Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Bengal Soccer Ranked 18th Most Improved by Somis Sports

Somis Sports has released a listing of the 25 most improved 2009 Division I women's soccer teams. Idaho State was ranked 18th in the most improved list as the Bengals turned around a 3-12-4 record in 2008 to a 10-8-0 record in 2009. Somis Sports calculated a team's improvement by comparing its final 2009 rating to an adjusted 2008 rating. Based on the calculation, 25 teams showed the most improvement in 2009 vs. 2008. A team's rating roughly equated to net goals (goals scored minus goals against). Based on the calculation, 25 teams improved by at least 1.06 net goals per game.

ISU’s 2008 season, was the Bengals’ fewest victories since its inaugural season in 1998 when ISU went 2-14-1. In 2009, the Bengals improved to a 10-8-0 record, ISU’s first ten-win season since head coach Allison Gibson’s first season with Idaho State in 2006 where she led ISU to its fourth Big Sky Conference Tournament Championship.

The Bengals did not have an easy season in front on them. ISU welcomed ten freshmen who were led by only three seniors, including Annamarie Hofstetter who became the Big Sky Conference all-time career assists leader with 25 from 2006-09. Even with a young squad the Bengals posted a winning 6-5 non-conference record that included a 2-1 win over Wyoming and a 1-0 victory over Utah State on the road.

Idaho State posted a 4-3 Big Sky record with a perfect 4-0 stance at home where the Bengals allowed just eight shots on goal by their opponents. ISU finished the regular season with a 4-0 victory over Weber State at Davis Field for ISU to tie for third in the conference rankings securing their post season berth. The Bengals advanced to tournament championship with a 2-1 win over Eastern Washington before falling to Northern Arizona in the finals.

However, Idaho State’s achievements did not end there as head coach Gibson earned her second Coach of the Year Award when she shared the honor with Andre Luciano of NAU who capture the tournament title and Portland State’s Laura Schott who led the Vikings to the regular season title. Gibson took the honor as recognition for the team’s achievements on the field. ISU’s acknowledgement of its achievement from 2008 to 2009 stretched beyond the Big Sky with Somis Sports’ acknowledgement.

--Katie Zigars, Assistant SID

Monday, December 28, 2009

Bengal Vlog: Mark Campbell Discusses the Jared Allen Strength and Conditioning Center

Katie Zigars got a new toy for Christmas (A flip video camera), and graciously tried it out with an interview with ISU strength and conditioning coach Mark Campbell, who is anxiously awaiting the rest of his new equipment for the remodeled Jared Allen Strength and Conditioning Center.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Rise, Fall of ISU Football Top Story of Decade

Thanks to all the Bengal fans who gave me input on the Top 10 Stories of the Decade for Idaho State Athletics. I've considered all those suggestions and now, without further ado, my list, ranked from least impact to most. Please feel free to disagree in the comments section below. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

10. Idaho State's Ties to the National Football League: The Bengal football program was up and down in the decade of the 2000s, but there was one constant -- Idaho State maintained a strong presence in the National Football League. Defensive end Jared Allen was clearly the most conspicuous -- so much so, we ranked his presence alone as another of our top stories of the decade (see below). But Jared wasn't the only Bengal getting national pub because of his ties to the NFL. ISU Hall of Fame running back Merril Hoge got tons of air time on ESPN as an analyst, and he grabbed national headlines after presenting video evidence of what a slacker then-Viking WR Randy Moss was when Moss knew he wasn't the primary receiving target on a particular play. Former Bengal linebacker and assistant Coach Marvin Lewis also got plenty of attention in the NFL, earning a Super Bowl Ring as defensive coordinator of the world champion Baltimore Ravens, then getting his own gig as head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals.

Idaho State has ties to two other coaches with high-profile NFL jobs: Dirk Koetter, offensive coordinator for Jacksonville, and Kevin Gilbride, OC with the New York Giants. Koetter played quarterback for the Bengals in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and Gilbride was a graduate assistant (and co-coach of ISU's first women's basketball team) in the 1970s.

The Bengals also placed a number of players in "the league" this past decade, including defensive end Jeff Charleston (Colts and Saints), linebacker Pago Tagufu, who appeared in this year's Super Bowl with the Arizona Cardinals; backup quarterback Matt Gutierrez (New England and Kansas City), offensive lineman Evan Dietrich-Smith (Green Bay), and defensive back D.J. Clark (just recently signed to the Packers' practice squad). It would be great to see ISU make more use of these connections, perhaps through a joint fund-raising project for new coaches offices or a players lounge, which could include photos and displays of ISU's ties to the NFL. ISU needs to take as much advantage of this presence as they can, while they still have so many ties to the league.

9. Instability in Leadership: Idaho State went through four athletic directors during the decade and the only one that was hired as the result of a national search -- Jim Senter -- lasted the shortest time. Howard Gauthier, who inherted the AD's job after replacing the deposed Irv Cross on an interim basis, was the first to go, the victim of an internal coup that led to his firing for his supposed inabilty to raise sufficient external funds for the program.

Gauthier was replaced by Senter, a veteran fundraiser at the University of Idaho, who lasted all of 18 months before resigning for "personal reasons." While Senter was hired with a focus on raising more private money for the athletic department, he didn't enjoy all the "other responsibilities" that go with being an AD: like hiring and firing coaches and staff. He went back into the fundraising arena after his departure from ISU.

