Friday, October 16, 2009

Contract Extension Was Right Thing to Do

Sometimes, there are more important things in life than wins and losses. Idaho State Athletic Director Jeff Tingey acknowledged that on Thursday, in announcing that he is extending the contract of Bengal Football Coach John Zamberlin (right) for two more seasons.

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).
Coaching Graveyard

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.

--Brad B.

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

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Past, Present and Future...

...First the many folks know, I am on facebook (my wife is baffled by the 747 friends, but I digress). I use that facebook tool to present ISU articles and things to different folks, and sometimes these things go viral. For instance I posted the softball poster last year...bam, it went everywhere. I also use facebook to post something kind of goofy every day or so (my links are seriously priceless sometimes...)

However, every now and then I hear from an old friend with some news...such was the case this morning where former KIDK sports anchor Nick Griffiths emailed me on facebook this morning. Nick is in the KC area, and sent over this piece he did on former Bengal Matt Gutierrez...check it out.

Now the's a huge week for ISU soccer...sitting at 1-1 in the conference, they host Northern Arizona today at 4:00 pm (you can listen to it here). Sadly, Davis Field's press box isn't wired, and the university folks that do that want an outrageous sum of money, so no video or live stats. Still, listen in, and folks can email during the broadcast (, or facebook me...I get all that stuff on my phone. Soccer also hosts Northern Colorado at noon on Saturday in a big game. Of course, if Weber State would actually play on Sunday's like everyone else, we could play on Sunday and unclog that busy Saturday, but I digress.

Of course both football and soccer have free youth clinics at 5:30 and soccer at 6:00 pm.

Also, my day got started today with the Idaho State Journal 10th Annual Business Awards, of which in a weird twist of fate, both Jeff Tingey and myself were finalists in the "Overachievers Under 40" category. While we both didn't win, it sounds cliche but it was truly an honor to be nominated. I sort of felt out of place there, I'm not gonna lie, but it pretty cool. I sat next to Stephanie Palagi of Old town Pocatello, who I've seen in pictures and in news reports, but I'd never seen her in person. So I'm sitting next to her and could never figure out who she was until she went up and presented an award, and I was like "duh....". I'm sure everyone has those moments...that was mine. Anyways, sorry I didn't recognize you Stephanie....

Now to what you guys wanted to read about...the future. Couple of things...yes, we are hosting a press conference today, and it's just for the media. Due to the soccer game I don't know when I can get it up on youtube, but I'll work on it. I might just get the audio out in a hurry to the media, and then figure that other stuff out later. The details of the press conference I can't really get into right now, but it does deal with football.

It has been interesting reading things in my inbox and in other places, and I'll mirror something Brad Bugger stated...I love the passion of ISU fans. They desperately want to win, and there's nothing wrong with that.

Anyways, that's at 3:00 pm, and the news will pop onto the webpage around 3:05 pm or so. Stay tuned for that. Come on out to any or all the events this week....should be something for everyone.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

This Week's Matchup: Road Warriors They Are Not

Oct. 11, 2008 will go down as one of those truly ugly days in Idaho State football history. On a day dampened by wind, rain and snow, the Bengals lost to a bad Northern Colorado team, 29-9, in a game noteworthy only for the fact that there were three safeties recorded (ISU's on the blocked punt by Jeremy Gibson at left). The two teams slogged through a scoreless second half that saw many of the 4,000 Bears homecoming fans long gone by its conclusion.

To add to the overall gloom of the affair, 300 miles to the southwest of Greeley, in Grand Junction, Colo., Flo Gallagher, the wife of former ISU vice-president and interim President Mike Gallagher, was gunned down that morning by a total stranger in a random shooting spree. I remember leaving the press box in Greeley that day, my muscles aching from hunching up against the cold, and feeling about as depressed as you can get at a football game.

Bengal quarterback Russel Hill surely shared in the ennui. He threw four interceptions and no touchdowns in the game, and saw his consecutive string of 300-yard passing games end at four. He also must have felt the sense of doubt that was creeping in among Bengal coaches, who were starting to wonder if they shouldn't give backup Kyle Blum a shot.

Here we are almost exactly a year later, and not a lot has changed for either of these programs. The coaches of both teams -- ISU's John Zamberlin and UNC's Scott Downing -- are both in the final years of their respective contracts, and wondering what the future holds. The Bears haven't won a conference game since beating Idaho State, their only victory in that timeframe coming over non-scholarship San Diego earlier this season. And UNC still hasn't won a league road game since joining the Big Sky in 2006.

Idaho State, meanwhile, has managed a single win over Sacramento State to end the 2008 season. The Bengals are in the midst of an 18-game road losing streak, and they haven't won away from home since beating the Bears in Greeley in 2006.

