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THE FRONT ROW with MARK NELKE: The connection between Eck and Choate

| February 25, 2024 1:30 AM

Roughly a decade ago, Jason Eck was interested in working for Jeff Choate.

Choate, the former St. Maries High star, and former Post Falls High football coach and athletic director, and assistant coach at several college stops, including Boise State and Washington, had just been named head football coach at Montana State. 

“I was on the staff at Montana State when he came in, after Rob Ash got fired (as head coach, following the 2015 season,” Eck said. “He knew who he wanted to bring in as his O-line coach, so he didn’t retain me. So I kinda tease him sometimes and say, ‘That was the best thing that ever happened to me, when you didn’t hire me.’”

“Awwwww … ,” Choate replied, according to Eck. 

“No, I’m serious,” Eck said he told Choate. “It worked out great, because I went to South Dakota State and that was really good for my career. But he did a good job there; I’ve got a lot of respect for him, what he built at Montana State.”

Choate coached in Bozeman for four seasons, going 28-22, his teams getting a little better every year — 4-7, 5-6, then 8-5 and 11-4, the last two seasons reaching the FCS playoffs, including a quarterfinal appearance his last season (2019).

“And then he had a good opportunity, went back to being an assistant for a few years (at Texas, which lost to Washington in the College Football Playoff semifinals this past season), and now he gets a good opportunity at Nevada (as head coach) to turn that program around,” said Eck, who is preparing for his third season as head coach at Idaho.

OF COURSE, part of the reason Eck wanted to stay in Bozeman for the 2016 season was personal.

“We were only at Montana State one year (at that time), so I was trying not to have to move the family again,” Eck said. “He (Choate) actually called me before he got into town and had his press conference — just let me know right away, ‘I don’t want to get your hopes up, I’ve known for 20 years if I ever became a head coach who I was going to hire for my O-line coach, a guy I’ve known forever (Brian Armstrong; who he recently hired in the same role at Nevada).’ He’s an honest, straight-shooter guy, and I respected that, and that was good. 

“It let me know, I’m not staying here (at Montana State) … getting that information quickly helped me find a good landing spot at South Dakota State, and that ended up working out really well.”

Eck was an assistant at South Dakota State for six seasons, the final three as offensive coordinator, before getting hired at Idaho, where he has guided the Vandals to the FCS playoffs in each of his first two seasons.

IN A way, Eck helped the Nevada job come open for Choate to pursue.

In Week 2 in 2023, Idaho went to Reno and handled Nevada 33-6, the Vandals becoming one of only four FCS teams to beat an FBS team last season.

Nevada finished 2-10, and fired its coach.

Enter Choate.

“He’ll do a good job there,” Eck said. “It’s funny, when you get a head coaching job, you get a lot of people who contact you and recommend people that you should hire. And once in a while, someone recommends a guy and says, ‘Oh, I love this guy, hire him,’ and then the guy that recommends him gets a job and doesn’t hire the guy he recommended. But I respect Jeff; he recommended one or two guys to me, when I got hired at Idaho, and I didn’t end up hiring them, but, sure enough, now he’s at Nevada, he’s hired those guys. So that puts some credibility with him.

“If he tells you something, it’s true.”

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

    Jeff Choate