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POCATELLO – Facing a three-point deficit with 22 seconds to go against its hated rival, Idaho State turned to the most memorable play in its history, “The Globe of Death.”
Behind the radio mic that day, Jerry Miller remembers it all: the kickoff return that brought Idaho State into Boise State territory, the Broncos’ subsequent personal foul call and Rommie Wheeler’s touchdown catch with 5 seconds left that gave the Bengals one of the defining victories in their history.
Miller’s joy was heightened, however, when he looked to the far end of the Holt Arena press box.
“Literally, one of the sweetest feelings I ever remember was to call that comeback win over Boise State and to look down at the other end of the press box and see Paul J. Schneider sitting there in stunned shock,” Miller said, then added, as if putting words in Schneider’s mouth, “‘How could this happen? How could we lose to Idaho State?’”
Just six times has Idaho State defeated Boise State on the football field, and in 38 games against its other in-state rival, Idaho, the Bengals have won just 11 times.
But when it did, when Idaho State beat either of its hated rival, boy was it sweet to those who played in or watched the game.
“Every game between the three in the state meant something,” said Jason Whitmer, who quarterbacked the Bengals in 1987 – the last time the team beat both the Broncos and the Vandals in the same season.
“In my years since I played, I ran into guys who played at both schools, and it’s something to talk about,” Whitmer said of 1987. “That was a big deal back then. Even now we can say, ‘Remember that year?’”
That year, however, is becoming a distant memory in the minds of Bengals faithful, and the phenomenon might never be the same. But this year, they’ll try.
For the first time since 1995, the Bengals, Vandals and Broncos will all play each other on the football field – and never before have the disparities between the three programs been more pronounced.
Since Boise State and Idaho left the Big Sky in 1996, the rivalry between the three Gem State schools – at least in football – has devolved into a matchup of haves and have-nots, a resource inequity that will probably never be balanced again.
For Boise State, the words “Fiesta Bowl” say it all.
For Idaho, the thought of coach Dennis Erickson brings to mind the flirtation with success and the misfortune that has befallen the program the last 12 seasons.
All the while, Idaho State, having stayed put in the Big Sky while its prodigal brothers moved on, continues to chase Montana, now the pinnacle of FCS prowess.
So if there is so much inequity, why does Idaho State bother? Why not try to move on, cultivate other rivalries and forget about chasing Idaho and Boise State?
Idaho State’s answer seems to be, “Why not?”
“I think it’s great,” said Jim Koetter, the Bengals coach from 1983 to 1987. “It’d be great if you could keep it going. It would help all the schools.”
It certainly did when all three programs stood on the same competitive plane.
For the first two years of the 1980s, the state of Idaho ruled I-AA football.
Boise State won a national title in 1980. The next season, Idaho State went 12-1, lost only to Montana and won a national championship under coach Dave Kragthorpe.
The 1980s were also a time of parity between Boise State, Idaho and Idaho State. Of the 30 games between them that decade, Idaho won 13, Boise State won nine and Idaho State stayed close with eight victories. In 1987 and 1981, Idaho State claimed the Governor’s Cup for beating Idaho and Boise State in the same season.
“Back then, it was a special thing for Idaho State to do that,” said Gino Mariani, the current Highland High School football coach who played for Idaho State from 1984 to 1987. “The players knew about it. They looked forward to it.”
Fans did, too. Miller, who was the Voice of the Bengals from 1982 to 1994 and will reprise the role starting Saturday at Boise State, said attendance swelled when the Bengals played their in-state foes, no matter their records.
“Any time we played Boise, you could always count on a 25- to 50-percent increase in attendance just to see that game,” Miller said. “Not quite the same for Idaho, but close.”
Indeed, the rivalry between the Bengals and Broncos was almost always hotter than that between the Bengals and Vandals, Miller said. Growing up in Idaho, Miller said the predominant sentiment was that the Panhandle wanted to be part of Washington or Montana and that Boise wished southeast Idaho would fold into Utah.
As is the case with rivalries across the country, those social and political issues always added fuel to the football games. So too did the contests electrify the state by drawing its collective attention to one spot for three hours on a Saturday afternoon or night.
“The fact that they played each other on a regular basis, twice a year in basketball and once in football,” Miller said, “it really put the state’s border in bold because there were these three fierce rivalries.”
Then came the exodus.
In 1996, two years after playing for the I-AA national championship, Boise State joined the Big West Conference.
By Dan Thompson
Idaho State Journal