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Why is No One Talking About the Idaho Vandals?

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Why is No One Talking About the Idaho Vandals?
(Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images)

I am shocked by the overall lack for press given to Rob Akey's Idaho Vandals for their play this year and the underliying lack of respect.

Not from "football insiders"—ESPN put Idaho vs. a good Colorado State team on TV.  I am talking about a lack of respect from WAC fans, who should know better at this point having seen the team for a few weeks now.

With the WAC despirately trying to prove that Boise is not going to play a cupcake schedule in conference so Boise can maintain their high ranking, one would think that WAC fans would be pushing Idaho after each win.

Maybe they are still mad about having to admit the Vandals... Afterall Idaho was the fat kid no one in the WAC wanted on their team. The WAC didn't want to deal with the black eye of adding a team with the smallest venue at the FBS level --- Idaho's 15,000 seat Kibbie Dome*. 

(*The Kibbie Dome is named after a guy one would have to think of as the patron saint of Idaho football, Bill Kibbie.  Kibbie attended Idaho for only a month before lack of finances forced him into the real world.  He became the head of a contracting company in Utah and in spite of his short time at the university contributed $300,000 of the dome's $1M price tag in 1970.)

Idaho has had a rough decade plus trip to FBS competence. 


Glory Days?

It wasn't always this way for Idaho. Idaho was a member of the Pacific Coast Conference, a precursor to the Pac 10 from 1922 to 1959.  True by the end of that era their smaller budget and conference outlier status caught up to them, bleeding the competitiveness out of their programs, but still, they were affiliated with UCLA and Cal for 37 years!  Who in the WAC can make that claim?

With the collapse of the PCC, Idaho looked for a level of play where their resources would better allow them to compete.  After four years as an independent, Idaho was a founding member of the Big Sky Conference. 

In the late 1980s Idaho emerged as a football power in the conference winning four conference titles in five years and launching a number of big time coaches' careers.  The university began making plans to move up to an FBS conference.

In 1996 Idaho left the Big Sky for the Big West, joining Boise State, UNT, and Cal Poly as replacements for UNLV, Arkansas State, Louisiana Tech, and Southwestern Louisiana (now ULL). 

These additions were seen as too marginal and were too dispersed to save the Big West's football programs leading that conference to drop football in 2000.   Big West football survivors like Idaho faced the tough decision of moving back down to FCS or risking another run as a conference outlier, where travel costs would probably bleed the competitveness out of the program again.


The long walk back

Probably assuming that a move down to the FCS level would be taken as an admission of failure in state and as such would create a huge hurdle for Idaho's state flagship university in a future move to become the FBS school they want to be, Idaho went east to the distant confines of the Sunbelt Conference as a football-only member.

It may have been the right choice, but it would prove to be a brutal move.

There, travel costs and their small stadium further crushed the competitiveness out of their program and damaged their reputation as an FBS school.

But the capricious fingers of fate finally begun to let off Idaho.  A few years earlier, in 1999, fate had begun to poke someone else in the eye for a change.  This time, it would be the WAC. 

In 1999, the eight schools with the best MWC programs and TV markets staged a bloody (and possibly technically illegal) coup.  The WAC was now a two halves of a marginal FBS conference.  There were eight teams spread across a giant footprint where travel costs bled the competitiveness out of all member programs.

Nevada joined in 2000. TCU bailed in 2001.  Boise State and La Tech joined in 2001.

Idaho sat sadly overlooked with each new team recruited.

The SMU, Rice, and Tulsa walked away from the high travel costs of the WAC effective in 2005, forcing the WAC to consider Idaho, Utah State, and New Mexico State.

Despite proximity, USU and NMSU got the invites in 2003.  Idaho was again left in the cold.

Only when TCU's departure from CUSA to the MWC forced CUSA to add UTEP did the WAC finally relent and add Idaho's Vandals of the Kibbie Dome, a move that triggered years of complaints about the bottom three schools not winning and dragging down the conference.