Paul Bubb, who came to ISU with a checkered past from his days at Maine and Cal-Northridge, also inherited the job, first as the interim replacing Senter, then as the full-time AD. Bubb took the ongoing facilities issue by the horns and produced an administration-backed blueprint for upgrades called "Bengal Village." Alas, Bubb was first suspended, then allowed to "resign" in 2008 following an internal investigation. During Bubb's tenure, the athletic department rang up a $900,000 budget deficit.

Finally, Bubb was replaced on an interim basis, then permanently by Jeff Tingey, an assistant AD with little experience and the added burden of being the son of ISU Vice President Kent Tingey. Critics of the hire had plenty of ammunition, but Tingey has been fairly successful to date with several new facilities upgrades either completed or on the drawing board and no internal scandal so far on his watch. The lack of continuity in the athletic director's office has made fundraising and relationship building difficult for decades at ISU. Bengal fans hope that Tingey, who is a Pocatello native, will lend the kind of stability that will improve both areas.

Ultimately, however, Tingey's tenure will be judged largely on how John Zamberlin and Joe O'Brien, football and men's basketball coaches, respectively, perform. Tingey made the decision to extend Zamberlin's football contract in the midst of a tough two-year run, after extending O'Brien's deal last spring. It's great to see lockerroom upgrades and a new video board in Holt Arena, but there's nothing like Ws in the two showcase sports to keep the boosters happy.

8. Stacy Dragila Wins the Gold: Idaho State basked in several years of free publicity when former Bengal track athlete Stacy Dragila (above) became the best female pole vaulter in the world in the late 1990s and early 2000s. That world-wide attention culminated in the 2000 summer games, when she won the gold medal in the inaugural Olympics women's pole vault competition. From being on the cover of the Wheaties box to appearing on countless hours of national television, Dragila literally became the American face of women's pole vaulting -- and the words "Idaho State" were more often than not associated with that face. The road on the south side of Holt Arena was renamed "Stacy Dragila Drive," and she continued to generate good will for ISU's track program by serving as assistant coach to Dave Nielsen during part of the decade.

7. Success of Women's Basketball and Soccer: Idaho State's two showcase women's programs reached new heights during the past decade. The basketball program won two regular season Big Sky Conference titles and two post-season tournaments, appeared in two NCAA tournaments and three women's NITs. Center Natalie Doma became the best player in ISU history and, arguably, the best in Big Sky Conference history after becoming the conference's all-time leading scorer and rebounder. Both Ardie McInelly and Jon Newlee coached the Bengals to NCAA tournament appearances, McInelly after leading ISU to a perfect 14-0 conference run in 2000-2001. Doma and guard Andrea Lightfoot each staked claim to a Big Sky MVP award.

The soccer team, meanwhile, won four conference tournaments and earned NCAA tournament berths. The 2003 team achieved the team's first NCAA tournament victory with a win over Utah. Gordon Henderson parlayed his three Big Sky titles into a job with Arkansas of the Southeastern Conference. Allison Gibson came on as coach after Mark Salisbury was fired and earned two conference coach of the year honors.

6. Death of the "Pillars of the Program": The 2000s saw the passing of Bengal icons Milton "Dubby" Holt and Babe Caccia, two former ISU athletes, coaches and administrators who had been associated with the program for over 60 years apiece. Holt coached ISU's boxing team to two NCAA championships, and led Bengal swimming and track teams to conference championships. As athletic director, he conceived and executed the plans for what was then known as the ASISU Minidome, the first indoor football stadium on a college campus in America. Now known as "Holt Arena," the facility has served as both a university and a community gathering place for almost 40 years, hosting athletic events, high school graduations, concerts and rodeos.

Caccia, meanwhile, was the winningest football coach in ISU history, then succeeded his good friend Holt as athletic director, where his most meaningful act was to hire Dave Kragthorpe as football coach in 1979. Kragthorpe led the Bengals to their only national football championship in 1981. The turf in Holt Arena was renamed Babe Caccia Field shortly after Babe's 90th birthday in 2007.

Both Holt and Caccia were among the inaugural honorees in the ISU Ring of Honor. Two other inaugural members, Jim Killingsworth, the most successful men's basketball coach in ISU history, and Les Roh, ISU's all-time leading scorer in basketball, also died in the 2000s. And several other prominent ISU Hall of Famers and supporters -- Jim Fox, Earl Pond, Mel Morgan, Don Papenberg and Ralph Lacey -- also passed during the decade. These were not only great Bengal boosters, but community leaders who used their considerable influence to advance the interests of both ISU as an academic institution as well as the athletic program. Papenberg was the long-time executive director of the Idaho Dairymen, and he steered hundreds of thousands of dollars in sponsorship money from the dairymen to his alma mater. Caccia, Pond and Morgan all served on the Pocatello City Council. Lacey was Bannock County Tax Assessor and a long-time member of the Idaho State Senate. He was part of the "Bannocks," the block of Democratic state legislators that also included Chick Bilyeu and Patty McDermott, who looked out for ISU's interests in Boise. All three died this past decade.

5. The Jared Allen Experience: The All-American defensive end is a lot like the little girl with the curl -- when he's good, he's oh so good, but when he's bad... Well, let's just say Jared is never dull. He exploded on the scene as a freshman, leading ISU to its last victory over a Division I school when the Bengals beat Utah State in the final game of the 2000 season. He got in repeated trouble, both on and off the field, over the next three seasons while becoming the most prolific pass rusher in Division 1-AA football -- and probably, as we are learning from his exploits in the NFL, in all of college football.

Nothing more symbolizes the ambivalence Allen can generate than the fact that in his senior season, he won the Buck Buchanan Award as the best defensive player in 1-AA football -- but was passed over as Big Sky Conference Defensive MVP. He even irritated his own defensive coaches, who often chaffed off the record about his lack of discipline in carrying out his assignments.

