"Nevada's emergence last year ... is good. It's very likely someone from the lower half (will move up)"
San Jose State head coach
WAC is getting wackier
Dennis Erickson at Idaho gives DBs one more offense to fear
BOISE, Idaho » Football coaches -- and not just Dick Vermeil -- are human, too.
They even do that early-morning barroom thing, where you call a missing friend and pass the cell phone around. You roust your buddy out of bed and take turns telling him what a loser he is. What you really mean is you wish he were there sharing the good time with the rest of the fellas.
Texas Tech coach Mike Leach was Wednesday night's victim of technology and sentimentality, receiving a wake-up call from the Red Lion hotel in Boise, courtesy of his colleagues and cronies in the Western Athletic Conference.
Apparently, it wasn't a blackout period for recruiting. New Mexico State coach Hal Mumme tried to get his old offensive coordinator at Kentucky to bring the Red Raiders into the wacky WAC. Of course it doesn't make any sense, other than to give LaTech a travel partner.
"Get Bobby Knight on conference," Mumme said. "(WAC commissioner) Karl Benson's right here. We can wrap this up now. Forget about the Big 12."
Stranger things have happened in the world of conference realignment, and in stranger places -- like the Denver airport. Just ask Benson and retired UH athletic director Hugh Yoshida.
The WAC isn't shopping right now (although that pesky rumor lingers about bringing in Gonzaga despite its lack of a football program).
But wouldn't Texas Tech be a fine fit? Philosophically, anyway.
What's one more coach who likes to chuck it around (actually two, if you count Knight and chairs)?
You've already got Mumme, June Jones at Hawaii. And now, this year, another patron saint of the passing game. He's the one with the most successful track record, with credentials that dwarf even Steve Spurrier's -- Dennis Erickson, who's back at Idaho.
Mumme reminisced about the good old days, when he and Leach would drive down to Florida to pick Erickson's tanned noggin when he was winning national championships at Miami.
"I remember when Hal and Mike would come down. They said they were recruiting, but they ended up at South Beach a lot," Erickson said. "Two pretty good offensive minds. We shared a lot of ideas and it was a lot of fun."
At first glance, Erickson doing his thing at a place called the Kibbie Dome equates to putting Sinatra on American Idol. But Moscow's home for him -- the Montana State alum was OC at Idaho in the mid-1970s and head coach in the '80s, when he had memorable duels with Nevada coach Chris Ault. That was before Washington State, Miami and then the NFL and Oregon State.
In past years, Jones, Steve Kragthorpe at Tulsa and Mike Price at UTEP have turned WAC teams around in their first year.
Many thought Dick Tomey would do it last fall. The Spartans made some headway, but it was mostly in the morale department. San Jose State finished 3-8.
While Nevada climbed into the upper echelon and tied four-time champion Boise State for the WAC title last year, it is still largely a league of halves (compared to fulls like Notre Dame and USC) and halve-nots.
The national cache the Broncos and Bulldogs enjoyed in limited amounts evaporated last year between the hedges at Georgia for BSU, and interestingly, in the Rose Bowl when USC's loss to Texas took a lot of the value out of Fresno's near-miss against the Trojans.
Boise State, however, remains a clear favorite to win the WAC championship, with new-old coach Chris Petersen -- the most celebrated college assistant since Norm Chow -- taking over for Dan Hawkins. Hawkins departed for Colorado and took half the staff and his freshman quarterback, son Cody, with him.
With 20 starters back in the fold -- including brash and talented quarterback Jared Zabransky -- the Broncos don't show any signs of stubbing their toes on their blue turf.
Fresno State has a lot of returnees, too, and on the surface looks like a solid No. 2 choice. But several of the guys the Bulldogs are losing, like quarterback Paul Pinegar, running back Wendell Mathis, defensive lineman Garrett McIntyre and defensive back Richard Marshall, will be sorely missed, at least at first.
"Anytime you lose your quarterback it's a rebuilding year," Hawaii coach June Jones said. That's been a fact for the Warriors: UH went 3-9 after Dan Robinson and 5-7 last year after Tim Chang, for the only two losing seasons under Jones.
Hawaii -- with what might be its best offense ever -- is a good pick for second, despite questions on defense and the killer combo of road games at both Boise and Fresno.
"(Hawaii quarterback) Colt Brennan at Hawaii is fun to watch except when he's playing me," Mumme said of the WAC's preseason offensive player of the year. "We never broke serve against them, I think. I'm sure this year he'll be a real force."
Nevada has enough coming back to remain somewhere near the top of the conference, while LaTech might drop because most of its 2005 starting defense is done with college football.
That leaves Idaho, New Mexico State, San Jose State and Utah State. They combined for fewer wins than Boise State in 2005.
Is it possible for one or more of these under-funded and depth-lacking programs to join the contenders? If so, it will be because of coaching.
Tomey said the league is on its way toward balance.
"Nevada's emergence last year as a quality program is something good. It's very likely someone from the lower half (will move up)," said the former Hawaii and Arizona coach. "We saw that in the Pac-10. There was a day when the Pac-10 was USC, UCLA and Washington. That totally changed. All those teams have taken their turns, and I think you'll see that in the WAC. A highly competitive league is better than a league that's dominated by two teams."
Right, the Pac-10. Yeah, how did Oregon State get good in the late '90s?
Two words: Dennis Erickson.
And look out. He thinks he can do at Moscow what he did at Corvallis.
