Akey has Idaho soaring to best season in a decade
November 11, 2009
MOSCOW, Idaho (AP) – Two things we know about Idaho football coach Robb Akey: He’s led the Vandals to their finest season in a decade, and, man, can he jump.
Akey’s acrobatic leaps when he gets excited (and he is often excited) are the stuff of legend, replayed often on local television. The former defensive lineman vaults off the ground and his knees seem to rise to the level of his head.
In his third season rebuilding the Idaho program, Akey has had plenty of reasons to display this ability. His Vandals are 7-3 heading into their annual showdown with archrival No. 6 Boise State (9-0, 4-0 WAC) on Saturday and Idaho is almost certainly heading to its first bowl game since 1998.
The rejuvenated fan base in Moscow, now dubbed Akey’s Army, is thrilled with the first winning season since 1999. And Akey is thrilled with them.
After victories, he’ll swap high-fives with fans in the stands. That’s after sprinting up and down the sidelines all during the game, and chest-bumping his players when they do well.
“You’ve got to coach in a positive fashion, and with energy,” Akey said.
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Akey, 43, is a native of Colorado Springs, Colo., who played on the defensive line at Weber State in Utah, where he once held the sacks record.
After ending his playing career at Weber State, he joined the coaching staff there. Then he moved on to Northern Arizona for a few years before joining the staff at Washington State in 1999. He rose to defensive coordinator and helped lead the Cougars to three consecutive 10-win seasons earlier this decade.
Akey was hired by the Vandals in December 2006 to replace Dennis Erickson, who bolted after one season for Arizona State. He was Idaho’s fourth coach in five years. Akey called the players over Christmas break to introduce himself.
“I told them, we’re going to build a family,” Akey said. “A few had the courage to say ‘that sounds great, but that’s what the last guy said. Why would you be any different?”‘
He showed them first with some tough love, purging 17 players he thought were troublemakers. He gave a simple message to the rest.
“I didn’t come here to be the principal or the sheriff,” Akey said. “Just do the right thing.”
How would they know the right thing? If your name appeared on the screen crawl on ESPN, “would your mom and dad and grandma be proud or disappointed in you?” Akey said.
He led by example. In July, Akey was one of five college football coaches who toured military bases in the Middle East. Akey said he was humbled by a visit to a military hospital.
“Had a fantastic conversation with a special forces member who had been injured in a firefight and I will tell you, he is one tough son of a gun,” Akey e-mailed back to Idaho fans.
It put the challenges of playing college football into perspective, Akey said.
The Vandals endured seasons of 1-11 and 2-10 in Akey’s first two years, and were ranked among the worst teams in the nation.
But young players like quarterback Nathan Enderle, offensive lineman Mike Iupati and running back Deonte Jackson, plus defensive stalwarts like Shiloh Keo and linebacker JoJo Dickson, got plenty of playing time during the losing. They form the heart of this team.
“We’re all close to Coach Akey,” said De’Maundray Woolridge, a running back who flunked out of Washington State a few years ago but was given a chance at Idaho by Akey. Woolridge leads the WAC with 14 rushing touchdowns.
Akey said this Vandals team is larger, faster and more athletic than the squad he inherited.
“We didn’t have the passing game we needed the first two years,” he said. “We have three running backs contributing.”
Also important is the rise in confidence that has allowed the Vandals to overcome deficits in several games and come back to win.
“We would not have dug out of a hole like we have in a couple of ballgames with teams from the past,” Akey said.
Louisiana Tech coach Derek Dooley reflects the general amazement in the WAC with what Akey has done with a team predicted to finish last in the league.
“It’s incredible what they’ve done at Idaho,” Dooley said before the Vandals beat his team 35-34.
Akey is paid $240,000 a year. He’s also likely to pick up some of his bonus incentives this year. There’s $5,000 if he is named conference coach of the year (a foregone conclusion) and nearly $12,000 if the Vandals play in a bowl game (also likely).
But his first order of business is to beat Boise State on Saturday for the first time since 1998.
“That’s a streak that needs to get broken,” Akey said. “Boise has too many wins.”