Playing Out Its Final FBS Season, Idaho Doesn't Want to Go Quietly

Idaho is getting kicked out of the Sun Belt and needs an improbable second-half run to make a bowl game, but the Vandals have a story to tell before they make the rare move to the Football Championship Subdivision.
Publish date:

Last month, Idaho receiver Jacob Sannon stopped by the Wal-Mart Supercenter near campus to run a post-practice errand. As he and a friend from the school’s soccer team made their way through the store, they paused in the television section, where every TV was tuned to the same program: a replay of the Vandals’ December appearance in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, a 61–50 win over Colorado State.

Sannon, a fifth-year senior, was incredulous as he watched his second touchdown of the day, a 16-yard catch in the game’s third quarter, unfold on dozens of screens.

“It’s six months since our bowl game, and they’ve still got it on the TV,” he recalls, still amazed 48 hours later.

After playing on one-win teams in 2013 and ’14 and missing almost all of ’15 with an injury, last season was sweet redemption for Sannon, a Florida native of Haitian descent who had never seen snow until Idaho lured him to campus with his only scholarship offer. Finally healthy, he had 303 receiving yards for a Vandals team that tied a program record with nine wins and brought home the school’s first bowl victory in seven seasons. The turnaround Sannon had signed up for four years before was well on its way. This fall, Sannon is Idaho’s leading receiver, and he has one last chance to make a mark before he runs out of eligibility—and his team is run out of FBS ball.

That’s right: On March 1, 2016, sixth months to the day before the Vandals kicked off their best season this century, the Sun Belt ruled it would drop two of its newest affiliate members, Idaho and New Mexico State, after the 2017 season. Each school had won a combined five games over two years of membership, leading the FBS’s least prestigious conference to deem them unworthy. The news was a blow to momentum in Moscow, where Idaho had won four games in 2015 and considered itself at the beginning of a turnaround thanks to an overqualified coaching staff—led by former Arkansas offensive coordinator Paul Petrino—and three winters of strong recruiting.

In the face of that news, though, the Vandals decided to prove their worth, equaling their total from 2011 to ’15 in one campaign and finishing in a tie for third in the Sun Belt. “For once,” Sannon says, “we felt like we belonged.”

With just a few months left of belonging, Idaho vows it won’t go quietly in its final FBS season, but the 2017 team was off to a 2–4 start heading into Saturday’s game at Missouri, the final Power 5 team on the schedule. In order to be bowl eligible in consecutive years—something the school has never achieved—the Vandals had to go 4–2 down the stretch, with some of their tougher conference opponents looming after this week. A 68–21 loss in Columbia ended that dream, but the Vandals under Petrino have worked their way out of an environment when that sort of margin of defeat was the norm.

Image placeholder title
Celebrations have come few and far between during the Vandals’ final FBS season, which is off to a 2–4 start.

Celebrations have come few and far between during the Vandals’ final FBS season, which is off to a 2–4 start.

Idaho’s 2016 team was virtually unrecognizable compared to the teams its fans had become accustomed to in the first half of the decade. After coach Robb Akey took the Vandals from 1–11 in ’07 to 8–5 nd a Humanitarian Bowl win in ’09, things fell off in a big way. Idaho fired Akey in the middle of ’12, coming off a 70–28 loss to Louisiana Tech that dropped the Vandals to 1–7. They went winless in their final four games under interim coach Jason Gesser, the first of three consecutive 1–11 seasons.

Meanwhile, Petrino was out of a job at Arkansas, where he’d coached as a lame-duck offensive coordinator after his brother, Bobby Petrino, had been fired the previous April. Early in his career, Petrino had spent three years on the Idaho staff when the program was among the best in the Big Sky Conference, and he remembered his days in mid-’90s Moscow, Idaho fondly—perhaps too fondly. “I probably didn’t really understand where we were at until I was here for a while,” he explains.

One of Petrino’s first calls after he accepted the job was to Kris Cinkovich, his receivers coach at Arkansas. Cinkovich told Petrino he’d think about the offer, and he called a friend who had coached on a past Vandals staff. “He almost begged me not to come here,” Cinkovich recalls, “and he said it’s because you’re going to have meeting rooms in racquetball courts.”

Cinkovich ignored the warning. As he was preparing to move to Idaho, Petrino called again. The coach had just held his first early-morning workout for his offense only to discover there wasn’t a single scholarship running back in the room. The next day, he brought in the defense and learned he was missing a position group there, too: His roster, it turned out, lacked a single linebacker. When Cinkovich arrived a few days later, he learned his friend hadn’t been exaggerating: There in front of him were the racquetball courts where he would eventually hold meetings with his offensive line.

The new staff’s first order of business was recruiting—heavy on the running backs and linebackers—as well as getting the team’s APR in shape. Coaches focused on what they called “private victories”: getting kids to the study table on time, finding under-recruited players who fit in the system, instilling good game preparation habits. They zeroed in on what they could control, which was not the 2013 schedule.

After eight seasons in the WAC, which dropped football after 2012, the Vandals were preparing to transition to the Sun Belt when Petrino arrived. But they weren’t due in the new conference until ’14, meaning they’d spend the ’13 season as an independent. On the docket that year were road games against Ole Miss and Florida State, which would both be bloodbaths, and even one of the more digestible matchups on paper was daunting by the time it rolled around in early October: Fresno State was No. 23 in the AP Poll behind quarterback Derek Carr, who would go on to throw for 50 touchdowns that season—five against Idaho. “Christ,” Cinkovich says. “I thought we were back at Arkansas."

