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BOWL ELIGIBLE? After stint in Sun Belt, Vandals feel more at home in WAC
On Saturday, Nov. 23, 1996, the Idaho Vandals and Boise State Broncos met for the first time as Big West Conference foes.
The outcome, as you might expect, was lopsided. The losing team surrendered 273 yards and four touchdowns to one running back, and lost 64-19. But it was Idaho who had the hammer, in junior Joel Thomas. He tore off a 90-yard TD run in a game the Vandals led 64-6 at one point.
Two years later Idaho completed a 9-3 season with a 42-35 win over Southern Miss in the 1998 Humanitarian Bowl, in Boise. Not a bad start in I-A football.
Then the oars came off.
The Big West bagged football in 2000, and while Boise State got an immediate invitation to join the Western Athletic Conference, Idaho did not. Rivals in the Big Sky Conference and Big West, the Vandals and Broncos kept playing nonconference games. But Idaho was in the far-flung Sun Belt Conference.
By the time the WAC gave Idaho an invite in 2005, Boise State, which had lost 12 straight to Idaho from 1987-98, had run its win streak over the Vandals to six. It’s now nine straight wins for the Broncos after three WAC victories.
The Broncos are just one reason Idaho struggled on the field, but there is a clear delineation when things really started going south: It’s when the Big West quit football.
“The Sun Belt wasn’t the right fit, obviously,” said Idaho athletic director Rob Spear, who saw Idaho join that league along with San Jose State and Utah State in the fall of 2001. “But at that time, it was the only Division I conference, football-wise, that wanted Idaho.”
Idaho won a total of eight conference football games in four seasons in the Sun Belt, and boasted an overall record of 9-38. In Spear’s mind things began looking up when the WAC finally called in 2005.
The Vandals have won just five league games in three seasons since. Three victories came in 2006, during Dennis Erickson’s brief reunion with the program he coached in the Big Sky from 1982-85. But there’s no denying the WAC’s invitation was welcome.
“It was a relief, because being in the Sun Belt geographically made no sense,” said Spear. “And we were on the verge of heading into the Sun Belt with all of our sports.
“It’s one thing to charter for a football trip. If we’d had to send our basketball or volleyball kids on a road trip, we might not have seen them until spring.”
Spear is in charge of 16 sports at Idaho. There’s been success within the department, including a first-place showing by the women’s cross country team (and second by the men’s) at the 2007 WAC championships.
“We’ve competed pretty well in some of our nonrevenue sports,” said Spear. “But you know what? People look at your revenue sports, your football and men’s basketball programs, and ask, ‘How are you doing?’ That’s what they judge your athletic program on, and we have to get better.”
To that end the Vandals have made overdue improvements. They installed a SprinTurf practice facility that is basically two 70-yard fields outside the Kibbie Dome. The weight room is new and state of the art. Almost all the locker rooms have been or are being refurbished, starting with football.
Total cost, including lighting the outdoor practice field: $12.01 million, all but $1.8 million coming from private funds.
That hasn’t stopped the game of coaching musical chairs. Erickson’s stay lasted 10 months, something that still grates on Spear. Erickson followed forgettable runs from Tom Cable (11 wins in four seasons) and Nick Holt (five wins in two years).
“Believe me, we’ve had way too much turnover there,” said Spear. “Dennis - what he did was he reinvigorated the program. He got people interested. Did I think he would be here longer than 10 months? Absolutely. Did he sell me a bill of goods? Probably.
“At the end of the day, he came in and saw it was a rebuilding situation. It was probably hard for him, coming from where he had been.”
While Erickson is busy building up Arizona State’s football program, Spear feels he has the man to give continuity to Idaho football in Robb Akey, who came over from Washington State.
“We’ve made some great strides since Dr. Spear’s got things going,” said Akey. “That’s a first-class practice facility here. That’s nicer than some of the Pac-10 schools have. That weight room - we can build them as big as we need to right there.”
When former Idaho coach Tom Cable left to take the job at Nevada - a former Big Sky foe that is now a WAC rival - in 2003, Akey said he thought about applying for the job. But Washington State was riding high, having just played in the Holiday Bowl. Idaho was without a president, and lacking the facilities that are there now.
“There were, to me, a lot of question marks,” Akey said. “This time, after Coach Erickson departed, when Rob called I could swear that he was pounding his fist on his table. There was great conviction in his voice.
“He’s made this happen. If it wasn’t happening, you couldn’t convince me to take this job.”
Akey believes in Spear, and vice-versa. Now they need results. Idaho went 1-10 in Akey’s first season, 0-8 in the WAC.
By Fritz Neighbor