Midway through his successful college football career at the University of Mary, Craig Bagnell came to the realization he wanted to be a head coach someday.
That day came sooner than even Bagnell had anticipated.
The 27-year-old native of Polson, Mont., was officially unveiled as head coach of the Marauders on Tuesday. The deal to bring back Bagnell was sealed over the weekend. He was already in the office on Monday. The job opening drew 150 applicants from around the country. With the hiring, Bagnell is the youngest head coach in the NCAA.
"Did I expect this to happen so soon? No," Bagnell said honestly. "My goal was to be a head coach. To have it happen this quickly is unexpected, but I can't tell you how excited I am to have this opportunity. I feel like I'm ready. It's time to get to work."
While young by any standard, Bagnell returns to his alma mater with bona fide credentials. After just one season as a graduate assistant at Bemidji State in 2014, he was promoted to offensive coordinator of the Beavers in 2015 and has since engineered one of the most prolific offenses in NCAA Division II. Bemidji State averaged 30.9 points in 2015, 45.6 in 2016 and 35 this past season, while winning seven, nine and eight games in the Northern Sun.
In this case, age was truly just a number, said U-Mary athletic director Dale Lennon.
"Initially, yeah, you think, 'Geez, he's kinda young.' Then you gotta dig," Lennon said. "You start seeing all of his accomplishments. You talk to people. You're on the phone checking references and every step of the way I was more and more impressed.
"Craig has been on the cutting edge of football. He's been running some really innovative and creative stuff. I believe his best football is in front of him and I'm very confident he's capable of making things happen."
Bagnell was a four-year starter at quarterback for the Marauders and a three-time captain from 2010-13. He holds the school record in most major passing categories, including touchdowns (75), yards (9,170), attempts (1,229) and completions (759). The Marauders won 19 games during that span.
By contrast, the last three years, the Marauders have won just three games combined. One of the main issues has been retaining upperclassmen. Last season, the roster featured just four seniors.
"Obviously, it's been tough the last few years and I think a number of factors were involved," Bagnell said. "If you can have 15 or 20 seniors every year that gives you a chance to be successful."
Bagnell will handle the play-calling duties. The U-Mary offense will look very different than the triple option deployed the past couple of years.
"It's going to be up-tempo and fun. It's all about being creative," he said. "You cause problems when you're different, and we're going to be different.
"At Bemidji State we had a blue-collar mentality. We worked extremely hard, but then we installed some flashy stuff. We're going to bring that here."
Lennon has already seen his work ethic. Bagnell was in the office at 6 a.m., Monday morning. Although, he does want his young coach to pace himself.
"I don't think he had eaten yet today. That's why he got a little light-headed during his remarks," Lennon said. "That's where I can step in and just remind him that it's a marathon here. We gotta have a good tempo."
Bagnell has plenty of experienced hands to lean on. Lennon's coaching career is well documented and Bagnell spoke very fondly of Myron Schulz, the longtime coach of the Marauders, including during Bagnell's playing days. Roger Thomas, former U-Mary AD and Lennon's predecessor as head football coach at the University of North Dakota, also continues to reside in Bismarck. Thomas attended Tuesday's event.
"We're not going to be sticking our nose where it doesn't need to be," Lennon said. "We want him to run his program, but have him know help is here if it's needed."
On the immediate agenda is filling out the coaching staff, hopefully by the middle of the month. Also, recruiting is at a critical point on the calendar. Bagnell wants to build the program on top local talent, but also pointed out that, "Allegiant has cheap flights to three major cities."
"We're going to find kids that want to be a part of something special at a great university," he said. "It's time to bring competitive football back to the University of Mary."