Into the Great Wide Open

Fort Collins, Co. - If there’s a place to move your family for good it’s probably the place Walt Disney copied.

Fort Collins, Colorado isn’t quite the happiest place on Earth, but it’s a place of new beginnings for Mike Bobo and his family. After nearly 20 years of living in Athens, Bobo followed the advice he’s given his players for the last two decades: He made a decision and hasn’t looked back.

The Thomasville, Georgia native told his family that he had accepted the head football job at Colorado State on December 22nd during a Christmas party that had been planned just before the holiday because Bobo was getting set to coach Georgia in the 2014 Belk Bowl.

He never went to Charlotte. Bobo’s life was headed in a new direction.

Mike Bobo wasn’t going to leave his home for just anywhere - you have more to think about than just a football job when you have a wife and five young children. You have to make a career decision - a life decision. Not just a move to get paid more. Bobo’s salary at Georgia was always far lower than his production. He had been the “loyal girlfriend” for far too long to get paid what he had been in Athens.

Still, if Bobo were to pull up his roots it had to be somewhere he felt like he and his family could live the rest of their lives with no looking back and no regrets about what could have been.

“I believe I can coach here for the rest of my life,” Bobo said of his new home. “I would have never taken this job without that feeling. I would not have done it.”

That place is Colorado State - or “Colorada State” as Bobo calls it with his distinct southern accent. Only an hour north of Denver and situated in the northern part of the state, Fort Collins is a picturesque town of 150,000 just east of the Rockies, which are a very visible part of the landscape. It’s a town so nice that Walt Disney himself incorporated much of the town square of Fort Collins into Main Street, U.S.A. at Disneyworld.

In other words, the first thing you see at Disney is Fort Collins - not a bad landing spot.

The second story football offices at the McRaw Center are flush with green and gold. Pictures hang on the walls of former Rams like All-NFL linebacker Joey Porter and record-setting quarterback Bradlee Van Pelt. If you go by the office’s walls, spectacular Rocky Mountain sunsets are plentiful in Fort Collins.

And then there’s the football program itself. Colorado State isn’t just talking the talk about its promising future on the landscape of college football - it is putting its money where its mouth is by spending a quarter of a billion dollars on a brand new stadium that’s set to be ready for the Rams to kick off in 2017.

Bobo’s office is a buzz of activity. He starts many days like this one in May by scheduling practices for the fall on a yellow legal pad. The first-year head coach is only now getting used to being in the office this time of year. For the last 14 springs he’s been out recruiting some of the top players in the country to come to play for him at Georgia. 

Aaron Murray, Matthew Stafford, Todd Gurley and A.J. Green didn’t just show up at Georgia - Mike Bobo and company had to go get them… and in many cases not just get them, but develop them to become the polished NFL Draft picks they all became.

And that wasn’t always easy.

Stafford, as gifted and talented a quarterback to ever play at Georgia, was a turnover disaster in his first season at Georgia. By the end of his three-year journey in Athens under Bobo, Stafford was the No. 1 overall NFL pick. Murray’s first year wasn’t quite as bad as Stafford’s but the Tampa native was pretty good at self-destruction himself. Yet he left Athens as one of the most appreciated quarterbacks in Bulldog history.

But Stafford, Murray, Gurley and company are long gone now - as is the recruiting style that went with being at one of the premiere programs in the country.

“There are no must-get kids here,” Bobo admitted when talking about recruiting in the Mountain West. “And we have to recruit so many kids.”

That’s probably one of the biggest adjustments for the first-year head coach. Recruiting appears to take up much of Bobo’s time these days. The sifting through players and the connection that must be there from a head coach at this level of football is critical to success in the future. Bobo and company must recruit well if they are to give Colorado State its first conference title in over a decade and build the program into what Bobo believes it can be - a winner.

“We need everything,” Bobo admitted when talking recruiting. “We need it all.” 

Bobo needs his family, too. He’s spent much of the spring going back and forth from Fort Collins to Athens in the awkward dance a new head coach often has to perform - family in one place… job in another.

