THE FRONT ROW with MARK NELKE: Dan Hawkins: An ‘interesting duck’ with a side of compassion

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MARK NELKE/Press UC Davis football coach Dan Hawkins speaks with a reporter at the Big Sky Kickoff on July 15 in Spokane.

Idaho is not scheduled to play UC Davis in football this season.

The only way their paths would cross is if the two Big Sky schools were to meet in the FCS playoffs — a threshold UC Davis reached last year, but one the Vandals fell well short of.

So at the recent Big Sky Football Kickoff in Spokane, why in the world would the first coach you approach for an interview during the 90-minute media meat market be Dan Hawkins, beginning his third season as Aggies head coach?

Unless you’re simply intrigued with the man you saw years ago on TV, building up Boise State’s football program. Or maybe you saw him on ESPN in recent years, sharing his opinions on college football. Or perhaps you caught his most infamous rant on the internet years ago, and wondered what that was all about.

In that case, you introduce yourself, plop down in a chair and hit the ‘record’ button on your device.

Neither coach could remember exactly when it happened. But last season, during one of his news conferences, Idaho football coach Paul Petrino recalled getting a call, during a low point in his tenure in Moscow, from Hawkins. Petrino said the talk helped, and said he’ll never forget that another coach reached out to him during a trying time like that.

As Hawkins recalls the conversation ...

“I was in Boise, and it was after I’d been whacked at Colorado,” Hawkins said. “I’m sort of an interesting duck anyway.”

He continued ...

“I find in life, if people win and they have success, everybody wants a piece of them … but, go around in life and show me who hasn’t gone through some adversity. If Jon Gruden was the president of the Fired Football Coaches Association, I was the vice president.

“And so when I got fired at Colorado (late in 2010, his fifth season as head coach), it was really hard, for a lot of reasons. It’ll test your soul. Obviously they (the Vandals) were struggling — I knew that. Obviously there’s a lot of Vandals in Boise. They’re going, ‘We need you to be the coach at Idaho … ’”

“‘Guys, let me tell you something,’” he told those Vandal fans in Boise. “‘I know the Vandals had a lot of success back in the day. But it’s not back in the day anymore. And you’ve got to look at the realities of this.’ So I felt for Paul; I really did. I knew it was an extremely tough situation. For them, they were in a tough league, and then they were thrown out of a league … truthfully, where they’re at now (in FCS) is probably best for them in the long term. No matter how you slice it, at the higher level, it’s a money game. People want to say, ‘It’s all apples’ … and it’s not. There’s some watermelons, there’s some grapes.

“So I reached out to him, because I know what he was going through, I know how much pressure that is. I knew how bad he felt. I knew the situation …

“(I said) here’s the things you have to think about, here’s the things you’ve got to focus on.

“A lot of guys that have been fired, and are going through some tough stuff, I’ll reach out to them. …

“They’d (the Vandals) had a modicum of success. Heck, one year they went to the Boise game (the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl) and beat up — I mean, beat up — Colorado State.

“When I was at Boise State everyone wanted to talk to you. … but when I’m at Colorado, nobody calls, nobody writes. It’s like you have some sort of disease, and nobody wants to associate with you,” Hawkins said.

After getting “whacked” at Colorado, Hawkins was a college football analyst on ESPN from 2011 to ’16 — save for a couple other coaching gigs, including a five-game stint with the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes in 2013. He also made guest appearances on Sirius/XM satellite radio. In November 2016, he was hired at UC Davis, which in 2003 had made the move up to FCS from Division II, and to the Big Sky in 2012

In 2017, UC Davis went 5-6 in Hawkins’ first season. Last year, the Aggies finished 10-3, tying for first in the Big Sky, and advancing to the FCS playoffs for the first time.

At Boise State, Hawkins went 53-11 from 2001 to ’05, and guided the Broncos to four bowl games. When he left for Colorado, some guy named Chris Petersen was promoted to head coach, and in his first season led Boise to an undefeated season capped by that epic Fiesta Bowl victory over Oklahoma that Bronco fans still hang their hat on.

