It’s cliché to say a team has nowhere to go but up as their season approaches, but for the University of Idaho Vandals, that’s an absolute truth. Last year, the Vandals won just a single game and were only competitive in a couple of their 11 losses. They were playing with the knowledge that their conference, the Western Athletic Conference, was in its last year as a football league and that no other conference wanted to take them on. The university fired coach Robb Akey in the middle of October, leaving former WSU quarterback Jason Gesser, hardly a seasoned coach, to lead the Vandals. As if that wasn’t painful enough, their starting quarterback was kicked off the team for a failed drug test just a week later.
If the roof of the Kibbie Dome, the smallest stadium in all of FBS football, caved in, no one would have been surprised at that point. But Idaho spent the offseason plugging some of these holes. First the university had to fill the coaching void. They did so by hiring Paul Petrino, brother of former NFL and Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino, who comes to the Vandals after serving as the offensive coordinator at Arkansas and brings an offensive-minded approach to the struggling team. He’s also trying to instill the sort of tough-nosed mindset needed to bring the Vandals out of the basement of college football.
“We’ve been saying it since the day we got here. We’re trying to make the players believe we’re going to be what we call grinders — guys that work hard every day, get up and go to work and improve every single day,” says Petrino.
Petrino already has found a bright spot during this summer’s preseason camp in redshirt freshman Chad Chalich, a Coeur d’Alene High School graduate who has emerged as a talented passer and leader. Petrino has stopped short of naming him the official starter, but expect him to be under center, and tossing some touchdown passes when Idaho heads to North Texas on Saturday.
And that little we-don’t-have-a-conference problem? Check that off the list. In March, Idaho announced it had found a new home for 2014 in the Sun Belt Conference. This season the Vandals will compete as an independent, however, meaning they don’t have a conference and face far-off, challenging matchups at places like Florida State and Ole Miss.
2012 record: 1-11, 1-5 WAC (6th place)
Key games: at Washington State, at Florida State
Key returning players: WR Najee Lovett, DE Maxx Forde, DE Quinton Bradley