FT. COLLINS - Mike Bobo gets ready for the 2015 football season in the offices of the McGraw Athletic Center on May 19, 2015. (Dean Legge/Dawg Post)

But Bobo wanted to make sure that his family was in order and be supportive at the same time. He spent a recent Sunday going back to Athens to watch his oldest son, Drew, play in a youth basketball league championship game. He went with his father George, a legendary high school coach in the state, to the game. The duo watched the game together as Drew’s team took home the title. But sometimes it is difficult to separate being a dad from being a coach, or maybe they are one in the same.

At one point in the game Drew, who is 11, fell to the ground after getting fouled “pretty hard” according to Bobo.

“I didn’t complain or anything,” Bobo said with a smile. “I just started to scream ‘Get up, Drew!’, and right when I did my dad did the same thing.”

Bobo giggled as he often does.

“I just thought: ‘Oh my gosh… I’ve become my father,” he said with a smile.

Is that so bad? Bobo wants his kids and his team to be mentally tough.

“You are going to get knocked down,” he said. “You have to get up.”

The father of five children was interested in making the move to a head-coaching job at about this time in his children’s lives because they had not yet started high school. Bobo’s children and family were the major part of his thinking in moving to Colorado State.

It’s hard to separate Bobo from his children. Yes, he’s a coach, but he’s a father who has been carefully consulting with his wife Lainie about what the right step would be for their family. The duo has been together since Bobo’s graduate assistant days at Jacksonville State in 1999. It was decided that Colorado State was the right move at the right time.

“She’s very excited,” he said.

That’s not to say other programs have not been interested in Bobo, but those places were not the right fit for him and his family. As he drove around Fort Collins, Bobo said his future is going to be very different with his children than it has been in the past - in a good way. Asked if he regretted not being able to see some of the many events his children participated in over the last dozen-plus years, Bobo’s answer was simple. 

“Yes - and that’s the difficult part - because you are on the road recruiting so much from the start of the year until June,” he said “Sure you get a little time here and there, but pretty much it is non stop, and it is on the road. And then the season starts in August. There was a time I even toyed with the idea of dropping down and coaching high school to be able to spend more time with them, but that wasn’t something that we wanted to do.”

A guy who is setting scoring records with his powerful offenses year after year shouldn’t go down in coaching levels. What more did Mike Bobo have to prove as the offensive coordinator at Georgia? 

Nothing. It was time to move on from Georgia - a place that he describes as somewhere “that will always be home.” 

And so Bobo did leave Georgia with the not-looking-back attitude he’s embracing. As a result, he’s formed a young, energetic and enthused group of coaches and staffers who seem poised to take Colorado State to the next level - even though that process won’t be an easy one, and nothing is guaranteed even in this honeymoon part of Bobo’s head coaching career.

Taking Things on Faith

Much of what Bobo and company are doing at Colorado State is a mishmash of things they have learned at their coaching stops along the way. The reality is most of Colorado State’s staff don’t know what playing in the Mountain West is going to be like. 

“We don't know what to expect,” said strength and conditioning coach Ryan Davis of the league. “We are just planning like we are going to be playing in the SEC.”

Davis, who is referred to by his full name “Ryan Davis” by all of the Rams’ coaching staff, followed the same pattern as many of the folks Bobo brought in to Colorado State with him. 

“I just kept hearing Ryan Davis’ name over and over again,” Bobo said. “I knew as soon as Georgia didn’t hire him last winter that I would.”

Bobo said he brought in Davis to help not just with physical toughness, but with mental toughness, too. 

“I can assure you there is always going to be a difficult time during a season,” Bobo said. “The only way to get ready for that is for the practices to be as difficult as possible, and for the guys to develop the mental toughness needed to get ready for whatever hits them - because something is going to hit them.”

“The second I spoke with Coach I knew he was a winner,” Davis, who had stops at Louisville, Samford and Alabama, said. “I wanted to be with him wherever he was going. And to be honest, I want to be with him for a very long time.”