Finally in—time to win?

Finally having achieved membership in an FBS conference with decent travel, Idaho made a big hire landing former Idaho and NFL head coach Dennis Erickson.  With excitement at a decade high level, Idaho began talk of lowering the turf in the Kibbie Dome and adding an upper deck that would bring capacity up to a very workable and FBS respectable 25,000.

Then after one year Erickson turned his back on the folks in Idaho leaving the Idaho fans with shattered dreams of an upgraded stadium and an improved team.

Idaho hired a some unknown assistant coach by the name of Rob Akey to pick up the pieces.

Akey and his staff lost most of Erickson's players and rebuilt the team essentially from scratch.  The Vandals were awful in 2007 and awful again in 2008, vying with UNT and FCS upgrade Western Kentucky for the title of worst FBS team in the country.

But while Akey was not a big name, he was well known in coaching circles as a good recruiter.  With two years of playing experience, his team matured over the 2009 off-season.

The team opened the 2009 season with an expected win over the lousy NMSU Aggies. The next week the Vandals were beaten by a very talented Washington team in a game they probably could have won if they expected to win.

Regardless, the Washington game appears to have been a turning point.  A tougher minded Idaho team beat San Diego State at home and  Northern Illinois on the road earning them attention from ESPN and a nationally televised game from the Kibbie Dome vs. a very improved Colorado State team.

The game was fantastic TV with Colorado State jumping on the Vandals early and silencing the home crowd before Idaho came raging back to win the game.  To top it off, the Vandals played the game without their leading receiver.

The Vandals sit alone in second place in the WAC with a 4-1 record overall.   The state of Idaho has a 9-1 record at the FBS level this year with the rest of the WAC at 11-20.

Their QB, a tall skinny kid with a good arm by the name of Nathan Enberle suddenly has apparently become of the NCAA's best NFL QB prospects, and Akey has been getting a lot of credit for turning around what was probably the fifth or sixth toughest rebuilding job at the FBS level.


The Future for Idaho

Is is possible the Vandals will implode vs. better competition?  Sure.  Is it likely?  Probably not.

Anyone who saw the Colorado game saw a tough minded veteran Vandals team who's play exceeds their talent on both sides of the ball.  The fans also saw the Kibbie Dome for what it really is—a great venue from which to broadcast a football game that gets rocking and loud when the Vandals are playing well.

Idaho hosts every contender in the WAC besides Boise State.  They host Hawaii who doesn't play well on the mainland and recently lost QB Greg Alexander for the season.  He appeared to have been one of the best QBs in the conference.

They host La Tech who has quite a distance to travel for the game as well.

They host Fresno State who appears to once more not have a defense.

Do not be suprised if the Vandals are a three-loss team at the end of the season and are in the top 25.


In five years' time

It is entirely possible that Idaho could string together two very good years in a row.  If that is the case, I think the money to further expand the Kibbie Dome would likely become available (the state legislature did provide the money to lower the turf and increase capacity to 20,000 after Erickson left his old school in the lurch and the state's reputation in a shamble).

Even with a capacity of 16,000, the Kibbie Dome is a very loud stadium.  On TV, it favors a packed arena league stadium with no bad seats in the house.

The Kibbie Dome is shaped like a plane hanger.  It seems like the dome could be extended to add space for endzone seating that might get capacity up to 24,000 or so.  Adding an upper deck could get it up to 30,000 at that point. 

That is perfectly appropriate for a football crazy school with 12,000 students and compairs very well to respected schools like SMU or Houston's stadiums, except unlike their stadia it offers protections from rain or snow crushing fan attendance and would be significantly louder.

Idaho has a very bright future.  WAC fans should embrace Idaho's success instead of continuing to look down on the Vandals.  Afterall, isn't this what WAC fans have claimed to want for years --- to want to see some life out of the 3 cellar dwellers?

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