that he wants to be here," Taylor said.

In the hours before finalizing the agreement, Bresciani again pushed for a longer recruiting ban.

"Given one of the likely places for him to end up if he leaves," Bresciani wrote, stressing the 'if,' "I'd sure like it if the recruiting prohibition was TWO years versus one."

Taylor quickly responded to Bresciani that a one-year ban should be fine.

"If he leaves here for a bigger job, the chances of him recruiting our potential recruits are slim," he wrote, "even if he were to go to Minnesota."

After reading through Bohl's contract, Allison said it's obvious that NDSU doesn't want Bohl coaching for any other team.

And since Bohl signed a contract with some dubious terms, it's also clear Bohl "doesn't see himself going anywhere else," she said.