Echoes of past glory

Nov. 25—The Idaho football team will play its first playoff game in 27 years at 4 p.m. Pacific on Saturday against Southeastern Louisiana at Strawberry Stadium in Hammond, La.

Although it's been almost three decades since the Vandals have played meaningful football (with the exception of three bowl games in the Football Bowl Subdivision), this game against the Lions feels like a step back in time.

Granted, the way Idaho learned its playoff fate this season included more showmanship. In 1995, the Vandals had to wait until the next day's newspaper.

Former Idaho quarterback Eric Hisaw received a phone after the Vandals' 33-13 win against Boise State to close the 1995 regular season from a Spokesman-Review reporter informing Hisaw that the Vandals had made the Division I-AA (now Football Championship Subdivision) playoffs.

"The word was, if we got into the playoffs we'd be magicians," Hisaw said. "So we had some shirts made with that quote. Then he asked me how I felt about playing McNeese State in the first round."

Although the method of finding out if a team has made the postseason has evolved, there are a lot of similarities between this Idaho team and the one that made the 1995 postseason that can't be denied.

Big win against the Griz

The 2022 edition of the Little Brown Stein rivalry was one to remember.

Idaho's 30-23 win against then-No. 2 Montana gave the Vandals their first win in the series since 1999 and showed they were not just another middling team.

The 1995 game was eerily similar. Idaho beat then-No. 2 Montana 55-43, ending a four-year skid. It also was the final time the two would compete in the same conference until Idaho rejoined the Big Sky in 2018.

"That might've been the upset of the year," Hisaw said. "With all due respect, the Big Sky was really us and Montana, and they just had our number at the time. It's one of those games that you'll never forget."

The wins against Montana proved to be monumental, but eaach version was polar opposites. One was a defensive slugfest, the other one a track meet.

The two quarterbacks let it fly 27 years ago, combining for more than 800 passing yards.

"I just remember chasing around their quarterback all day," former Idaho defensive standout Ryan Phillips said. "I had three sacks in that game and it was just back and forth it was a crazy game."

Going back to the Bayou

When Hisaw got the call that the Vandals were going to the postseason, he was also informed that it was going to be a long road trip to face the Cowboys, who are located in Lake Charles, La.

"It was really hot," Hisaw said. "I also just remember that there were cockroaches everywhere, so just be on the lookout for cockroaches, guys."

McNeese State is 171 miles west of Hammond, where the Vandals will play this weekend against the Lions.

When the Vandals of 27 years ago faced off against the Cowboys, they went the day before. In a bit of irony, that seems to be the same travel schedule first-year coach Jason Eck and the current football team will take.

First-year leader

In 1995, Chris Tormey was in his first year as coach, his run lasting until 1999. He was 33-23 in his four-year stint in Moscow, leading the Vandals to their first bowl appearance in 1998, a 42-35 win against Southern Mississippi in the Humanitarian Bowl.

But before that, Tormey led Idaho to its fourth consecutive playoff appearance and ninth in 10 years

Tormey took over for John L. Smith, who led the program from 1989-94. Tormey kept several assistants from Smith's staff to keep some continuity.

"I don't think you really know what you're getting yourself into until your first step into the building," Tormey said. "I aspired to be a head coach and to come back to my alma mater was a huge blessing. We got off to a rocky start, but we were able to get things back on track."

Coming into a program with traditional success and starting slow are just a couple of ways Eck and Tormey are different.

Tormey and the Vandals started 2-3 before the against Montana. After that, Idaho won three out of its final four games to close out the year.

Eck's job has been turn a program around that had been dormant for most of the past two decades. He's been pretty successful in doing that. The Vandals slowly built momentum, then burst onto the scene with the win in Missoula.

It's an accomplisment Tormey is blown away by.

"To see them hang in there with Washington State and Indiana and to prove that it wasn't a fluke is a big kick-start to a program," Tormey said. "I always say you have to win the battles and your players will follow you. They've had success and he's had great buy-in with a tremendous relationship with his players. You can tell there's a lot of mutual respect there."

Pixley may be contacted at (208) 848-2290, tpixley@lmtribune.com or on Twitter @TreebTalks.