“Getting Ryan Davis - that was a big hire right there,” Bobo admitted.

Meanwhile, the head coach had completed his morning obligations. It was time for lunch, and Bobo and graduate assistant Joe Cox were set to eat a spicy sandwich at a local restaurant in Fort Collins. More than any other one thing - food and how to get around Fort Collins was the topic of most all non-football conversations amongst the Rams’ staff.

It is hard to escape the feeling of adventure in the group. Very few of the new Rams have spent much time in the state, and there is a lot of exploring and learning to do outside of football. Maybe it was most of them being in the wide-open spaces of the West for the first time in their lives. Maybe it was the feeling that they were all totally invested in something new and exciting. They, it seems, all have ownership and equity in where Colorado State is going.

They are proud of what they are, or maybe they know where they are headed. And the newness and appeal of Fort Collins also intrigued the group. When driving around Fort Collins Bobo pointed out a slew of places he still would like to eat or visit. 

“That street right there, Joe, that’s the one they will close down and everyone will be out there hanging out with their friends and their dogs,” Bobo said energetically.

Soon Bobo found the lunch destination - “It is supposed to be good.”

Cox and Bobo ordered the same sandwich, which was so spicy that Bobo was noticeably sweating while eating it. It was just what the duo wanted from their lunch - more adventure. A few minutes later Bobo drove up to Horsetooth Reservoir, which overlooks Colorado State’s Hughes Field. Cox and Bobo chatted about the best place to fish - something near and dear to Cox’s heart. The outdoor life was something Cox planned to take full advantage of while in Fort Collins.

“I was packing everything to come up here, and the first thing in my car was my fishing rods,” Cox said. “They went in first - I made sure to put everything else around them, but they went in first.”

Much like everything else in Colorado, Horsetooth Reservoir is massive. The 156,735-acre reservoir becomes the site of any number of outdoor hobbies that’s buzzing with activity in the spring and summer - boating, fishing, hiking… whatever.

“We’ve got 300-plus days of sunshine here,” Assistant Director of Football Operations and recruiting ace Leah Knight said with a smile on her face of Fort Collins’ outdoor lifestyle.

And now Bobo will get more time to take advantage of the outdoors. It’s strange to think of it this way, but Bobo is still getting used to Fort Collins. He’s only been the head coach for five months, and he seems a bit lonely without his family in town. He’s yet to close on his house, but the Colorado State job was so appealing that Bobo took it even though he had never stepped foot on campus.

“I had two meetings with Colorado State,” Bobo said. “And no one knew about them because they weren’t in Georgia or Fort Collins. You have to take some things on faith.”

In the White-Walled Cave

Step one of Bobo’s process was making sure that long-time sidekick Will Friend was in tow.

“If he wasn’t interested in coming that would have been a pretty good indicator that this wasn’t the right place,” Bobo said. “But he was interested, and everyone else was, too.”

Friend had been a graduate assistant at Georgia in the early 2000s when Bobo was a young quarterbacks coach under Mark Richt. Friend came back to Athens in 2011 to be the offensive line coach. He spent his playing days at Alabama under legendary Tide coach Gene Stallings.

Isolated in a darkened room with a giant projection screen on the wall and surrounded by a whiteboard with various diagrams scribbled in order, Friend worked 10-plus hour days installing offensive protections for the Rams to use (or even not use) later in the year. Occasionally recruiting would pop up, and Friend would work his magic on that front - screaming players’ names before he spoke with them on the phone… particularly ones he was most interested in. It was a way for him to be energetic before a call.

But for the most part the day was filled with repetitive, colorless, painstaking work that required Friend’s full concentration. And because Friend was in work mode he had to have good music. But Friend is, well, technologically challenged. So in this case he thinks less and delegates more.

FT. COLLINS - Will Friend and Joe Cox get ready for the 2015 football season in the offices of the McGraw Athletic Center on May 19, 2015. (Dean Legge/Dawg Post)

“This guy’s got an annoying voice,” he said at the start of the morning. “Get rid of it coach. Something else… take ownership of the music, coach.”