Allen's escapades continued in the NFL, where he was a fourth round draft pick of the Kansas City Chiefs and immediately became one of the top pass rushers in the league. At the same time, he picked up two DUIs in Kansas City that led him to a four-game suspension and he became embroiled in a contract dispute that ultimately led him to be traded to Minnesota, where he signed the richest contract of any defensive player in the league.

Jared still rubs some Bengal fans the wrong way when, on nationally televised games, he's been known to introduce himself as, "Jared Allen, Culinary Institute," or "Jared Allen, home schooled -- thanks Mom!" But his supporters smile, shake their heads and say, "That's just Jared." Allen, who this fall became the first addition to ISU's Ring of Honor since the inaugural class, mended a lot of fences when he donated $200,000 to upgrade the school's weight room facility. He's also, undisputably, the best professional football player ever produced by Idaho State.

4. Evolution of ISU's Athletic Facilities: Nothing better symbolized the attitude toward athletics facilities at Idaho State than the fact that the university raised over $100 million during its centennial campaign in the late 1990s -- and athletics got not one penny of it. As the new millenium dawned, there hadn't been a significant new athletic facility constructed on campus for over a decade. Holt Arena, the principle venue for football and basketball, and the "face" of the ISU athletic department to recruits and fans, turned 30 with the new millenium and looked every bit its age. Meanwhile, other programs in the Big Sky Conference, including Montana, Montana State, Weber State and Sacramento State, were aggressively upgrading their primary athletic facilities.

As noted above, athletic director Paul Bubb made a run at addressing the facilities issues with his "Bengal Village" concept. But progress was slow and no lead donor stepped forward to get the fundraising campaign rolling. In an act of semi-desperation, the university joined hands with the City of Pocatello to sponsor a bond election that would ask city property owners to fund the Holt upgrades the state refused to pay for. Despite the fact that Holt had become as much a commercial and entertainment center for the city as a university venue, the bond election went down to a decisive defeat.

As the decade began to turn, however, several glimmers of hope began to appear. First, Sylvia Papenberg, Don's widow, stepped up to donate a large tract of land in the Teton Valley that the university is trying to sell to finance a new softball complex. While the economic recession has made it difficult to find a buyer, the university is planning to go ahead with construction on a campus softball field this year, using donated labor and materials.

Then Tingey convinced the Idaho Potato Commission to fund a new, $250,000 video board to brighten Holt Arena, and that was followed by a campaign led by Donna Hays to upgrade the football lockerroom with new paint and carpeting and first-class oak lockers. Then Tingey announced that he's located a donor to fund construction of a new football practice field south of the dome that will feature field turf. Finally, Allen's donation of $200,000 will give the weight room a complete makeover.

There is still a lot of work to do to bring ISU's facilities up to the standards of the best programs in the conference (most notably a new turf for Holt Arena), but finally there is forward momentum on the issue.

3. Financial Stability of the Program: Idaho State's athletic program is heavily dependent on state funds and student fees, and when the economic recession hit last year, pressure mounted on the program. After the $900,000 deficit surfaced, significant cutbacks in staff and travel were instituted. Then, in the face of reduced revenues as the result of the recession, the amount of state subsidy for the program was whacked by 12 percent.

One of the immediate impacts of these pressures has been on the scheduling philosophy of the program's two major sports -- football and men's basketball. The football team raised about $900,000 by opening its season this fall against Division-I powerhouses Arizona State and Oklahoma, and the Bengals will play at least one money game -- at Georgia -- next year. The time when two money games a year are necessary may not be that far down the road.

The basketball team, meanwhile, annually plays one of the toughest schedules in the country, partly because of Coach Joe O'Brien's desire to toughen his team pre-conference, but also because he is asked to bring in about $300,000 a year in revenues.

Longer term, the budget situation may lead to a pitched philosophical battle over the value of athletics on campus in general, and the football program in particular. As the university cuts faculty and staff positions and continues to raise student fees significantly every year, we are already hearing isolated voices calling for the elimination or de-emphasis of football and/or athletics on campus.

2. Whither Montana and the Big Sky Conference: As the 90s changed to the 2000s, the Montana football program went from very good to dominating. The Griz have won or shared 12 straight Big Sky Conference titles and have put together a 67-8 win-loss record in conference play over the decade. No Big Sky team other than Montana has appeared in a national championship football game since Boise State in 1994, and the Griz dominance of the league has blossomed since BSU, Idaho and Nevada all left the league in the early to mid-1990s.

In a word, Griz nation is starting to get bored. Over the last several seasons, there has been a rising sentiment around the Montana program to get out of the Big Sky and start playing the Big Boys. Not coincidentally, in August of 2011, the national moratorium on schools moving up from the FCS to the FBS ends, and we are already seeing a number of schools taking a serious look at the future of their football programs. Montana athletic director Jim O'Day, in his public pronouncements, sounds more and more like the Griz are seriously considering taking the plunge to the FBS.

Where would the Griz go? Well, the Western Athletic Conference approached them several years ago about possibly moving up before taking in Utah State and Idaho. And there is a lot of talk about expansion in some of the BCS leagues, which could create a domino effect that opens room for Montana in a western FBS league. What would happen, for example, if the Big Ten seduces Missouri from the Big 12? Would the Big 12 then grab TCU, opening a spot for Boise State in the Mountain West, thereby creating a hole for Montana in the WAC?

