LEWISTON – Eric Hisaw understands trials, and he knows what kind of attitude an athlete must have to smooth a rocky road, carving out achievements in the face of uncertainty.
It’s part of what’s made him such a successful high school coach.
“I busted my chops for five years (in Moscow),” said Hisaw, a record-breaking Cheney Blackhawk and the University of Idaho’s starting quarterback for 13 games from 1994-95.
He’s now Walla Walla High School’s longtime track and field coach, a physical education teacher and formerly the school’s football boss from 2011-18.
“Hanging your head, that’s not how you live life,” Hisaw said. “You have to work like you’re gonna go play. I had to have an awful lot of resilience and belief in what I wanted to get done, then when I got in there, be able to capitalize.”
Hisaw capped off the Vandals’ stay in the Division I-AA ranks, helping UI to consecutive playoff appearances before the program’s jump in 1996 to what is now called the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Considering his signal-calling predecessors on the Palouse – All-American former NFL quarterbacks John Friesz and Doug Nussmeier – Hisaw had been doubted.
Before he completed his career, now known as one of the Vandals’ best under-the-radar quarterback stints, Hisaw had to bounce back from an ACL injury suffered midway through his junior season. He almost was moved to defensive back in 1994, and in 1995, had to retake the top spot on the depth chart after spending a few games watching from the sideline. A shaky start in Week 1 at Oregon State prompted his benching.
So yes, Hisaw is familiar with genuine adversity.
“But it all worked out,” he said. “The good Lord does things for a reason. I think I’m a better dad, husband and coach now because of what I’ve gone through.
“I understand being injured, benched. Life’s never perfect. It’s helped me be a better man.”
Hisaw is the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association’s reigning Washington track and field coach of the year. Last season, his Blue Devil boys team claimed first in the State 4A meet, and the girls came in sixth.
“I won’t say it had anything to do with me,” he said through a laugh. “All around, it was just a great year for the program.”
According to the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association, Walla Walla’s title was the first in just more than a half century. That team – featuring Hisaw’s oldest son, Braden, a standout junior distance runner – won every meet minus one loss to 3A champion Kamiakin. A year before, it’d missed out on winning the team title by one-half point.
It was a landmark year for Hisaw, a self-described “players’ coach” who set his sights on this vocation early in his education and has been at Wa-Hi for 23 years. He expected to see similar talent this season before the spread of the coronavirus halted all sports nationwide.
“I thought the girls and guys both could have been top three in the state. There were so many kids in the right spots,” said Hisaw, whose youngest son, Jake, is a freshman runner with a high ceiling. “That’s what’s killing me: missing time with them. They become part of who you are. You can impact them positively. You can be like another parent. Sometimes you need as much help from the village as you can get.”
Hisaw also had a boost from those around him. He had celebrated UI coaches John L. Smith and Chris Tormey behind him, and all-time Vandal rushing leader Joel Thomas; his receiving corps boasted stars like Dwight McKinzie and Alan Allen; and his defense enjoyed stalwarts like former NFL defensive end Ryan Phillips and linebacker Jason Shelt, one of the Vandals’ best tacklers.
“It’s just an endless list,” Hisaw said. “I didn’t wanna let that group (of past QBs) down, I wanted to sustain that level of excellence, and keep it rolling. The run of guys I played with and the coaching staff, it was incredible. There are so many (coaches) in the NFL and at big-time D-I programs.
“That was probably the most magical six- or seven-year run Idaho football’s ever seen.”
Toward the end of it was Hisaw, who – no matter how modest – wasn’t bad himself. The 6-foot-2, 200-pound “spindly” QB could stand in the pocket and throw it “like Idaho quarterbacks of old” if need be, but often rolled around the edges and found a seam. He had a mobile dynamic inserted into the offense, just for him.
As a starter, he was 10-3, passing for 3,490 yards at a 56% clip, with 29 touchdowns against 13 interceptions. He added 330 rushing yards and six scores.
Despite the shorter on-field career, Hisaw’s name is littered throughout UI’s passing record book. The three-time conference player of the week and 1995 all-league honoree is 13th in yardage, sixth in interception rate, third in most passes without an interception (159 in 1994), and second – only behind Nussmeier – in passing efficiency.
“That staff is pretty nationally known for their passing schemes,” he said. “It was QB U.
“But that was a package deal. We were really good on both sides of the ball.”
In addition, Hisaw – who made the track team as a junior – is on a short list of Vandals to be top Big Sky competitors in two sports. He was part of a 1995 outdoor championship, then earned the Big Sky indoor title in the 55-meter hurdles in spring 1996.
“To have both, that’s pretty cool,” he said. “You count your blessings. I have a lot of great memories there.”
Before his Week 5 knee injury sustained at Eastern Washington, Hisaw was 4-0, and had thrown 14 touchdowns against only one pick. UI finished 1994 with a 9-3 record and a No. 6 ranking before losing to McNeese (Louisiana) State in the first round of the playoffs with freshman Brian Brennan quarterbacking – Brennan went 1-2 to start 1995.
“There was zero animosity, zero problems between us; we helped each other. It worked out for us, as competitors,” Hisaw said of Brennan. “It was one of those deals (for Tormey): Get the 6-4 freshman playing time.”
Eventually, Hisaw retook the job and boosted the Vandals to five wins in their final six regular-season games, including four against top-20 teams.
He bounced back from three consecutive interceptions against 13th-ranked Northern Arizona, and led an 80-yard winning drive, scoring with 30 seconds left. He also outdueled storied Montana quarterback Dave Dickenson and No. 6 Montana, chalking up a signature 55-43 decision with six touchdowns (five in the first half).
Also of note: a 10-point win against heavily favored UNLV in 1994 and a gutsy sneak-by victory at No. 15 Northern Iowa in the middle of the 1995 season surge. The Panthers had won 38 of their previous 40 in Cedar Falls.
“I think I played pretty well those few games I was in there for,” Hisaw said wryly. “We sure had a couple great ones.”
But the cherry was his final outing at the Kibbie Dome, in which he picked apart a touted pass defense in a 33-13 senior day booting of 16th-ranked Boise State by No. 25 Idaho. UI avenged a loss to the Broncos from the previous year – UI’s first versus BSU in 12 seasons, that one being for the Big Sky crown.
“Beating Boise in your last one in the Dome, nothing takes a back seat to that,” he said. “I can see and smell all of (those games) right now.”
Afterward, Hisaw returned to Cheney, where he got a jump on teaching, and soon after met his wife, Amy – a former two-sport Portland State athlete, Wa-Hi grad and teacher at the school. Not yet two years removed from college, the two had settled in Walla Walla, and Hisaw cut clear the path for which he was hoping.
“Coaching and teaching was always what I wanted to do,” said Hisaw, whose parents are both former EWU athletes and teachers. “I was absolutely a gym and field rat.”
The Hisaws are working through online courses with their students, and Eric is keeping his team focused with “virtual meets,” in which competitions are filmed. It’s an adjustment, and it’s been tough for the students, in particular.
But Hisaw understands better than most what kind of mentality athletes must take in difficult situations.
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