I watched Idaho's most recent game, a loss to a tough Boise State team, on television because I was curious about the next Husky opponent. What I saw terribly disappointed me.
Not the teams, but rather the crowd. The Kibbie Dome in Moscow holds 16,000, but was barely half full. A Division 1 football program that draws less than 9,000 for their in-state rival? I don't get it. What has happened to the greatest stepping stone job in the west? Four good college coaches all got their start by being the head coach at Idaho.
The winningest coach in the history of Idaho football will be standing on the opposite sideline coaching the Huskies on Saturday. Keith Gilbertson was 28-9 as the head Vandal. He won two Big Sky Championships in three years there.
Of course Gilbs went on to the UW to be Don James' offensive line coach and offensive coordinator, installing the one-back offense for the Huskies. He then left for the head job at Cal, and then went into the NFL with the Seahawks, and is now finally back at the UW. His predecessor, Dennis Erickson, coached the Vandals before stepping on to Wyoming, WSU, Miami, the Seahawks, Oregon State, and now the 49'ers. The coach to follow Gilbs, John L. Smith, stepped from Idaho to Utah State, then to Louisville, and now is at Michigan State. The man who followed Smith, Ex-Husky assistant, Chris Tormey, won at his alma mater, then immediately stepped up to Nevada Reno.
All four of these guys won championships at Idaho in the Big Sky conference.
Unfortunately for Tom Cable, he will never get that chance. The stepping-stone will turn into a stumbling rock for him and could mark his last and only head coaching experience.
The Vandals are 0-3 for this year, preceded by a 2002 campaign where they were 2-10 and a 2001 season where they were 1-10. Cable is in big trouble and so is Idaho Football. This is a program that from 1982 to 2000 had won six championships, had six second place finishes, and five third places finishes in their league.
What in the world has happened?
Basically, they got too big for their britches. They were going to go big time for football, and in 1996 jumped from the old Big Sky Conference where they played local rivals like Montana, Montana State, Idaho State, Eastern Washington, Weber State, Portland State, and Northern Arizona. For years, the other in-state school in the big city of Boise was also in the Big Sky. Idaho regularly pounded the Broncos and a record crowd of 17,600 witnessed the 1989 battle for potatoes supremacy.
Less than half that crowd showed up Saturday night and the level of talent was tilted significantly toward the Boise sidelines. Now granted, Boise State is also a stepping stone job, but they are at least competitive and are playing in the WAC against teams that they can compete against.
Because of their small stadium, Idaho was restricted from playing Division I. When Boise made the jump, Idaho thought that they should also leave the Division 1AA league behind and applied to join the Big West. They have now entered the Sun Belt Conference. The primary purpose in moving up is to have 85 scholarships instead of 65 as they do in the Big Sky.
Idaho essentially joined the only Division 1 league that would accept them, and now plays against the likes of Louisiana-Monroe, Middle Tennessee State, Arkansas State, Louisiana-Lafayette, North Texas, New Mexico State, and Utah State.
Can you find anything closely approximating a natural geographic rival here?. Wow. The Sun Belt? Does anyone even think of the sun when any of these places are mentioned?
Being that football is supposed to help finance the other sports in an athletic department, how can the Vandals be making any money with this move? Only by getting slobber-knocked by division I powers that are looking for a sacrificial lamb for hire.
Wouldn't it be better to play closer to home so someone would care?
I'm not trying to suggest that Coach Cable and his staff are not trying to do a good job. That program is very good to the kids from the State of Washington. Washington is the second most popular state that provides the Vandals with their players. They have always recruited the northwest well. I know, because I always gave our recruiting lists to them to help them recruit. Gilbs and Tormey both would go hard on the kids that we decided not to offer. They essentially got the Husky leftovers, and that served them well as their record indicated.
However, that was at the division 1AA level. After Cable's first year, they moved up to the Sunbelt and have won but two conference games in two years.
What is really ironic is that the old Big Sky rivals like Montana and Eastern Washington are also beating them. The Idaho program schedules non-conference games like WSU and this coming game against Washington for strictly one reason – money. The Vandals get more money for coming to Seattle twice than they do for all their home games combined.
In fact, since Cable has been there the Vandals have played Oregon twice, Washington four times, the Cougars four times, Arizona once, and even traveled to West Virginia once. They did surprise the Cougs in 2000, but have lost every other game. I guess the upside is that they got great paychecks and their kids got to say they played against Pac-10 teams in Pac-10 stadiums.
The 21 Washington kids on their roster get a chance to come back to Seattle and play their hearts out on Saturday, but in reality there is simply no way that the Vandals can compete with a team like Washington. Don' misinterpret me, I know the Huskies respect all their opponents, and will take Idaho very seriously. Washington has somehow played down to their opponent's level in the not-so-distant past.
But I don't see it happening this time. Not this Saturday. There is too much to lose by NOT overpowering Idaho. The Huskies need to be hitting their stride very shortly and this warm up should be a good test to see if they can fire on all cylinders before conference play begins. I admire Coach Cable and know how tough it is to prepare a team when you're clearly outmatched. His team will battle, tooth and claw, and give the Dawgs fits but the bottom line is Idaho is out of its league in this contest.
In fact, it's out of its league, even when it's in their own league.
Based on their attendance, I would suggest that Idaho should be back in the Big Sky where people would care enough to attend the games. If there's a football game and no one shows up, does it matter?
| Dawgman.com columnist and KJR 950 Sports Radio personality, Dick Baird.|
Dick Baird was an Assistant Coach (Linebackers) and Recruiting Coordinator at the UW from 1985-1998. He has joined the Dawgman.com staff as a featured columnist for both the web site and Sports Washington magazine. In addition to his regular editorial columns, Coach Baird will try to provide some of his unique perspective by answering a few of your selected questions online. If you would like to send in your questions, please CLICK HERE.
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