One thing is clear as all this speculation continues to build toward the end of the moratorium in 2011: FCS football is largely a money-losing proposition. Two FCS schools, Northeastern and Hofstra, have already announced they are dropping football. Other schools will be looking hard at whether to move up or get out of the football business entirely.

And if Montana goes, can Montana State be far behind? What would a Big Sky Conference without one or both of the Montana schools look like? Could it survive, or would West Coast outliers like Sac State and Portland State go different directions? The future of the Big Sky Conference -- and where the Bengals fit in -- may well be the dominant story in the next decade of ISU athletics.

1. The Rise and Fall of Idaho State Football: It was a decade of highs and lows for the Idaho State football program, although the highs never quite seemed as intense as the lows. The Bengals started the new decade in the middle of a rebuilding job by Larry Lewis and his staff, and a couple of strong recruiting classes seemed to have the Bengals on the brink of greatness. ISU did break through just enough to grab a three-way tie for the Big Sky title in 2002, but even that was bitter-sweet: the Bengals were the tri-champion left out of the national 1-AA playoffs.

For every significant step forward the program took in the early 2000s, it felt like a step backward soon followed. What appeared like a seminal victory over Division I Utah State to end a 6-5 season in 2000 was followed by a 4-7 (1-6 in the Big Sky) collapse in 2001. The 2002 tri-championship season could have included ISU's first trip to the post-season since 1983, except that the Bengals lost by a field goal to a 6-5 Portland State team. The 2003 team saw a thrilling three-game win streak that included double-overtime wins over Eastern Washington and Montana come to an abrupt end in beatdowns by traditional road nemeses Weber State and Northern Arizona.

And when those great recruiting classes of the early 2000s were exhausted, and when Lewis had lost so many assistants to Division I programs, the momentum of the rebuild finally ran its course. ISU finished 3-8, 5-6 and, with expectations soaring with the addition of Michigan transfer quarterback Matt Gutierrez, 2-9 to bring the Lewis era to a close after the 2006 season.

Despite the inconsistency of the program under Lewis, ISU always seemed to play well at home and they put points on the board. That kept interest in the program relatively high, even through the disappointing last three seasons of Lewis' tenure. Then Idaho State brought in John Zamberlin, fresh off a successful run at Division-II Central Washington where he led his team to a couple of big upsets of Big Sky Conference members.

Most Bengal fans appreciated the down-to-earth demeanor of the former New England Patriot linebacker and his reputation for tough, physical football teams at Central. They granted him a grace period that included a 3-8 initial season, as he built his program, tweaked his staff and brought in his recruits. But when there were few signs of improvement in back-to-back one-win seasons, the critics came out in force.

The Zamberlin era has been marked early on by a relatively high attrition rate among recruits, and by significant shuffles in the coaching staff. As the year comes to a close, Zamberlin is still looking to hire his third offensive coordinator and offensive line coach in four seasons. The Bengals did provide a bit of optimism at the end of what began as a desultory 2009 season, taking Montana to the last play of the game before losing by a field goal, then beating Portland State at home. Early reports on this recruiting class appear positive and Coach Z is close to bringing a veteran offensive coordinator on board.

But in these tumultous times of budget cuts, uncertainty about the future of the conference and grumblings about the viability of FCS football, Idaho State cannot afford to have a non-competitive football program for very long. Athletic Director Jeff Tingey acknowledged Zamberlin's willingness to take a hit for the athletic program through brutal scheduling when he gave the coach a two-year contract extension in mid-season. Zamberlin immediately declared this was not going to be a "stay of execution" for his staff, but rather an opportunity to build the foundation of a long-term winning program. When we look back in 2020 on the top stories of the upcoming decade, how Zamberlin and his staff proceed from here will be one of the biggest.

--Brad B.

And thanks for being a Bengal fan -- it ain't always easy, but it's always fun.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

To Bengals Everywhere: Happy Holidays!

To Bengal fans around the world (isn't technology amazing?), I wish you a safe, blessed and happy holiday. I'm thankful for all the blessings I've enjoyed in my life, and being associated with Idaho State University athletics has truly been one of them. I've met so many great people through my affiliation with ISU down through the years, and ISU athletics has been the one shared experience that has brought us together. No, it's not always easy to be a Bengal fan, but when we do share success, like that double overtime win over Montana in football, the victory over Utah in men's basketball or the Doma-Lightfoot wins against the Griz, well the past pain all seems worthwhile. Most importantly, I've gotten to share the wins -- and loses -- with a lot of good folks throughout southeastern Idaho -- including the coaches, athletes and staff who all work so hard just to entertain us.

Merry Christmas, Bengals, and Happy New Year!

--Brad B.

Monday, December 21, 2009

A Holiday Mis-Mash

Happy holidays to all you Bengal fans! Here's a little pre-Christmas mis-mash of stuff that caught my eye....First, some disappointing news: Bengal freshman Ashlee Rigter (left) is heading home to New Zealand to have knee surgery for an injury she suffered last summer and she won't be back to Pocatello the second semester. There is some question as to whether she will return to ISU at all. That would be a shame, because in the few glimpses we've been able to get of the 6-3 post player, she looks like she could be a real impact player in time. Homesickness, cultural and educational differences and her injury all may be conspiring to the point that Ashlee may choose not to return to Pocatello after her surgery. We certainly hope that with time she'll reconsider and rejoin the Bengal program next fall...Point guard Andrea Blodgett is still awaiting the posting of her first semester grades, so won't be available to the Bengals as they take on Southern Utah in Reed Gym tonight. Hopefully, she'll be cleared to take the floor for the Great Falls contest on Dec. 29...Freshman shooting guard Morgan Wohltman, who has been diagnosed with mono, has gone home to Arizona to finish her recuperation. The Bengals expect her back and, hopefully healthy enough to play, the day after Christmas.

