‘To lead them, you have to know them’
LARAMIE -- The texts began before the french fries were scooped off the blue turf in Boise. The social media posts came in a flurry. There had been whispers and rumblings, but now, it was all becoming a reality.
Wyoming players -- 11 in all -- were seeking a new place to play college football. The NCAA Transfer Portal was the vehicle that would get them there.
You might have been stunned by the turnover, but Craig Bohl said it was somewhat expected. In a 58-minute interview with the local media in early February, UW ninth-year head coach figured "90%" of those guys were on their way out.
Admittedly, Bohl added, he didn't attempt to stop them.
"Some of our assistant coaches might have probed a little bit on what you're thinking," he said back on Feb. 4, the NCAA's traditional National Signing Day. "But I can tell you this, around here, we have a really good program and we want players that are bought in to play Cowboy tough football. You got to be all in."
During that same press conference, Bohl was asked where he needed to make improvements. His self-reflection led to a blunt statement: "connecting more with our players."
In numerous off-the-record conversations with some of those departing Wyoming players this offseason, a common theme emerged.
Many claimed there was a lack of a relationship with their head coach.
Fast forward to late April.
The Cowboys, along with their new-look roster, were in the closing stages of the spring football season. The youth and inexperience provided excitement. One-time unknowns are in the beginning stages of becoming household names. The vibe around this program is different. Veterans like Frank Crum, Zach Watts and Cole Godbout are quick to point that out.
There's another difference around the High Altitude Performance Center, too -- the head coach is fully engaged.
"Yeah, most definitely I've seen a difference," junior running back Titus Swen said of Bohl. "He's been communicating. Like, when I see him in the hallways, he's always trying to interact with people. He's going to breakfast, lunch and dinner and sitting with guys, having conversations outside of football. Not just 'what do you do on this play?' but trying to get to know your family, where you're from and all that. I appreciate that."
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Gunner Gentry has been in this program since 2018. Before that, his older brother, Tanner Gentry, played for Bohl from 2014-16.
Last fall, Gunner Gentry said the head coach was a little "distant" and stayed true to the "hard-coach mentality."
Not this year.
"Yes, for sure," he said when asked if he's noticed a change in Bohl. "He's definitely talking to kids a lot more. Just checking in with people and making sure that they're doing OK outside of football and making sure they're doing the right things and what they need to be doing.
"... Recently, I've seen him definitely interact more with his players and connect more with us."
Gavin Beerup tore the labrum in his throwing shoulder while playing wide receiver on the Cowboys' scout team last October. His season was finished. His future as a QB was also in serious jeopardy.
The redshirt freshman said he and Bohl didn't talk for "six months" leaving him concerned with where he stood as a member of the team.
"We'd pass by each other and it would just be awkward," Beerup said, adding that the two had a great relationship when he first arrived on campus during the COVID-19-shortened 2020 campaign. "... Obviously, for a little stretch there, I was kind of scared."
Beerup said he has witnessed major changes in Bohl this spring. Like Swen and Gentry, Beerup said he's seeing a serious effort to build relationships.
"Now, every time we pass by each other, he always says hi and asks how I'm doing," he said. "It's a good conversation every time."
Bohl is still very much the old school, hard-nosed throwback coach. Wyoming jerseys will never feature last names. Brown and gold are the only colors on uniforms. As long as the 63-year-old is roaming the sidelines, you'll never see a player wear the No. 1. This is a "team sport," he says.
You might as well prepare yourselves now, his trademark power-running game will be prevalent once again this fall.
Ride for the brand isn't just a slogan in Laramie, it's the law of the land.
Near the conclusion of last Saturday's spring game inside War Memorial Stadium, Bohl got on a handful of players in the northeast end zone for a group celebration following a game-sealing Kolbey Taylor interception.
Make no mistake, Bohl is still doing things his way.
"He's always going into the fueling station and yelling at you to eat your greens because no one has greens on their plate," Beerup said with a grin.
"That's accurate," Bohl said, flashing a smile.
Players this spring have also been afforded the opportunity to set private meetings with Bohl to discuss specifics of their individual development and where improvements need to be made.
That's all part of the plan, Bohl said, to get a better pulse of his football team. He even jokingly slapped himself on the stomach as visual proof he has been spending plenty of time in the dining hall.
"I have made a point to be more present," Bohl said. "Many times, as college head football coaches, our time gets spread out in so many different ways. When you're a CEO, head coach that's a negative side. But I'm trying to meet more with the players, and a lot of times, not so much formal meeting times, but always make a point to go to the training table and sit down with them.
"... Then just other informal conversations just to let them know that we care about them, I care about them. But, to lead them, you have to know them. I looked myself in the mirror and said I've got to improve in this area."
It's already paying major dividends.
"It makes a huge difference," Gentry said. "Having a head coach that's involved and active in your life, it makes you want to play for the guy just because he does truly care about you -- and it shows."