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Kramer jumps back into college football with Idaho State job
The view from a remote corner of Holt Arena in Pocatello stretches even the most liberal definition of glamour. It is one of the few areas of the place where a cell phone actually works, and is far from the football offices that are being cleaned out by the previous coaching staff.
For Mike Kramer, on his first full day as Idaho State’s head coach, there is no place any better, even if he’s now in charge of turning around one of the worst programs in the Football Championship Subdivision.
Last week, Kramer was the assistant to the director of operations at Washington State. Not the assistant director of operations.
Assistant to the director of operations is a position that paid $26,000 and allowed zero contact with players, a fate Kramer likened to being a chocolate lover in a chocolate factory but never being able to touch the product.
“I was as low on the totem pole as you could be on the totem pole,” Kramer said. “I wasn’t a titled person. I was just a soldier deep in the program. Now I’m a head coach. I have glamour.”
When you’ve been exiled from college athletics for three years, when you’ve fought a prolonged legal battle to clear your name, when you’ve been forced to find work elsewhere for a harvest company and your own construction company, when your big chance to get back into college athletics is as the assistant to the director of operations, well, being the head coach at Idaho State sounds like a dream job.
“Now that I’m back in the profession as head coach, I won’t be very trivial with it,” said Kramer, a three-time Big Sky coach of the year at Eastern Washington and Montana State.
Ah, Montana State.
There is no escaping what happened at Montana State, where Kramer was fired in 2007 after a series of high-profile arrests involving players with ties to the football program. Then-Montana State president Geoff Gamble said the program had a host of “leadership issues.”
Kramer filed a lawsuit against the school in 2007, alleging breach of contract and, more importantly to Kramer, that the school had defamed him. In August, Kramer and Montana State settled for $240,000.
“When they say you’re a bad leader, I was left with no choice but to fight,” he said.
But no school is willing to hire a coach with an ongoing lawsuit against his former employer. At some point, if he ever wanted to coach again, Kramer had to let go of the principles he was fighting for and settle.
“Whether they admit it or not, their check didn’t bounce,” said Kramer, a hint of bitterness still evident in his voice.
Boise State defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski coached at Montana State with Kramer for five years.
“Some of the guys that had been recruited by us turned out to be not good people. After they were kicked off the team they committed some pretty heinous crimes,” Kwiatkowski said.
“All it takes is one or two guys to be the cancer or that bad seed. A couple of kids that you never thought would have gone that route sort of got sucked in.”
Kramer’s ouster at Montana State will forever be part of his record, just as much as his 77 victories and 75 losses in 13 seasons as a head coach.
But Kramer won’t let it define him. When the lawsuit went away, the phone calls started. Idaho State contacted him to gauge his interest earlier this month.
“I was looking for any position. I don’t know if I had any geographical limits. That’s a subtle way of saying I would have gone anywhere, coached anything,” said Kramer, an Idaho alum and former lineman with deep ties to the Northwest.
The Bengals made sure he didn’t have to go far. Rebuilding his reputation might be easier than rebuilding the Bengals, though Kramer believes he has more resources in Pocatello than Eastern Washington does — and the Eagles are No. 1 in the FCS polls.
His early hire should help with recruiting players and a coaching staff. Part of his job at Washington State was evaluating potential recruits. Some might fit well at Idaho State.
Don Bailey, Kramer’s offensive coordinator at Montana State, will join him with the Bengals; the first of what will be an entirely different coaching staff. The pair was breaking down tape Tuesday.
During his time at Washington State, Kramer became fond of the uptempo, spread offense — like the one used at Houston in 2009 and Oklahoma State now. He plans to install that offense in Pocatello.
“I was taken aback by what I saw. Given the nature, the nature of the rules, I think it will fly anywhere,” said Kramer, who should be able to generate enthusiasm with his personality and earned high marks for getting players fired up and ready to play.
That won’t matter much without a quarterback to run his system — snap the ball in 11 to 14 seconds, spread the field and throw quick-strike passes.
“We need to be good enough at quarterback to handle any situation,” Kramer said. “In football today, success hinges upon the ability of the quarterback to make plays.”
Kramer is talking football again. Any hint of bitterness is gone. He can touch the chocolate, taste it if he wants. Never has an isolated corner of Holt Arena felt so comfortable.
By Brian Murphy, Idaho Statesman