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.


Anonymous said...

Interesting read. Not sure I agree with the rankings, but that's half the fun, I suppose. Don't forget, Gibson took over the program from Salisbury (a poor hire, in my opinion), not Henderson.

idaho said...

That's true, I'll fix the Gibson allusion. This is all for fun, so give me your rankings. Thanks!

--Brad B.

Anonymous said...

Is there a reason women's soccer and women's basketball were lumped together? And ranked fairly low at that?

Women's basketball had 2 NCAA tournament appearances this decade, and the progream had multi-NIT bids. It had a player who was on a NATIONAL player of the year watch list. I would venture to guess the largest crowd to watch a basketball game at ISU THIS decade was the Big Sky Conference women's championship, held inside Holt Arena.

So, again, why are the two women's teams lumped together?

idaho said...

Good comment and you can certainly make a case that they should be separate entities. Thanks for the input. Other thoughts?

--Brad B.