Former BSU coach Craig Hougen was inducted into the BSU Coaches Hall of Fame on January 22, 2022.

Written by Martha Miltich '03, this summary of Craig Hougen's career as the head track and field coach at BSU tells the impact he had on many of the athletes he coached during his career. 

It was my privilege to have Craig Hougen as a coach during my time running on Bemidji State University Women’s Cross Country and Track teams. His mentorship not only made me a better college athlete but has had an ongoing, incredibly positive impact on the person that I’ve become and am still becoming. In a time when the disheartening, polarizing, and idiotic seemed to dominate every line of written and spoken media, I felt compelled to seek out and celebrate a true story about someone dedicated to doing good for others: Coach Hougen was an easy choice. In late 2019, before the pandemic hit and life as we knew it was upended, I got Hougen on the phone to learn more about his story. The following article is based on our conversation.

In 1977, Craig Hougen came to Bemidji as a graduate assistant for the Bemidji State University (BSU) track, cross country, and football teams. After completing his graduate degree, Hougen moved to Sheridan, Wyoming where he taught high school and coached boys and girls track and field, football, and basketball for about ten years. The basketball position was added when he was specifically asked to take it over because of his reputation for levelheadedness and infectious positivity. These personal attributes would come to characterize his coaching roles throughout his career.

In 1989, BSU built the Gillet Fitness Center with a beautiful 200m indoor track. The facility outshone those on most campuses across the Dakotas and Minnesota. At the time, only the University of Minnesota Twin Cities and North Dakota State University had equivalent indoor tracks. It was even considered as a site for hosting the NCAA National Indoor meet.

The opportunity to work and develop a program in this state-of-the-art environment drew Coach Hougen back to Bemidji, and in 1989 he became the Head Men’s Track Coach and Assistant Football Coach for BSU. Four years later, he accepted additional responsibility as the Head Women’s Track & Field Coach.

As Coach Hougen’s family grew, work and parenting became a balancing act. In order to spend more time with family, Hougen eventually gave up the time-consuming work as the Assistant Football Coach and instead, in 1999, he took on the responsibility of leading the Women’s Cross-Country program, a program that needed the kind of mentorship and development that Hougen was known for bringing to athletics.

Hougen’s coaching philosophy always centered around his genuine enjoyment of young people. He told me that he never really figured out what he wanted to be when he grew up and has always been a kid at heart, so working with young people just came naturally to him - their hopefulness, humor, and propensity for mischeif seemed to fit with his own.  Hougen prioritized making athletics fun, because he wanted to inspire his athletes to enjoy being active not just in school, but for their whole lives.

For Coach Hougen, the relationships he built with his athletes and within his teams were far more important than winning or losing. His wife Ann, and kids, Michael, Rebecca, and Alison, welcomed Hougen’s athletes into their family. Coach Hougen made a point of fostering friendships between the men and women he coached, creating a family within his teams as well.

Hard work, integrity, and having a love for what you do were important values that Coach Hougen modeled and cultivated on his teams. This created a perfect environment to develop as a whole person. It wasn’t only about becoming better, stronger, and faster as an athlete – Hougen also wanted his athletes to become great people. Perhaps best of all, Hougen’s leadership of the BSU cross country and track teams was grounded in inclusivity. Hougen believed in an open-door policy; ANYONE can run track. He delighted in finding a student-athlete who hadn’t yet reached their potential, but who was a loyal team player, and, by believing in and mentoring them, he would have the joy of watching their progressive improvement. There are many cases where these improvements continued on as former BSU athletes finished up NCAA eligibility at another program, took up road racing or triathlon, and kept coming back for competition in the annual alumni meet, inspiring others through example and oftentimes coaching as well.

In contrast to other athletic programs in the region, BSU’s funding never allowed Coach Hougen to “buy” athletes. Therefore, he had no choice but to focus on developing athletes and bringing out the potential in each and every team member – the athletes he coached are forever thankful for this approach! When athletes from other schools, or their family members, would get a close-up view of the running teams at BSU, they would often comment on how BSU athletes seemed to thrive within the program’s uniquely supportive system and how special the BSU program was compared to others.