Hawkins was asked if there were any parallels between building the program at Boise State and trying to build one at UC Davis ...

“You realize in coaching … there’s different kinds of luck,” Hawkins said. “Hey, Bill Belichick’s been fired. There’s times when Nick Saban was about to be fired at Michigan State. Sometimes you kinda catch lightning in a bottle. Sometimes it all comes together. It’s a kick, it’s a call, it’s an injury, it’s a get lucky in recruiting. But I sort of feel like we’re in this vortex now, where Davis had been a dominant D-II program, did nothing in their transition to FCS, and now we have a chancellor that comes from Georgia Tech (Gary May). Much like when I was at Boise, when we got Bob Kustra (as president), that was a force multiplier. …

“You’ve kind of got some iconic things coming together,” Hawkins continued. “We beat BYU at home one year, and they had an All-American kicker. They drove down the field at the end of the game, lined up to kick a 30-some yard field goal, and the guy hooks it left. Everybody’s ecstatic that we beat BYU … and now they’re disappointed if you lose to BYU. All I’m saying is, sometimes you have to get a few things going the right way.

“Our athletic director (Kevin Blue) came from Stanford. He helped raise $350 million there. We just raised $50 million; we just built a new practice facility, and an athletic facility. But I just really feel like the stars are kind of aligning. Ron Gould (the previous UC Davis coach) had a nice talent base there when I got there. We got lucky with (quarterback) Jake Maier. We just caught lightning in a bottle, but it is similar (to BSU).

“Like when I went to Willamette (in Salem, Ore., where Hawkins went 40-11-1 from 1993 to ’97), people were saying, ‘Don’t go there, you can’t win there,’ and I said it’s different. Their president was tired of losing, their AD was tired of losing. And they built a new locker room and a new field, and a new weight room. They said, we’re going to get this thing going. And we went from one win to the (NAIA) national championship in five years. We didn’t win it, but we were there.

“So I do feel some parallels that way. People are jumping in and helping … and all those little things, they matter. They matter a lot.”

Except for one incident, Hawkins’ time at Colorado was rather forgettable. He went 19-39, and all five seasons were losing seasons.

The “highlight” came a year or so into his tenure. Following a news conference, he was chatting with a few reporters over lunch. One of them had their recording device on when Hawkins recounted the time he got an anonymous letter from the parent of a Colorado player saying they were “bummed” the boys only got two weeks off before starting their summer conditioning program.

“Here’s my point, OK?” Hawkins said in a calm voice, with a few reporters around in an informal setting.

Then he raised his voice.

“It’s Division I football!” he shouted. “It’s the Big 12! It ain’t intramurals! You got two weeks after finals, you got a week for July Fourth, and a week before camp starts. That’s a month! That’s probably more vacation than you guys (reporters) get. And we’re a little bummed out that we didn’t get three weeks? Go play intramurals, brother.”

“Here’s the thing about it,” Hawkins recalled, a couple of weeks ago in Spokane. “Some people said, ‘Were you embarrassed about that? Or were you offended about that? Or were you proud of that?’ And the thing that sticks out in my mind the most about it is, just like I’m talking to you guys (reporters), I’m very animated, I’m very passionate …”

He said he’s had friends come up to him and say they saw the rant on TV. But he says there’s no video of it.

“It was not on TV,” Hawkins continued. “I was just sitting around talking to some guys. I was just ‘ham and egging’ it. I wasn’t mad at all. But what it taught me, and what I learned from it … it’s interesting how these perceptions are formed, and how we take these little sound bites and we take them as fact. And we don’t look at them as context. But I wasn’t embarrassed or ashamed … what I thought was that it was extremely misinterpreted, and really out of context.

“But I thought it was hilarious,” he added. “I was on ‘Mike and Mike’ and Mike Greenberg was like, ‘I’m kinda scared.’”

It also reinforced his belief that nothing is truly “off the record.”

“We had done a media thing,” Hawkins recalled. “We were sitting around eating, and we were just talking, three or four guys, and the guy had his (recorder) on ... the interesting thing is, he had it on their website for two or three weeks, and all of a sudden somebody found it and then it was this big deal.”

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

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