"This is very similar to Oregon State. When we went to Oregon State the facilities were terrible. Hadn't had a winning season in 20-something years. We built a new indoor arena, put luxury boxes in the stadium. It's competitive in the Pac-10 now. It also involves recruiting.
"This is very, very similar to that."
1. Boise State
Last year: 9-4, 7-1 WAC (T-1st); lost to Boston College 27-21 in MPC Computers Bowl
Coach: Chris Petersen (first year as head coach)
Returnees: 49 lettermen (20 starters), including QB Jared Zabransky and two-time All-WAC LB Korey Hall
Key losses: Top RB Lee Marks, four-year starter LT Daryn Colledge, and head coach Dan Hawkins
Plays Hawaii: Sept. 23, at Boise
Petersen says: "I was so solid with the philosophy with Dan Hawkins and the rest of the staff. It was good. So we want to keep those key components in place, keep the things that helped us win games in place."
Last year: 5-7, 4-4 WAC (5th)
Coach: June Jones (53-37 in seven seasons at UH)
Returnees: 51 lettermen (17 starters), including WAC preseason player of the year Colt Brennan at QB and freshman All-America SB Davone Bess
Key losses: OLBs Kila Kamakawiwo'ole and Tanuvasa Moe
Jones says: "We have to win at two tough places, Fresno and Boise, where the school has not had much success before."
Last year: 9-3, 7-1 WAC (T-1st); beat Central Florida 49-48 (OT) in Sheraton Hawaii Bowl
Coach: Chris Ault (177-73-1 in 21 seasons at Nevada)
Returnees: 38 lettermen (15 starters), including QB Jeff Rowe, All-WAC Caleb Spencer at WR, All-WAC Joe Garcia at CB
Key losses: WAC POY B.J.Mitchell at RB, Roosevelt Cooks (98 tackles) at LB
Plays Hawaii: Oct. 7, at Aloha Stadium
Ault says: "This pistol offense, there's a lot of things you can do with it. I think we've got the trigger guy who can do what we want to do."
4. Fresno State
Last year: 8-5, 6-2 WAC (T-3rd); lost to Tulsa 31-24 in AutoZone Liberty Bowl
Coach: Pat Hill (72-43 in nine seasons at FSU)
Returnees: 52 lettermen (19 starters), including four-year starter at C Kyle Young and 1st-team All-WAC Paul Williams at WR
Key losses: 7 starters, including 4-year starter QB Paul Pinegar, RB Wendell Mathis, DL Garrett McIntyre and DB Richard Marshall
Plays Hawaii: Oct. 14, at Fresno
Hill says: "We've got enough plays to fit whoever's going to be back there. These quarterbacks can do a few things we haven't been able to do the past few years."
5. San Jose State
Last year: 3-8, 2-6 WAC (T-6th)
Coach: Dick Tomey (161-118-7 in 25 seasons, 3-8 in one season at SJSU)
Returnees: 40 lettermen (12 starters), including preseason All-WAC Yonus Davis at TB, 4 of 5 starters on OL including Matt Cantu at LT, and Matt Castelo at LB.
Key losses: Ezekiel Staples (115 tackles), WR Rufus Skillern.
Plays Hawaii: Nov. 18, at Aloha Stadium.
Tomey says: "We led the nation in improved attendance, and we should've because it was dreadful."
6. Louisiana Tech
Last year: 7-4, 6-2 WAC (T-3rd)
Coach: Jack Bicknell (40-42 in seven seasons at LaTech)
Returnees: 49 lettermen (11 starters), including WRs Eric Newman and Johnathan Holland
Key losses: Top three tacklers, including Barry Robertson (103 stops)
Plays Hawaii: Nov. 11, at Aloha Stadium
Bicknell says: "We have a 3-way race (at quarterback), we have to resolve that quickly. They're thinking rather than playing. ... You like to have a Tim Rattay or a Luke McCown. Sometimes it's a little bit murky."
Last year: 2-9, 2-6 WAC (T-6th)
Coach: Dennis Erickson (145-56-1 in 17 college seasons, 32-15 at Idaho)
Returnees: 42 lettermen (17 starters), including QB Steven Wichman and TE Luke Smith-Anderson
Key losses: WR D.J. Smith (1,001 receiving yards) and LB Cole Snyder (139 tackles)
Plays Hawaii: Oct. 28, at Aloha Stadium
Erickson says: "We are going to have to bang early in two-a-days. We have a lot of things we have to find out."
8. New Mexico State
Last year: 0-12, 0-8 WAC (9th)
Coach: Hal Mumme (97-76-1 in 15 seasons, 0-12 in one season at NMSU)
Returnees: 46 lettermen (14 starters), including RB Justine Buries (779 yards, 5 TDs) and NG Jeremy Weeks
Key loss: LB Jimmy Cottrell
Plays Hawaii: Oct. 21, at Las Cruces
Mumme says: "The main thing now is just pull together and win some games. Last year they were like Seabiscuit, used to being beat down. Once they start winning they'll probably do it for a very long time."
9. Utah State
Last year: 3-8, 2-6 WAC (T-6th)
Coach: Brent Guy (3-8 in one season at Utah State)
Returnees: 34 lettermen (14 starters), including QB/P Leon Jackson III and WR/RS Kevin Robinson and Tony Pennyman
Key loss: LB Matt Wiser 85 tackles
Plays Hawaii: Nov. 4, at Logan, Utah
Guy says: "Defensively we're still in diapers. If you look at the depth chart, there's two seniors and a bunch of young kids. We just have to be more consistent at not giving up big plays."