Of Playoffs and Bowl Games

'Tis the season for both, and after I read this fascinating article about how some bowl teams take it in the financial shorts, I wondered how the FCS Playoffs compare. So I sent some questions to the Big Sky's Jon Kasper, who was kind enough to respond while on his way to Chattanooga for the FCS Championship game between Montana and Villanova. Here is Jon's answer to my question about how the FCS playoffs are funded:

"Playoffs are financed by the NCAA and through the ticket sales of the playoffs. NCAA pays for the travel of all playoff teams (hotel, food, charter plane/bus). (The NCAA) also pays for the team party. It's 130 players, coaches, adminis(trators) for the first semifinals and 145 for the championship."

Sounds like FCS playoff teams are better off financially than some of the schools that go to the lower-tiered bowls and are forced to buy large amounts of tickets they can't sell. I also asked Jon if there is any revenue shared among conference schools from the playoffs. "Really it is not an economic impact for the league," he replied. "The money goes back into the NCAA general fund. Montana, because of its ability to meet the minimums and draw 20-plus (thousand fans), it provides them some money."

Jon also provided me a link to a blog that shows that participating in the playoffs can provide more than a financial impact. According to the blog during the Montana-Appalachian State game that was televised on ESPN on Dec. 12, site traffic on the University of Montana's web site was up 232 percent during the telecast. New visitors to the "admissions" portion of the web site was up 131 percent, and google searches for "university of montana" increased 238 percent. Talk about a great marketing opportunity for Griz Nation...

Speaking of Montana and the playoffs, the Griz fell short again in their quest for a national title, losing 23-21 to the Wildcats in the Tennessee rain Friday night. There is no question the biggest factor in the game was Villanova's ability to shut down Montana star Marc Mariani in the second half. After compiling 178 receiving yards in the first half, Mariani went touchless in the second. Was it Villanova's decision to double-team Mariani, or bad decision-making from the UM coaching staff, who didn't even try a bubble screen or an end-around in an attempt to get the ball in their best player's hands? You decide.

While the Cats were neutralizing Mariani, Villanova all-purpose star Matt Szczur continued to shine in the second half, rolling up a total of 270 all-purpose yards in the game. 'Nova ran Szczur out of the Wildcat formation, as well as throwing him the football and Montana's defense had no answers for him, or powerful Wildcat quarterback Chris Whitney (6-2, 230) on the option.

Kudos for the "The U"

I've thoroughly enjoyed the bits and pieces of ESPN's documentary series, "30 on 30," that I've seen so far, but none more than Billy Corben's "The U." The film takes an indepth look at how the University of Miami's football dynasty in the 1980s and early 1990s changed college football forever. For any of you who hate the "anti-celebration" rules now in force in the college game, you can thank the Hurricanes for their existence.

No team had more talent, more swagger or more influence on college football during that time period than Miami. The influence was even felt in Pocatello, when Bengal coach Brian McNeeley developed a "Miami connection," started bringing in players from South Florida (star running back Alfredo Anderson being the most notable), and even changed the ISU helmet design to mimic Miami's "U" logo. (Some Bengal fans might also draw a link to all the trouble those ISU teams got into in those days.)

The last scheduled showing of "The U" is 11 a.m. MT on ESPN on Sunday, Dec. 27. Set your DVR, it's well worth a couple hours of your time.

--Brad B.

And thanks for being a Bengal fan -- it ain't always easy, but it's always fun. See you all at Reed Gym for the women's game tonight at 7 p.m.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Conflicting Thoughts From Travel to Tennessee

First of all...got to love free wifi in Salt Lake City. I'm so proud of our little home-away-from-home airport that they finally joined the pre-teens (what I've been calling the 2000-09 years) in time for it to turn into 2010. This certainly helps the myriads of folks cruising through the Southwest terminal in SLC.

I know a lot of folks (my wife included) think that travel is this really fun, awesome time. Now, don't get me wrong...sometimes it is, like being in downtown Los Angeles and having the bus drop my and Ryan Cromie the trainer off at the Staples Center and buying tickets to catch the Los Angeles Kings hockey game. But most of the time, travel is a grind....a real grind. Take this six day odyssey for example...this trip is four flights, two long bus trips, and a grand total of six cities (Pocatello to Salt Lake to Las Vegas to Sacramento to Portland to Boise to Poactello). Let's see mapquest figure that crap out.

Seriously...this is today's part of the itinerary....

8:00am Depart Holt Arena South Side

10:45am Arrive @ SLC Airport

12:50pm Southwest Airlines #3067 Departs for Las Vegas

2:10pm Southwest Airlines #2132 Departs for Sacramento

3:45pm Arrive in Sacramento

4:30pm Check into Larkspur Landing

7:00-9:00pm Practice at Sac. State (Small Gym)

The meals are of the figure it out variety....lunch in either the SLC airport before we leave, or during the layover in Vegas, and you can see there's no dinner, because that will be after practice ends at 9ish or whenever. This is the norm for most basketball trips.

I can tell you as a world traveler that the Salt Lake Airport is pretty good foodwise. The Dick Clark's cafe has a nice breakfast, and I'm all for the Sbarro's calzones. The Las Vegas airport has gambling, which is a plus, but the food is expensive, and the wireless wasn't working when I was there a few weeks back.