Friend, who is now the offensive coordinator at Colorado State, got his wish.

“In the city… City of Compton,” he sang as he fixated his eyes on the work surrounding him.

Multitasking was common in the offensive meeting room - particularly for the offensive coordinator. Friend had an iPad in front of him to watch recruiting videos; a pen in his right hand he used to write in a wired notebook which was situated to his right; he had a three-ring binder north of the iPad; and a list of recruiting projects to his left.

Three-ring binders are the weapons of choice in the planning process of a football program. The Rams’ coaches likely had more three-ring binders on the shelves than the local Office Depot had in its aisles.

It was a busy day. It was always busy this time of year.

When Friend finished a task he took that completed work and turned it over face down on top of other finished jobs. His cell phone buzzed about every fifteen minutes - twitter, phone calls and text messages. The second most important thing in a football office might be a cell phone charger. He always looked at his phone, but communication from his wife seemed to take priority over anything else.

“Me and my girlfriend!” Friend proclaimed in his thick southern accent at one point while 2Pac pumped from the speakers.

Meanwhile, Joe Cox - who had “taken ownership” of the music - was more importantly in charge of making Friend’s vision come to life digitally on the screen. He was there to do the digital dirty work so the Rams would have everything they needed done before the start of fall camp in August. Cox had to do it because, well, that’s what graduate assistants do.

Cox's job may have been tedious that May day, but he was used to the labor-intensive part of football that media and fans never see. He had been around the block with Bobo at Georgia as well. A five-year player for the Bulldogs, and the starting quarterback his senior season, Cox had gotten out of coaching for a short time after college. He didn’t know if it was something he wanted to do the rest of his life. Football had worn on Cox - it can do that to people.

So Cox got a “real job.” Sunday nights were anxiety-filled for young Charlotte native after graduating from Georgia in 2010. He dreaded Monday mornings and the job that came with it. Over time Cox gained weight, and he knew something was missing in his life… football. In a matter of time he was back on the football field as a coach.

“Now he’s a six-time state champion in football,” Bobo said of Cox’s playing and coaching days. Cox is one of the most decorated people in North Carolina high school football history. Football, like everyone else on at Colorado State, was in Cox’s blood.

“This is a thinking man’s game. It really is,” Friend said at some point during the two-day jam session of monotonous planning. “The goal is to not make the kids think. It should just be something they do and not think about.”

Bobo often came in the room, but didn’t interrupt the flow between Cox and Friend - and he may not have known the lyrics Cox was playing for Friend.

“This thing,” Friend said of one defensive looks his offense would have to deal with. “This thing here is a bastard.”

He went on to explain the difficulty of dealing with that particular defensive front. That was just one step in what seemed like a month-long process to create what Friend called “The Bible”. 

“We won’t use all of this each week,” he admitted of what will become the Rams’ three-inch binder full of hundreds of sheets of protections. That was just protections… not actual plays.

Friend and Cox would talk back and forth using phrases like “liz”, “bear”, “cub”, “robber”, “pinch” and “shade” to describe what should be placed on the screen. It was all an attempt to simplify things and make playing football in college as seamless as possible for any player on the offensive side of the ball - less thinking; more doing. That’s easier said than done, but that’s the goal.

The sessions with Friend and Cox put into perspective how difficult being on the offensive side of the ball can be - and perhaps gives a snapshot into why Bobo is considered by many to be one of the top young offensive minds in the game.

“I mean, yeah, it’s complicated when you are looking at all 11 guys,” Friend admitted. “But you really want the one guy to do the one thing right. It's not that complicated then. It’s a little complicated for the quarterback. But not really for everyone else.”

“Just do what you are supposed to do,” Friend said bluntly.

Remember Who You are Talking to

Bobo is learning about Fort Collins as much as he’s learning about himself right now. He’s never been a head coach before. But several things still come quite naturally to the 41-year old - like recruiting. 