The travel, too, was daunting. For a program tucked in the country’s northwest corner, a night game on the road often meant the team didn’t arrive home until after 4 a.m. Cinkovich recalls the 7:30 p.m. ET kickoff at Ole Miss (a game Idaho lost 59–14) and his 4:30 a.m. arrival at the base of his rented home on Moscow Mountain. “Our girl moose was standing in the driveway,” he says. “I saw her five times while we lived there. She would eat out in the wheat field that was adjacent to us, and she kind of looked at me like, This is my time, dude. She just kind of ambled up the road. She’d stop and look back at me. She made my drive up the hill take about 15 minutes.”

Although Cinkovich can look back on those blowouts with a sense of humor—a photo of the moose still flashes across his computer screen occasionally as part of a screensaver—athletics director Rob Spear remembers the difficulty more acutely. As he pieced together Idaho’s 2013 schedule, he found himself with one last open date: Nov. 23. The only team in the country available that Saturday was Florida State, the eventual national champion, so he begrudgingly arranged travel plans to Tallahassee. “Our kids went, and our coaches coached their hearts out, but they scored 81 points on us,” Spear says. “I left the field that day feeling so miserable, because I was the one that scheduled that game and put our kids and coaches in that situation.”

In Petrino’s first two seasons, Idaho’s record was bleaker than the expectant mood around the program, and in 2015, the anticipated turnaround began. Quarterback Matt Linehan, who’d debuted in ’14 after redshirting, led the Vandals to four wins and threw for nearly 3,000 yards. It seemed better times were ahead for Idaho, until that call from the Sun Belt. It looked like Petrino’s vision had reached the end of the line just after it had begun to come into focus.

Image placeholder title
Paul Petrino took a group of unheralded recruits—“Let’s be honest, I don’t know where they were going to go”—and led them to a bowl victory in 2016. This year's outlook is less promising at midseason.

Paul Petrino took a group of unheralded recruits—“Let’s be honest, I don’t know where they were going to go”—and led them to a bowl victory in 2016. This year's outlook is less promising at midseason.

In 2013, Idaho’s freshmen were introduced to a custom their coach brought with him from his previous stops: “young guys scrimmages”. Each Sunday night, the underclassmen would meet for a team-organized workout designed to get them the reps they might be missing in practices—and the football on display those evenings wasn’t half bad. “There was a general sense that we had a lot of special talent and a lot of special ability in those scrimmages,” Linehan says. “When we did those on Sunday nights, we really started to feel comfortable with where the program was going. We knew we were headed in the right direction."

There was sense of cohesion among that freshman class, a group of players who’d had few other offers, if any, and were grateful to be playing at all. Some were too short to be a traiditional FBS recruit, others too slight, but they all had two things in common: speed and toughness. As he and his staff recruited, Petrino swore by those two qualities. “Maybe they’re two inches shorter than they were at the other school, or they’re 20 pounds lighter,” the coach says. “We might have to take some smaller guys, but let’s try to find as much speed as we can and as much toughness as we can.”

Before Petrino called, Sannon was prepared to walk on at a middling Florida program. Idaho was the only D-I offer extended to Linehan, the son of former Vandals quarterback and current Cowboys offensive coordinator Scott Linehan. Sannon, Linehan and receiver Reuben Mwhela make up the core of the holdovers from that ’13 team, those lucky enough to redshirt when freshmen were so in-demand. They were the first of Petrino’s so-called “band of overachievers,” most of whom knew that their options were either Idaho or nowhere—which explains why the Vandals staff had so little issue convincing players to stick around for the slow rebuild.

Which is how, two years later, Idaho’s players managed to shrug off the news from the Sun Belt. They were disappointed but powerless to do anything but play better football. After starting 1–2, the team went on to win eight of its last 10. Linehan threw for 3,184 yards and 19 touchdowns, completing 61.9% of his passes, and in their bowl game against Colorado State, the Vandals put up 600 yards of total offense.

“It drove us,” Linehan says of the conference’s rejection. “When you’re told that you can’t be in a conference anymore, that they don’t want you, you want to go out there and prove that they’re wrong. We just wanted to show them that we are more than capable of being in this conference, that we belonged here.”

Image placeholder title

Heat Check: Where Does Every Coach Under Fire Stand at Midseason?

Once the announcement was made in early 2016, Spear got to work. He had nearly two years before his football team was without a conference, but the sooner he could find it a landing spot, the better. Since ’04, Idaho had been gradually renovating its football facilities, starting with the weight room and including, in ’15, new meeting rooms—Cinkovich describes the upgrade from the racquetball courts as “like being in the SEC and getting a $40 million facility built”—and Spear knew his program was on the upswing. His biggest concern was continuing that progress.

Ideally, Idaho would have landed in another FBS conference, but as Spear evaluated his options, there wasn’t a geographic fit that also matched the program’s level of play. The Pac-12 was far out of reach, and although Idaho had aspirations to join the Mountain West, Spear says the conference wasn’t interested. He briefly considered going independent, an idea the 2013 season had already soured him on. Ultimately, Idaho decided its best path was a traditional one: find a conference where it fit geographically. The FCS’s Big Sky Conference was the easy answer, with member schools in Idaho, Montana, California, Washington, Arizona, Colorado, Oregon and Utah. There was blowback when the school announced the decision in April 2016, becoming the first program to drop down to FCS without an NCAA decision forcing it since 1982, and it only intensified after last season, when fans felt like the best football they’d watched in years was just a tease before a return to irrelevance.

In that Wal-Mart in September, though, the Vandals sure seemed relevant to Sannon, even as they had gotten off to yet another slow start, sitting at 1–1 after a disappointing 44–16 loss to UNLV. Sannon was still optimistic, still relishing the fact that people at the grocery store in a town of 25,000 were finally recognizing him and wishing him a good game.