The Portland airport has wonderful food choices...I usually hit the Panda Express, but they have everything for the discerning food maven. Other good airports for food at Midway in Chicago (get the burger or chicken sandwich at the Illinois Pub and Grill....oh my...trust me), and Phoenix is fantastic. The coaching staff usually ends up at Chili's there, and they have an Einstein's bagels for those early morning flights.

If only Pocatello had an airport that could handle our flights....oh well.

Griz-Cat Redux

Tonight the Griz have another shot at the National Championship, taking on Villanova tonight in the FCS national title game in Chattanooga, and hence the conflict arises...who does a Bengal fan root for?

Now, I got a TON of flack back in early November from Griz fans on eGriz.com because I had the gall to state that in my poll (I'm a SportsNetwork voter), that I had Villanova #1 and Montana #2, despite the fact that Montana was undefeated. I liked my reasoning of why I had done that (basically 'Nova had a better schedule and I had them at #2 and they lost to #1 New Hapshire 28-24, and I didn't think that warranted dropping them based on the other scores that week), and with both Montana and Villanova in the title game, I do have a bit of pride that my top two in my poll are in the title game.

Being that in reality, the Griz-ISU game was the closest they've come to a loss this season, although South Dakota State had them dead to rights and somehow turned a 28-point lead with 20 minutes left into a 12-point loss. You would think my head says that Villanova would win, and honestly, I think their defense is superb, and I think they are probably better than Montana, and that's why my head says that Villanova will win their first Division I football title tonight.

But my head is one thing, and my heart is another, and honestly, how can Montana not feel like they are destined to win? The early season comeback in the fourth quarter against UC Davis got them started, but kicking the winning field goal with no time left when it hits Michael Wright's hand and then caroms off Dustin Tew's hand and still goes in? Scoreing 40 straight ot come back on South Dakota State? The snow against App. State? The clock running out with the Mountaineers at the 4-yard line? The HORRIFIC field goal attempts by ASU? And then throw in Marc Mariani, who honestly might not be the best Big Sky player I've ever seen, but certainly the scariest and the guy who is in my "Jordan Zone" (NOTE: The Joran Zone is that rarified air where a player does something so ridiculous, yet it's just not that surprising, kind of like Michael Jordan in his prime. Seriously, if someone tells you "did you hear about the Montana game? Mariani had to quarterback the final series to get them into field goal range and then had to kick the field goal" ... isn't that plausible at this point? Hence, Mariani is in the Jordan Zone).

I just don't see Montana getting to Chattanooga for a second straight year and losing. There is something to the magic of a destined team, and they look like it. They survived that ugly Bobby Hauck/Kaimin thing (I felt bad for their SID who was basically rendered inert during that whole preceeding), and I just think they will do it.

Of which, I read somewhere that Montana is in their seventh title game with seven different starting quarterbacks....that's impressive. Or Montana could go to the WAC and play in the Humanitarian Bowl against Bowling Green LOL.

Speaking of Bowls....
Former Voice of the Bengals Russ Eisenstein must be in a weird spot in his life....enjoying the fact that his Ohio Bobcats went 9-4 and are in a Bowl game, but it's the Little Caesar's Bowl, which has been derided by ESPN as the worst Bowls of the season (unless Christmas in Detriot is appealing to you). Russ is even enjoying a 6-3 men's basketball team and a Mid Major Poll ranking. (NOTE: Getting ranked in the Mid-Major Poll is not a national ranking. I've now seen two schools in the Big Sky use that term describing either themselves or an opponent about being nationally-ranked. Unless Kentucky is a part of that poll....it's not a "national" ranking).

I've been posted personal pics from some of our trips on Facebook, and you can find and friend me over there at www.facebook.com/frankmercogliano. I usually don't put weird things over there, unless you consider my family weird (which I do).

Monday, December 14, 2009

From Unknown Bengal to SI's Best

Last year at this time, Evan Dietrich-Smith was recovering from the end of Idaho State's 1-11 football season, and plotting how he was going to make a roster in the National Football League. It was a long-shot at best for the Bengal offensive linemen who couldn't even crack the top two all-Big Sky Conference teams his senior season. He wasn't drafted, but the Green Bay Packers took a flier on him as a free agent.

The chances of making an NFL team as an undrafted free agent are astronomical, but Dietrich-Smith beat the odds. The same versatility that allowed him to play all three line positions at Idaho State helped Dietrich-Smith to latch onto a roster spot with Packers. He's played in ten games so far, mostly on special teams. It was on the kicking team that a Sports Illustrated photographer captured the photo above of Dietrich-Smith (62) sending Tampa Bay linebacker Gene Hayes (54) rear end-over-tea kettle. It was selected as one of SI's best photos of the year. It also served as a fitting tribute to the determination of Dietrich-Smith, who is living the dream for one of the NFL's most storied franchises.

(Note to ISU's marketing department: what would make a better Christmas present for ISU fans than an autographed copy of this photo? It would also be a terrific item for the Bengal auction next spring -- I'd bid on it.)

What's Happened to Idaho High School Basketball?

As I was preparing for the ISU-Boise State basketball broadcast last week, I noticed that neither the Broncos nor the Bengals had a single scholarship player on their roster from Idaho. I did a quick check of the University of Idaho's roster and noted they do not have an Idahoan on scholarship, either. I'm sure there's no official stat on that, but I wonder if there's been a time when none of the state's three Division I schools had an Idahoan on scholarship at the same time.