Hill, meanwhile, is still battling for his quarterback job, having lost the starting position to Blum in game No. 11 last year, and regaining it, partly by default and Blum's concussion, just last week against Sac State. The Boise junior came out firing, hitting his first 10 throws, but the interception bug jumped up and bit him big-time once again in the form of two pick-sixes on consecutive possessions to end the first half of the 38-17 loss to the Hornets.

UNC comes to Holt Arena this Saturday off a 23-18 homecoming loss to Portland State last week. The Bears share a lot of commonalities with the Bengals: neither plays well on the road, neither runs the football particularly well, and both are struggling to put points on the board, even when they get in the proverbial "red zone." The one area where the Bears are much better, at least statistically, than Idaho State is defending the pass. And that's a critical area, because, even though Idaho State was able to muster something of a running game last week in Sacramento, everyone expects Hill to throw the ball another 40-plus times on Saturday.

That suits the Bears just fine. They lead the Big Sky in pass defense, while ranking just eighth against the run. (Yes, there may be a slight correlation there.) Still, UNC is the only Big Sky team to give up fewer than 200 passing yards a game (196), and they are tied with Weber State at the top of the league with seven interceptions. The return of linebacker John Eddy, out almost a year with various injuries, also boosted the Bear pass rush as he was in on 2.5 sacks against Portland State last week.

The Bengals, who have tossed 11 picks vs. just six touchdowns so far this season, will certainly try to establish some kind of ground game vs. a UNC defense that has given up 4.6 yards per carry. They're hopeful the return to health of linemen Travis Nuua and Lance Carwright and back Clint Knickrehm will give a boost to the run game. But if that doesn't work out, the pressure will be on Hill and his receivers to reverse the negative feelings of that October day in Greeley.

The Halfway Point

Every team in the Big Sky either arrives at the mid-point or goes beyond with a full slate of games this weekend. By far, the most noticeable trend is the inability of teams to protect home field. Three of five conference teams lost at home last week and over the last three weeks the visitors have won 10 of 12 conference games. Road teams are 10-5 so far in the league -- last year, road teams won only 15 times over the course of the entire season.

Last week, I fell victim to three road winners: Weber State at Eastern Washington, Portland State over UNC and NAU winning at Montana State. For the second straight week I got only one game right: Montana coming from behind to beat Cal Poly in Missoula. Undeterred, I again offer you this week's shots in the dark:

Eastern Washington at Montana: Clearly the game of the week. The Eagles blew a great opportunity to make this a match up of conference unbeatens, falling to Weber State 31-14 last week at home. Still, EWU is one of only two Big Sky teams (MSU is the other) to beat the Griz twice this decade. Montana needed a late field goal to edge the Eagles by a point the last time they played in Missoula in 2007. The key matchup in this game is between Eagle RB Taiwan Jones, he of the breakaway ability, and a Griz defense that has not allowed a run longer than 17 yards this year. It says here that Montana's disciplined defense is too much for Jones and the Eagles.

South Dakota at Montana State: This is a classic matchup between a team that relies on the run (South Dakota has scored 14 rushing touchdowns this season and is averaging over 190 yards a game on the ground), and a team that doesn't give up rushing yards (MSU has not allowed a rushing touchdown this year, and allows just 72.8 yards per game). The Bobcats pounded the football on SD in a 38-17 win last year, also in Bozeman. Both teams are coming off losses, the Coyotes 24-23 to a good Cal Davis team. I think South Dakota will make a much better game of it this year, but the Bobcats still win a close one.

Northern Arizona at Portland State: My upset special of the week. The Axers are coming off a surprising win in Bozeman, and their quarterback, Michael Herrick, is red hot, throwing nine touchdowns against just one pick over the last three weeks. The Vikings, meanwhile, will be playing without starting quarterback Drew Hubel, out with a knee injury. But I like PSU because neither of these teams run the football very well, and that should finally catch up with NAU on the road. And I actually believe PSU's backup quarterback, Cameron Kavanaugh, adds the much needed dimension of scrambling ability to the Vikings offense. Portland State gets the win.
Sac at Weber
Sacramento State at Weber State: At this point in the season, teams are starting to feel the cumulative impacts of injuries. But some lucky teams are also enjoying the boost that comes from getting an injured starter back in the lineup. The Wildcats are just such a team. Defensive tackle Ryan Eastman, on the injured list for three games, returned against Eastern Washington last week with a vengeance. He earned the Big Sky Defensive Player of the Week award with three sacks and 3.5 tackles for a loss. The Wildcats held EWU to just 35 rushing yards on 27 attempts last week. If WSU can keep the Hornets' running game in similar check on Saturday in Ogden -- and I think they will -- that will be a Wildcat victory.
--Brad B.
And thanks for being a Bengal fan -- it ain't always easy, but it's always fun.