Parallels :: Aggies And Vandals Share More Than Just A Conference

The Idaho and New Mexico State football programs have been practically joined at the hip for the past 14 years. They've shared three conferences, the Big West, the Sun Belt and now the WAC. They've both been overshadowed by their in-state rivals. But they've also shared something else, something that neither one would have liked to have experienced. Losing. From 2000 through 2008, the two teams almost mirrored each others' failures on the gridiron. The games between the two teams were generally regarded as "the winnable game" on each others' schedule. Idaho held a 5-3 advantage in those meetings.

When the damage was added up, the Vandals recorded 23 wins and 82 losses in nine years and no winning seasons and the Aggies did not fare much better recording 34 wins and 73 losses and just one winning season (2002) during that stretch. As a result the two teams combined to see seven different coaches grace the sidelines. Current Idaho head coach Robb Akey became the fourth coach in five years when he took over the Vandal program in 2007 while current Aggie head coach DeWayne Walker became the program's third coach in six seasons when he took over last year.

However, last season something changed for Idaho. Something remarkable happened. Something that should give all Aggie football fans hope. The Vandals turned things around and they started to win. Ironically, the winning started in Las Cruces with a 21-6 victory over the Aggies. The Vandals would go on win seven more games and recording their first winning season since 1999. They finishing 4-4 in conference play and they would play in their first bowl game since 1998, winning in dramatic storybook fashion and capping a season that was the second best turnaround in the Football Bowl Subdivision. The previous season the Vandals finished 2-10 and recorded just one conference win, against… you guessed it, New Mexico State.

Robb AkeyI asked Idaho head coach Robb Akey if he sees similarities between the Aggie program and his own program. "Some of the things that happen when you're dealing with a situation like that, teaching players how to win and getting them in the frame of mind where they can win instead of, "Oh, here things go again,"" said Akey. "The "Here it goes again." That was something that was hard for us to battle through and actually being able to battle through in the third year [2009], that was kind of quick to be real honest with you. So I think there are some similarities there."

Teaching players how to win is something that Coach Walker has discussed on numerous occasions both last season and this season. "I think anytime you're trying to change a losing culture, any bad thing that happens with momentum kind of becomes a disaster to your football team," said Walker.

Akey also pointed to scholarship numbers, something that both he and head coach DeWayne Walker have had to deal with. "I think they're down in scholarship numbers a little bit and we've had to deal with that also," said Akey. "I understand what DeWayne is working with in that respect."

He added, "When you're down in scholarships, that deals with your depth and when you're needing to play better and you're needing to teach guys how to win and if they haven't had that kind of success before, that's hard to accomplish. Those are two big battles to fight."

It's not often that a team goes from 2-10 one season to 8-5 the next season so the obvious question is, when did Robb Akey know his team had turned the corner? "After we won the bowl game last year," joked Akey. "Going into last season, we're in our second year and I'm standing in front of our team saying, "If we do this and this and this better this is how we're going to get the win next Saturday. Then that next Sunday I'm standing there saying the same thing," said Akey. "And then I'm looking out at a group of boosters and even after that [second] season is over I'm traveling around and talking to boosters saying, "Hey, this is where we've got improvements, we've improved here, here, here and here." And they're all looking at me, "Hey that's great coach but let's see it on the scoreboard." I understand that. In our world it's what have you done now? Yesterday doesn't even mean anything. What have you done now?"

DeWayne WalkerIt's a feeling shared by Coach Walker who said in an interview with The Daily Lobo prior to the Aggies' game with in-state rival New Mexico, "We’ve shown some improvement in this program; it just hasn’t shown up on the scoreboard. I think the naked eye may pay less attention to that because that’s not sexy enough."

While the media and the fans may not have seen the improvements on the field, Akey and his coaching staff knew that their program was improving. "We saw the growth coming, we saw things improving. We knew going into last season that physically we were a better football team, we were stronger, we were faster, we were bigger, we had more experience. But we still had not won together. That's a big challenge. Teaching somebody how to win, that's tough," said Akey. "There's and old saying, "You get what you expect," and if you expect to not have success, you can guarantee that [you're not going to have any]. If you expect success, that only means you have a chance to have success."

"We knew physically we were better but where were we at mentally? We had put a lot of effort into turning that corner [mentally] and as it turns out it paid off because that was a football team that seemed to think you could overcome anything and a number of those wins we had to come from behind. Some of them happened in the last minute of the ballgame, or the last four seconds of the ballgame or the last 52 seconds of the ballgame," said Akey referencing his team's dramatic bowl comeback.

"So that told me that now we had a team that expected success, believed that it could have success and that was what I thought the turning point of the program was."

If you've been paying attention you've noticed that the message that Coach Akey delivered to his constituency is nearly identical to the one that Coach Walker has been delivering. There is no denying that the Aggies are a better team physically than last year's team. There are still some issues and the Aggies still have a ways to go with the mental aspect and changing the culture of losing that both Coach Walker and Coach Akey eluded to. However, Coach Akey noted that the similarities are there between New Mexico State direction and his own program's turnaround and he's already noticed a difference in the Aggie program.

"I think you all have got a good one in Coach Walker and I see he's got those guys playing hard," said Akey. "They look like different guys the way they carry themselves already."

Two programs separated by nearly 1,500 miles and yet they share so much in common. Hopefully the Vandals' turnaround will also be a story shared by the Aggies soon, although Akey probably prefers that the story not start until after Saturday's game between the two teams.