When I first started covering prep sports in Idaho in the 1980s, the state produced more than its share of Division I basketball talent. Players like Donn Holston of Highland (an eventual ISU Hall of Famer), Tom Gneiting of Rigby (BYU), Richie Webb of Bonneville (BYU), Meridian's Scott Johnson (SMU), Danny Conway of Madison (Utah State), Teton's Gary Furniss (Utah State and BYU), Andy Toolson of Twin Falls (BYU and the Utah Jazz), Borah's Tommy Connor (Utah), Skyline's Cleve Lewis (Fresno State) and Pocatello's Wade Wyatt (Utah and Southern Utah) all made their marks in the 1980s. Just a few years before them, two of Idaho's all-time greats, Capital's Brian Welch (Stanford), and Aberdeen's Steve Hayes (my personal choice for the next member of ISU's Ring of Honor) came on the scene.

Today, there are a few Idaho-bred D-1 players (Pocatello's Nick Hansen at Weber State, for example), but not many. Idaho State's string of excellent in-state talent that included Logan Kinghorn, David Schroeder and Matt Stucki came to an end at the conclusion of last season. The Bengals looked at Hansen when he was at College of Southern Idaho, but had already filled their guard quota when ISU got a commitment from Kal Bay. (Given ISU's struggles hitting three-pointers this year, wouldn't Hansen look awful good in a Bengal uniform right now, particularly since Bay and his College of Eastern Utah compadre, Felix Caspari, have both left the program already?)

Bengal assistant coach Geoff Alexander was on our coach's show last night, and he said it's simply been a down period for Division I prospects in the state the last couple of years. He noted that the Bengals hope to refill the Idaho pipeline soon, and are currently recruiting a junior college player with local roots.

From the "Grass Isn't Always Greener" Dept.

Ardie McInelly and Jon Newlee were terrific women's basketball coaches at Idaho State who left for other options. You can't judge happiness solely by Ws and Ls, but you have to wonder if both ever second-guess their decisions to move on. Probably not, but this has been a difficult year for both.

McInelly, who entered this, her ninth season at Air Force Academy with a 54-174 mark is off to a 2-7 season this year. The Falcons have averaged only 237 fans for their home games.

Newlee, meanwhile, got off to a strong start at Idaho last year, lifting a moribund Vandal program to a 13-15 record overall, 10-6 in the Western Athletic Conference, one of the best turnarounds in the nation. The Vandals have slipped backwards this year, however, starting 1-10 and 0-6 at home, where they are averaging only 370 fans per game. They're 0-3 against Big Sky Conference teams, and Jon has had to suspend a couple of players for disciplinary reasons.

Both McInelly and Newlee are excellent coaches. Ardie is in a situation at Air Force, frankly, where victory is not expected. She's had two four-win seasons there and nobody is anticipating the Falcons to contend for an NCAA berth anytime soon. Newlee has a more manageable situation at Idaho, and I fully expect him to bounce back from this year's setback. But the experiences of both McInelly and Newlee after they left Idaho State speaks volumes about how good the situation is at ISU for women's basketball. Current coach Seton Sobolewski has already used those advantages to bring in seven freshmen this year, six of whom are making significant contributions. (The seventh, 6-3 C Ashlee Rigter, hasn't been cleared from a summer knee injury and may require surgery.)

I fully expect Sobolewski to be the next highly successful women's coach at ISU. And when he does, I wonder if he'll look at the experiences of McInelly and Newlee when other programs come calling?

A True National Champion? What a Concept

While all the BCS apologists continue to explain why it's not feasible to have a playoff, the FCS will quietly crown a true national champion in Chattanooga on Friday, when Montana and Villanova square off. I said it last year, and I'll say it again: I'm truly conflicted about who to root for in the national title game. As a Big Sky Conference fan, sure I want Montana to win another national championship. But again, it will only reinforce the notion that the Big Sky is a one-trick pony. No Big Sky school other than Montana has played in a national championship game since Boise State in 1994.

The Wildcats are an interesting team. Like Appalachian State, the team the Griz beat in the semifinals last week, they are led by a dual-threat quarterback named Chris Whitney. The 6-2, 230-pounder is Villanova's leading rusher with 885 yards and six TDS; he's also completed 64 percent of his passes for 17 touchdowns against only 4 picks.

One of Whitney's leading targets is all-American receiver/kick returner Matt Szczur who lines up in the "Wildcat" and averages 7 yards a carry, as well as making 47 catches for 4 TDs. Szczur also averages 28 yards a return on kickoffs and 140 total yards per game.

'Nova really shines on defense, where they hold opponents to just 67 yards and 2.3 yards per carry on the ground. They are led by linebacker Terence Thomas (9 tackles for a loss, 7.5 sacks), and safety John Dempsey (11.5 TFLS, six sacks and two picks). And remember all those names, because everyone of Villanova's key players are juniors. No matter what happens Friday, Villanova will likely be a pre-season top five pick next year.

--Brad B.

And thanks for being a Bengal fan -- it ain't always easy, but it's always fun.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Morgan Must Lead Bengals

Ah the best laid plans of mice, men and basketball coaches. Sometimes they just don't work out the way we hoped. Idaho State basketball fans have been pointing toward the 2009-2010 basketball season for the last three years, knowing that the four-man freshman class that Joe O'Brien brought in his first year here would be fully mature seniors then. With the addition of a big man here and a point guard there, surely this group of seasoned Big Sky veterans could compete for a conference championship and the first Bengal trip to the Big Dance since 1987.

And that might still happen, but the early returns on the non-conference portion of this season have not been as encouraging as anybody -- the players, coaches or fans -- had hoped. Nagging issues, like Felix Caspari's decision to quit the team right before the season started, Eric Segert's suspension, Rolando Little's academic problems and Deividas Busma's sore foot have thrown a wrench into things. But more troubling, certainly to the coaching staff, has been the lack of fire and purpose from this senior class. Three blowouts against Utah State, BYU and the University of Utah have left the coaching staff scratching their heads, wondering what happened to the intensity of a group that used to take teams like Marquette and BYU into overtime on the road, and beat the Utes at home.