Coach Hougen’s approach to training was to tailor his practices for the needs of the specific athletes he was working with. He emphasized becoming better athletically through strength, speed, power, conditioning, and correct biomechanics. The intelligence and care with which Coach Hougen crafted his training programs attracted athletes with diverse specialties, from mid-distance runners to sprinters to field event athletes. Without significant scholarship money these athletes were intrinsically motivated.

By nurturing that motivation Hougen’s program avoided common problems like heavy expectations set by a coach, overtraining, the pressure to cut weight, or over-doing competition without enough recovery. Because life-long athleticism was so much a part of his goal as a coach, Hougen cared more about the health of an athlete than a few outstanding performances.

He preferred through proper strength training and conditioning, to give each individual the tools and opportunity to perform better in the short-term, while at the same time setting them up for competitive success and personal enjoyment in the long-term. This approach sets a coach apart in a competitive athletic environment, where the pressure to win can get in the way of the overall wellness of the athletes.

I was curious how Hougen’s approach to coaching Track and Cross-Country teams fit into the dynamics of a football team, given his many years coaching the sport. He explained that the stereotypical displays of anger associated with coaching football are unnecessary to developing a successful team. If the focus is on improvement, and if the athletes are prioritized over the outcome of a given game, then success in competition will follow. Looking out into the worlds of football and track, Hougen sees a continued need for this type of coaching: coaching that is done in service to the athletes, with less emotional frustrations and more understanding and teaching of good training principles and biomechanics.

It takes a very special person to, over a decades-long career, treat hundreds of athletes like family and to be a pivotal, life-long influence for so many. When asked how he did this work so well, Coach Hougen was not at a loss for words (which is not a surprise if you know Hougen). He told me he enjoyed his work so much because he was as much a kid as anybody he coached - there are so many aspects to growing up, and most of us are still working on it!

Those who were coached by Hougen know firsthand how much he cared for and was dedicated to each of his athletes. Some came from especially difficult backgrounds. I asked him how he handled situations like that. He described a collaborative effort between teammates, himself, and his wife, Ann. Hougen admitted to being snoopy by nature, and explained that his athletes knew that he would eventually find out if they were getting into trouble. He said he used humor as a way of discipline – gently teasing someone for their poor decision-making, rather than stern admonishments. He also encouraged teammates to shape each other’s behavior for the better using positive peer pressure. Closed-door, one-on-one sessions with athletes were another key tool for Coach Hougen. Usually, the athletes would come to him of their own accord to seek one-on-one counsel; Hougen’s athletes knew that he could be counted on, that he had their best interest at heart, and that he wasn’t going to overreact to whatever issue they might be having.

Much went on in those talks to shape the program, the people who composed it, and the people they would become. This type of love and dedication get to the essence of who Coach Hougen is and the unique contribution he made to individual athletes and the University. Testament to his deep caring for his athletes, he continues to remember and stay connected to many who ran, jumped, or threw for Bemidji. While there are some athletes who he has lost touch with, he carries them in his heart. There are a few, each for their own reasons, with whom he’d love nothing more than five minutes with – just to know they are okay. Wherever life has taken them, one thing is for sure, the experiences at BSU athletics are with them still.

Coach Hougen had an amazing ability to keep competitive pressure off his athletes, especially the very talented ones. He never talked about winning or losing - the conversation was always focused on how to keep improving. Over the years, Hougen had several athletes who could have gone on to professional athletic careers, but, overall, the type of athletes interested in participating in his BSU programs tended favor his whole-person mentality over competition for its own sake. Coach Hougen wanted athletes to be able to look back on their experience and say, “I had fun with my teammates.” It doesn’t get any more basic or profound than that.

This interview shines a light on a coaching philosophy that many would do well to adopt. Love what you do, put people first, and elevate growth above competition. Common sense is not always common practice, but when you can put it into practice, your legacy will be one of much love and impact. Thank you, Coach Hougen, for everything.

Martha Miltich '03


See photos from the 2022 BSU Athletic Hall of Fame induction ceremony

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