Needless to say recruiting at Colorado State is different than the cut-throat madness of the SEC. Bobo spent a fair amount of his day dealing with (or embracing) recruiting. He would often turn to his computer screen to make sure to watch film of recruits just before talking with them. 

He never talked while watching prospects. He just stared at the computer screen and occasionally looked at an organizational paper he had for each player he was reviewing.

“You still love us out here at CSU? If you are afraid to come here and be an all American then I am talking to the wrong guy!” he proclaimed. “Remember who you are talking to - Coach Bobo. BOBO. That name shouldn’t be hard to remember.”

This was the Mike Bobo treatment… the recruits in this neck of the woods were just getting used to it - aggressive, but down home. 

In terms of logistics, Colorado State’s plan of attack won’t change much in the future. The Rams are going to hit their home state hard - very hard - and not give on any in-state recruits. Bobo and company also have their eyes fixed on prospect-rich states like California, Texas, Florida and Georgia.

“Hey, I need some Georgia boys out here to help me win in Colorado!” he screamed at one point with his trademark giggle just afterwards. There are times when Mike Bobo seems to only talk in ways that lead you to end sentences with exclamation points.

Bobo needs little help remembering who he’s talking to, and what they can do to help him win - even though the Rams are recruiting way more players than Georgia ever did while he was there.

“He can remember what color jerseys their team wears,” said Knight, who had a similar role in recruiting during stops at Alabama and South Florida. “Coach has a great memory.”

Right now that memory and Bobo’s reputation are helping the Rams on the recruiting front as they’ve already picked up three-star Dorman (SC) QB Collin Hill, who picked the Rams over Marshall and Charlotte.

For about two hours, Bobo sat in his office and fielded phone calls from recruits who wanted to talk to him about the future at Colorado State. The list was long, and if a player missed his allotted time to get with Bobo, he would call back in hopes to talk with the coach. 

Back to the Basics

Bobo talked at length one morning about why he was so drawn to starting new with things. He said he wanted to get back to affecting the lives of the players on his team. Was he under appreciated at Georgia? Almost certainly, but he got nowhere near that subject. That wasn’t the reason he left.

For lack of a better way to put it: It was time for Bobo to strike out on his own. He also made a sincere case of how important coaches can be in the lives of their players. He talked about his father George picking up his players while he was coaching them to take them to and from school. That often happened early in the mornings.

FT. COLLINS - Mike Bobo gets ready for the 2015 football season in the offices of the McGraw Athletic Center on May 19, 2015. (Dean Legge/Dawg Post)

Bobo wanted to get back to that sort of effect on players in his program. He admitted he wasn’t happy with the way he treated one of Georgia’s star players in recent years, and decided early in 2014 that it was on him to change.

“I was wrong,” Bobo admitted. “And we had a rocky relationship, and that was my fault. But I just decided that I had to be the one to change and create a better relationship. Because, at the end of the day, that’s what this entire thing is about. Yes, football is important - it is - but this is about people and the relationships you have with them.”

And he might have an easier time doing that in Fort Collins. In the time we were in public no one recognized who Bobo was - or at least they didn’t talk with him about football. In Colorado, Bobo was just another person. In Athens, the only truly safe zone away from the madness that is SEC football was in his neighborhood.

All of those things combine to make it seem that Bobo, even without his family, is as happy as he’s ever been. Between recruiting calls at one point in the afternoon Bobo grabbed a calendar from the wall of his office. 

“That’s my favorite thing in here,” he said. 

A family calendar, Bobo is able to flip from one month to the next and see pictures of his kids and designated dates through the year - like birthdays and anniversaries. His office has pictures and hand-written notes from his children, too.

Still, all the photos are from the past. The calendar, which started in January 2015, was printed before Bobo had decided to move to Fort Collins for the next phase of his life. The 2016 calendar, much like Bobo’s future, hasn’t been filled out yet. No one knows what the future holds, but if things go the way they seem, Bobo’s 2016 calendar will be packed with Rocky Mountain and Main Street U.S.A backgrounds… and probably a lot more smiles.

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