The State of the Program Entering I-A
Since becoming the launchpad for Dennis Erickson’s coaching career from 1982-1985, the Idaho Vandals had spent the next decade firmly ensconced among the top tier of teams competing at the I-A level. Under Erickson and his successors Keith Gilbertson and John L. Smith, the Vandals had posted winning records for thirteen straight seasons.
Chris Tormey, who took over for Smith in 1995, led Idaho to their 11th appearance in the I-AA postseason in his inaugural campaign coaching the team. But in their final game before moving up to the I-A level, the Vandals were bounced for the second straight season in the opening round by McNeese State.
While they never reached the championship game, Idaho lost on four occasions in either the quarterfinals (1982, 1990) or semifinals (1988, 1993) to the eventual national champion. Missing just three postseasons from 1982 to 1995 at the I-AA level, the Vandals had developed into a model of consistency in the lower division when they joined the Big West for play in 1996.
The First Season
Opening their first I-A campaign in Laramie, the Vandals nearly upset a Wyoming squad that was beginning a 10-win season that was a few plays away from becoming an undefeated year for the ages. Falling 40-38 to the Cowboys, Idaho’s defense gave up forty again the next weekend in a 40-21 loss at San Diego State.
The Vandals finally won against I-AA St. Mary’s for their first win as a top-tier team, but they came back down to earth when I-AA Texas State knocked them off cloud nine on the last weekend of September 1996.
Cal Poly, which had only climbed to the I-AA ranks two years earlier, fell on the first weekend of October in Moscow. At this point was just 2-3, but their only wins had come against middling I-AA opponents — and, more ominously, they were 0-2 against I-A competition.
That all changed two weekends later following a bye week, when two-time defending Big West champion Nevada came to Moscow. The Wolf Pack, on their way to a third straight Big West title and their fourth since joining the league in 1992, fell to the Vandals 24-15 on October 19. The defeat snapped Nevada’s eight-game conference winning streak, and gave Idaho its first conference win at the I-A level.
Though they lost on their trip to face Utah State five days before Halloween, the Vandals hit their stride once the calendar flipped to November. Winning three of their last four, including a 64-19 rout of state rival (and fellow 1996 transplant to I-A football) Boise State on the road in the season finale, Idaho surged through the last part of their schedule to finish above .500 with a 6-5 record. In the end, only a loss to North Texas in the penultimate contest of the season prevented Idaho from sharing the Big West title with Nevada and earning the league’s bowl berth thanks to their head-to-head victory over the Wolf Pack.
How Have They Fared Since?
After a winning campaign in their first season in the Big West, Idaho fell under .500 at 5-6 in 1997 with a home loss to Boise State 23-20 on the last day of the schedule. The next year, they would rally their way to their first (and as yet only) I-A conference championship. Losing during their non-conference schedule on the road to Washington State and LSU, the Vandals rallied to finish the year 8-3 and earn their first-ever bowl berth. Facing Southern Miss on their rival’s turf in Boise for the Humanitarian Bowl, Idaho survived a shootout to win 42-35 in their first taste of I-A’s version of the postseason.
In 1999, the Vandals played every home game in a different state. Utilizing the expanded seating of Washington State’s Martin Stadium, Idaho crossed the border on every home weekend to play at “home” in Pullman. With a 4-1 record at what passed for home, the Vandals finished 7-4 in Chris Tormey’s final season before he headed to Reno to replace Jeff Tisdel at Nevada.
Splitting their home games between Moscow and Pullman over the next two seasons, the Vandals regressed into a sub-.500 team under new head coach Tom Cable. The former Colorado offensive coordinator and future ex-head coach of the Oakland Raiders, Cable’s best season proved to be his first as Idaho finished 5-6 in the final season of Big West football. Upon joining the Sun Belt in 2000, the Vandals would devolve into a 1-10 team. With their win totals improving by only one win a year, Cable was dismissed after his fourth season in charge after a 3-9 campaign in 2003.
Into the picture entered Nick Holt, who had spent eight years in the 1990s working first as a defensive line coach under John L. Smith and later as the team’s defensive coordinator in the first years of the Tormey era. He had just helped mold the dominant linebacker corps of the national powerhouse USC Trojans and was a hot commodity on the market, but the return to the Palouse proved largely forgettable. His first year at the helm produced a 3-9 record in the team’s final season of Sun Belt play; his second and final year yielded a tumble to 2-9 as Idaho joined the WAC in 2005.
Holt, feeling the heat under his seat, bolted for a return to Los Angeles to take over as USC’s defensive coordinator after the season. Hoping that the catalyst of the school’s initial rise in the I-AA ranks could potentially kick-start its flagging I-A fortunes, the Vandals brought back Dennis Erickson more than two decades after he had left Moscow the first time. The oft-traveled Erickson would coach against two of his former schools, losing 56-10 to Washington State and 38-0 to Oregon State in his lone season back in town. Using the Vandals to relaunch his coaching career, Erickson just as quickly jumped at the opportunity to take the head job at Arizona State.
Faced with hiring a new head coach for the third time in four seasons, Idaho’s athletic department looked west across the Palouse and tabbed Washington State’s defensive coordinator Robb Akey to succeed Erickson. Reading like a bell curve, his tenure would lead Idaho to its second great I-A zenith before his stock plummeted back to earth.
A 1-11 season in 2007 was followed by a 2-10 record in 2008. Then, exploding suddenly into the national consciousness thanks to the accurate arm of redshirt junior quarterback Nathan Enderle, Idaho enjoyed their best season in over a decade. They would reach .500 in WAC play — the first non-losing record in conference play since Tormey was the coach and Idaho was in the Big West — and end the regular season bowl-eligible at 7-5. Selected to head south once again to play in the Humanitarian Bowl in Boise, the Vandals squared off against Bowling Green in another postseason thriller.
The seesaw battle looked as though it had been won by Bowling Green when electric receiver Freddie Barnes hauled in a 51-yard pass for his third touchdown of the game. With 32 seconds left, the Falcons had a 42-35 lead on the Vandals. Enderle needed only 28 seconds to get Idaho down the field, hitting Max Komar with a 16-yard scoring strike with four seconds left and then converting a two-point play to Preston Davis as the Vandals prevented overtime with the one-point victory.
Regressing back to 6-7 in Enderle’s senior season, Akey failed to find another comparable quarterback and plummeted back into a 2-10 coach. Eight games into the 2012 season, his team suffering another losing campaign at 1-7, his contract was terminated 26 months before its completion. Jason Gesser, the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, took over for the final four losses of Idaho’s WAC history.
As they enter a season of independence before rejoining the Sun Belt in 2014, they take on their first new head coach in over half a decade. Paul Petrino, brother of Bobby and most recently the offensive coordinator at Arkansas, will try to recapture the thrill of bowl eligibility in Moscow without suffering the chasms in the record that have eventually snared every other Vandal head coach in the I-A era.