I really enjoy working with John and his staff because it is obvious to me they care about their players and each other. More than that, they are genuinely interested in, and kind to all the people around the program -- the fans, the athletic department staff -- even low-lifes like the radio announcers.
More importantly, Zamberlin and his staff have taken on the roles of "fundraisers" for an athletic department that was nearly a million dollars in the red just two years ago. Without complaint, they have played the toughest schedule any ISU football coach has ever had to absorb. The money from games against Oregon State, Arizona State, Oklahoma and Boise State has gone to help all of the athletic department, not just the football program. In fact, Coach Z said on our radio show on Monday, he's actually seen his recruiting budget cut during these difficult times.
Having made those kinds of sacrifices for the program, it would be nearly impossible for Tingey to look Zamberlin in the eye and say, "Well, thanks for bailing us out. And by the way, you're fired."
Having said all that, Coach Z and his staff know they have to start winning some football games. The two-year contract extension has, in effect, placed a deadline on the staff to begin showing improvement. And the way improvement is spelled now is w-i-n-s. Hopefully the road to recovery begins tomorrow against Northern Colorado.
That two-year window of opportunity for Coach Z and staff should also provide some time for the ISU administration, athletic and otherwise, to do some deep thinking about the role of athletics in general, and football specifically, at the university. With more deep budget cuts expected as the state's general fund flounders, there will be increasing external pressure to justify the state expenditures that go into athletics. According to figures Idaho State submitted to the State Board of Education in June, the largest single revenue source for athletics is General Fund Revenue -- an estimated $2.44 million in FY09. Right behind that is student fees, at $1.91 million. In tough times, faculty, staff and students all start looking at those numbers and wondering what they could do with that money instead.
While they're considering the value of athletics to the university and community (and there are tons of studies out there, pro and con, on just what exactly a successful athletic department can do for enrollment, private giving and notoriety), they should also be thinking about the identity of the ISU football program. Let's face it, with a few exceptions over the years, the Bengals have never been a good football school. Before this season began, Idaho State had the worst cumulative record of all but two schools that have competed in the Big Sky. In league play, the Bengals were 98-204 going into this year -- a .325 winning percentage. That's better only than relative newcomers Sacramento State (31-68, 313 percent) and Northern Colorado (2-22, .083).
Dave Kragthorpe (1980-82) is the last coach to leave Idaho State with a cumulative winning record (21-14 overall, 11-11 in league play), and that was largely based on one, 12-1 national championship season. Other than Kragthorpe, you have to go all the way back to Babe Caccia (1963) to find a winning conference record, and Bob Griffin (1972-75) to locate a winning overall record.
Under Kragthorpe and his successor, Jim Koetter, the Bengals were known as the "Throwin' Idahoans." They really introduced the wide-open offensive game that is so common in college football these days, to the Big Sky. Playing in a dome and on turf, those coaching staffs sold that wide-open offensive philosophy, and the Bengals were always able to recruit good quarterbacks and receivers (and kickers), if nothing else. Larry Lewis, with his one-back offensive set, kind of followed in those footsteps and had a lot of success bringing good athletes into the program.
But there has been no consistent identity or self-image that ISU recruits and fans can latch on to. Add that to the fact there is no solid, self-sustaining recruiting base for the program. (And yes, I know there are good Idaho players who can compete in the Big Sky -- the Bengals have a lot of them now, but I'm talking about impact players: guys who throw or catch or run for touchdowns; defenders who sack quarterbacks and cause turnovers. ISU linebacker AJ Storms is one Idahoan who may legitimately be an all-Big Sky first teamer. But there aren't that many around, or at least there haven't been for awhile).
That means Idaho State coaches have to convince potential recruits to "fly past" several competing Big Sky programs (Sac State, Portland State, Eastern Washington) to get to Pocatello. And without the kind of strong self-identity that Montana and Montana State have established, that's a difficult sell. Zamberlin and his staff will be keys to framing that identity, simply by the offensive and defensive systems they run, and the type of players they recruit. But everyone involved in the football program needs to do some deep thinking about how that identity is going to make ISU more distinctive. Clearly, in the past, ISU's distinction has been a negative one. If the football program is going to flourish in the future, a more positive identity has to be carved out.
Hey, It's Basketball Season
Practice starts today for men's and women's teams all over the country, including Iowa State, the ISU men's team's opening opponent. Backed by pre-season all-Big 12 F Craig Brackens and Big 12 newcomer of the year Marquis Gilstrap, the Cyclones are looking to bounce back from last year's 15-17 mark and get into the Big Dance this year.
Meanwhile, both Boise State and Idaho, who each made post-season tournaments last season, are optimistic about the upcoming year. (This story also makes brief mention of ISU's eight returning seniors).
And the two Montana teams, both men and women, are anxious to get started. The men return nine key pieces, including pre-season player of the year frontrunner Anthony Johnson. (No mention of his rumored knee problems in this Missoulian piece). The Griz women, perennial fixtures at the top of the league, must replace three starters, including two-time player of the year Mandy Morales.
I'll be at the first practice of the season tonight for both the men's and women's teams in Reed Gym. Hope to see you all there, and at Holt for the football game tomorrow.
And thanks for being a Bengal fan, it ain't always easy, but it's always fun.