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John Blanchette: Win or lose, Idaho looks to gain

BOISE – Among the cottage industries spawned by college football, the manufacture of hoary bromides is likely the busiest – or surely no worse than second behind the office pool.

A particular golden oldie posits that “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” Author credit should go to Coach Epictetus of the Fightin’ Stoics, but since he couldn’t silk-screen it on a T-shirt in his day, it has been passed off as original thought by every Knute Rockne trying to will his team back from a two-touchdown deficit.

So fixated are the character-builders on trying to shinny up Mount Adversity that they forget the same truism applies during the rosy times. Which brings us to the University of Idaho and the Humanitarian Bowl.

Whether the Vandals win or lose Wednesday against Bowling Green – but especially if they win – it will be widely (and wildly) assumed that bonus developments are sure to follow.

Because isn’t that what happened the last time?

Oh, wait. Never mind.

As inspiring as Idaho’s 1998 HumBowl triumph was, it has endured as almost a regrettable moment in Vandals history because of what failed to materialize in its wake: a bowl bounce.

This is the program-wide Vitamin B-12 shot that includes gains in interest, fund-raising, facilities, recruiting and retention simply from the contact high of playing in the postseason. Now, yes, there are bowl bounces and then there are Bowl Bounces – the HumBowl is not going to be the rainmaker that one of the BCS events is, but for a football program lacking in heritage there needs to be some significant uptick.

“It’s taking the momentum and building on it,” said UI coach Robb Akey. “When a program that hasn’t experienced this kind of success suddenly does, kids are going to carry themselves differently. In the community, everybody’s walking taller and prouder. It’s easier to make more positive things happen when you have that state of mind.”

But within a year of stunning Southern Mississippi in Bronco Stadium, the Vandals had seen coach Chris Tormey leave – for a job at what had been (and is again) a conference rival. A losing string now at 11 games against the despised downstaters had commenced. Recruiting gains? Not so as you could notice. And new facilities? Not until 2004 did Idaho cut the ribbon on a substantial bauble: a new weight room.

This wasn’t a problem exclusive to Idaho. Their neighbors across the stateline lived through it twice.

When Washington State ended a 67-year Rose Bowl absence, rainbows were everywhere. But coach Mike Price embarked on a ground-floor-up rebuild that left the Cougars uncompetitive for two full seasons and stalled any fund-raising momentum. It eventually paid off on the field with three 10-win seasons, but once again the bounce blew up. Price left. The program endured two ugly PR hits from the 2002 Rose Bowl and soon headed south – and the stadium improvements desperately sought now are about 10 years late.

Akey, an assistant at WSU during that time, looked almost wistfully to the west where Oregon State jumped on its first football success in nearly three decades and rode it to Pac-10 prominence.

“Momentum,” he said, “made those things happen.”

At both Wazzu and Idaho, lack of vision was a culprit.

“This might sound silly,” said Idaho athletic director Rob Spear, whose duties were elsewhere on campus at the time, “but when we went Division I we may have had success too fast.”

Indeed, the Vandals were still a D-I probie when they won the HumBowl, just three seasons into the transition. They had made the leap with no articulated plan to improve facilities and only a tacit nod to revenue needs. And they won anyway.

“People may have thought that no matter what league we were in, we were going to be successful,” Spear said. “It seems that impacted our sense of urgency to get some things done.”

It’s still urgent.

For Akey, it’s vital not to be a one-hit wonder. His Boise nemesis is now a Top 25 perennial; Nevada and Fresno State remain a cut above. Not only must he keep recruiting better, he must re-establish the Vandals in Idaho and the Northwest (inroads having already been made) because, as he says, “Whole hometowns come with those guys when you sign them.”

In the meantime, Spear must find the money to complete the Kibbie Dome renovation that he says “has been broken down into bite-sized pieces.” But the shopping list remains long.

“A lot of people questioned the move up, and it’s been a long fight,” he said. “Hopefully, this will put that behind us. Because, simply, we can’t look back.”

Unless it’s to learn.

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