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THE FRONT ROW with MARK NELKE: ‘Tis the weekend to give thanks ... for Vandals

| November 26, 2023 1:30 AM

Among the many things we have to be thankful for, we’ll focus on one today …

THE RESURGENCE of the Idaho Vandals in football.

There have always been diehard Vandal fans. 

Really.

You just didn’t hear from them much over the past couple of decades.

Sure, they resurfaced every few years — in 1998, in 2009 and in 2016, when the Vandals qualified for bowl games and, even better, won them.

Other than that … a lot of angst, a lot of “Why the heck did we move up to FBS just because Boise State did?”

Idaho fans longed for the good ‘ol days, when coaches Dennis Erickson, Keith Gilbertson, John L. Smith and Chris Tormey had the Vandals among the Big Sky Conference elite in the 1980s and early 1990s, with numerous FCS playoff appearances.

EVEN AFTER Idaho returned to the Big Sky after 22 seasons in FBS, the Vandals didn’t exactly come in and beat up on the smaller guys. Four middling seasons followed.

Then Jason Eck was brought in as head coach. And in less than two seasons, Eck has managed to get everybody excited in Moscow — the players, the fans, the students, the fans in North Idaho, the local businesses.

In his first season, Eck guided the Vandals to the playoffs for the first time since 1995 — their last season in what was then called Division I-AA. This year, Idaho is the No. 4 seed, and earned a first-round bye this weekend in the 24-team tournament.

Eck seems to be able to say the right thing, and do the right thing to connect with folks, quickly re-energizing a fan base starved for victories.

This year, the Vandals sold out the Kibbie Dome — twice! — for the first time since Boise State last came to town, during the 2010 season.

Since then, there’s been a lot of empty bleachers.

And a lot of losses. 

A lot of, especially when Idaho played in the Sun Belt Conference, “Who the heck is really in our league?”

And …

“Why do we have to go all the way to Alabama to play a conference game?”

THOUGH PEOPLE might grudgingly do this, give previous coach Paul Petrino a little credit. He did recruit quarterback Gevani McCoy and wide receiver Hayden Hatten, after all, and a few others who have played key roles the past two seasons — such as receiver/kick returner Jermaine Jackson and cornerback Marcus Harris.

Under Eck and his staff, those players turned into stars, and others have shined as well. The buzz surrounding the program is totally different. 

And on Saturday night, Idaho will host an FCS playoff game for the first time since 1993, when Southern Illinois visits the Kibbie Dome.

It will be the Vandals’ first home playoff game since Boston U. came to Moscow in 1993 for a quarterfinal game.

Who knows how long these good vibes will last?

Remember, the aforementioned Erickson, Gilbertson, Smith and Tormey all parlayed their success in Moscow into bigger jobs elsewhere.

But let’s not worry about that right now, you killjoy.

Because in the present, the Vandals are in position to challenge for a national title in FCS.

So Vandal fans, be thankful this weekend, because it wasn’t that long ago that you probably wondered if those glory days were long gone, never to return again.

Mark Nelke is sports editor of The Press. He can be reached at 208-664-8176, Ext. 2019, or via email at mnelke@cdapress.com. Follow him on Twitter @CdAPressSports.