On our coaches show last night, O'Brien was asked what he missed most about departed star Matt Stucki. He could have said any number of things -- his three-point shooting, his shot-blocking from the wing, his playmaking ability that allowed him to lead the conference in assist-to-turnover ratio last year. But what O'Brien cited was Matt's boisterous leadership. Stucki was that rare player who was smart and experienced enough to know the Bengal offense and defense inside-and-out, and respected enough to be listened to when he gave instructions to his teammates on the court. Oh, and talented enough that he produced big numbers himself, which also gave him great credibility in the lockerroom and on the practice floor.

But Matt's gone now, off to Germany to continue his career, and the mantel of leadership falls squarely on the shoulders of Amorrow Morgan (above). To be fair to Amorrow, whose scoring is actually up this year even while his shooting numbers are down, he's being asked to make an awful lot of adjustments this season. Last year, either he or Stucki started every possession with the ball in their hands, and that means Amorrow got to initiate the offense about half the time. This year, the ball is going to new point guard Broderick Gilchrest, and it's not clear yet that either Gilchrest or Morgan are sure where it should go from there. O'Brien said last night he thinks the fact that Amorrow is having to learn how to play without the basketball is one of the biggest adjustments he's having to make.

The other big adjustment is that, without Stucki, opposing defenses are concentrating on keeping the ball out of Morgan's hands. When he does get it, they are shading an extra defender in his direction, keeping him from getting to the glass, which is the best part of his game. That also makes it difficult for him to clear room to shoot the occasional three, which became a strength for Morgan at the end of last year, when he hit 40 percent of his treys in Big Sky play. This year, he's just 5-for-25 from downtown, a lowly 20 percent.

Those are all technical adjustments that Amorrow has to make this year. But there's a much bigger change he must embrace -- becoming the emotional leader of this Bengal team, particularly on the defensive end of the floor. O'Brien makes no bones about it -- he's a defensive coach and he hangs his hat on stopping other teams and creating offense off of turnovers and bad possessions by opponents. This year's Bengal team, despite its experience, has so far borne no resemblance to its three predecessors on the defensive end of the floor. Opponents are shooting almost 48 percent from the field (up from 43 last year), 38 percent from three (up from 34.5), and are averaging 75 points a game, an increase of about 7 points over last season.

Some of that has to do with the quality of opponents early on, but O'Brien believes a lot of it is related to a lack of intensity and focus. He's frankly mystified why a veteran team like this year's Bengals aren't bringing it every night on D, and he is looking to Morgan, a somewhat mild-mannered young man, to start setting the example. He saw some fire out of Amorrow at Monday's practice, and that's a good sign. The next test will come Wednesday night, when a high-flying Boise State team comes to Holt Arena. The Broncos love to run and gun, and they will test the Bengal defense about as much as anybody they've seen in this non-conference.

And we will see if Morgan and his senior teammates have accepted the challenge to play with commitment on the defensive end. This could be one of those corner-turning moments for the Bengals, who badly need a home game, with all the love, encouragement and momentum that can come with it. The opportunity to fulfill the promise this senior class -- Morgan, Demetrius Monroe, Austin Kilpatrick, Donnie Carson -- brought with them four years ago is still there. Now it's time to seize the moment.

Personnel Updates

O'Brien updated listeners on the status of Busma and Little last night. Busma has a sore foot and had x-rays taken Monday, which came back negative. He is scheduled for an MRI to see if he has a stress fracture. His status for the Boise State game is undetermined, but O'Brien said he was still in a lot of pain Monday and did not practice.

Little has caught up on some of his academic obligations over the weekend, and will be allowed to play against the Broncos. However, O'Brien will review his academic progress after the game and determine whether he will make the trip to USC or stay home and continue to hit the books.

Finally, the Bengals are waiting on a final decision from a potential walk-on from the football team. O'Brien expects to hear from the player today and he could join the team in time for the BSU game, although he'd still be learning the offense and defense and probably wouldn't see playing time.
Update: The Bengals announced Tuesday that Kelvin Krosch, the 6-6 wide receiver who was an all-state basketball player in high school at Mackay, will join the basketball team for tonight's game with BSU.

Portland State Picks Its Coach

Portland State is expected to name Nigel Burton, a bright, young defensive coordinator from Nevada and former academic All-American defensive back at Washington, as its new head football coach today. Burton, 33, spent two seasons on the PSU coaching staff of Tim Walsh before moving on to Oregon State and then Nevada.

John Canzano of the Oregonian writes an interesting column about Burton's selection, noting the importance of this hire to the future of Portland State football.

While we're on the topic of football, the Montana-Appalachian State semifinal playoff game will be televised by ESPN at 2 p.m. MT Saturday from Missoula. The high temperature is predicted to be 27 degrees on Saturday, with a slight chance of snow.

Appy State, which generated huge national buzz two seasons ago when they upset Michigan in the Big House, brings a loaded offense to Washington-Grizz. They are led by quarterback Armanti Edwards, the FCS version of Tim Tebow. Edwards has rushed for a 5.1 yard-per-carry average and 18 touchdowns. He's also completed 71 percent of his passes for almost 3,000 yards. This will be a fun one to watch.

--Brad B.

And thanks for being a Bengal fan -- it ain't always easy, but it's always fun.