MOSCOW, Idaho – His first chance came in the afterglow of one of the defining moments of his career, and Robb Akey said no. It wasn’t time.
Washington State had just outlasted Texas in the 2003 Holiday Bowl, capping a third straight 10-win season and thrusting the Cougars’ defensive coordinator into the spotlight. University of Idaho officials latched onto Akey’s lively persona, and a head-hunter service contacted him about the Vandals’ coaching vacancy.
After nearly two decades of grinding as an assistant, Akey’s long-awaited door had opened.
“At that point in time, I wanted to be a head coach,” Akey said in retrospect. “Believe me. In the worst way.”
Yet he turned down the offer to speak with UI, citing shortcomings in facilities and leadership in the administration. It was a gutty move, but one that made sense for a man who has a keen understanding of when to pick the right spots and pounce.
Three years later, the Idaho job would again come open. This time, Akey accepted the offer and has since transformed the Vandals from little more than an afterthought to a spot in Wednesday’s Humanitarian Bowl against Bowling Green.
Nothing short of miraculous? Some might say so, but those closest to the coach were sure success would come. It would simply take perseverance and scads of work – two things Akey knows all about.
In John and Doreen Akey’s home, there were a few givens. Discipline and structure were always enforced, but humor also was a mainstay.
The Akeys settled in Colorado Springs, Colo., after they taught in the tiny farming community of Wray, Colo. John was a high school instructor and coached all the major varsity sports before giving up the side job when he and Doreen moved to the city.
Thinking they were unable to have children, the Akeys adopted Robb when he was 13 months old. Shortly later, Doreen made a surprise announcement: she was pregnant. About a year after the adoption of Robb, another son, Todd, came along.
Athletics were always in the picture for the two boys. Todd thrived as a quarterback and eventually turned down several collegiate offers; Robb was a three-sport standout.
“He did baseball, football, basketball in high school,” said Todd, a railroad engineer in Highlands Ranch, Colo. “And he became the leader of the team and the cheerleader, getting everybody motivated. You always saw that from him.”
Robb eventually migrated to Weber State, where he was a productive defensive end for Mike Price. It didn’t take long for the coach and player to form a bond.
A month after Akey’s playing career ended in 1987, he accepted a graduate assistantship with Price at his alma mater. But their coaching relationship – at least for the time being – was short-lived.
A year later, Price took the Washington State job and asked Akey to accept a GA position at the Pac-10 school. His other option was to stay with new Weber coach Dave Arslanian as assistant defensive line coach – a rare full-time offer for a 22-year-old.
During a Sunday meeting with his coaches, Price asked Akey which way he was leaning. “I think I am going to stay,” Akey said.
“Well, you’re right,” Price responded. “I would kick your tail if you told me anything different.”
Then Akey threw out this zinger to his mentor: “Besides, you’re going to hire me in a couple years anyway.”
The protege had no idea it would actually take a decade.
Akey hopped from Weber State to Northern Arizona, holding just about every possible position along the way: defensive line coach, recruiting coordinator, special teams coordinator, linebackers coach and defensive coordinator.
Even in those early years, his loyalty to the schools that hired him ran deep. He spent 10 years in the topsy-turvy Division I-AA coaching world, yet managed to stay in just two spots.
Akey’s allegiance to Price finally paid off in 1999, when he was hired as WSU’s D-line coach. Price would go on to a controversial and quick stay at Alabama, and Akey wound up as Bill Doba’s defensive coordinator.
But Coach Price, as Akey sometimes calls him to this day, still reaches out to his former player and assistant on a regular basis. Twice after televised games this season Price, now at UTEP, and Akey shared late-night thoughts on each other’s teams.
“I loved playing for him,” Akey said. “He made it fun for the players. I think I learned a lot from him about respect and how to treat people – players and coach alike. People in general. I give him a lot of credit. I owe the fact that I’ve got a career to Mike Price.”
Without Price, Akey, 43, might not have had the immediate pipeline to coaching. But the key parts of the profession – interacting with players and parents, offering instruction, maintaining a positive vibe – were almost secondhand to him.
“I think it was natural born,” Doreen Akey said from her home in Colorado Springs. “He told me once that he could not imagine doing anything else in his life. He loved it so much.”
On the sidelines and practice field at Washington State, there was hardly a soul who could match Mkristro Bruce’s wit and vigor. The defensive end always had something to say – usually for everyone within earshot to hear – and right along side him was Akey.
“I probably have the (biggest case of) ADHD in the world and Akey gave me a run for my money,” Bruce said with a laugh during a phone interview from Seattle.
Four years after Akey last coached Bruce, the former All-Pac-10 performer is still amazed at Akey’s propensity to wear shorts to practice no matter the temperature – a trend that continues at UI.
His attention to the tiniest details never wavered either. Akey “stressed technique to the umpteenth degree,” Bruce said.
But the coach’s off-the-field traits stood out more.
“Me and the rest of the D-line, we called him Pops,” Bruce said. “No matter what we needed, no matter what it was, he was there for us. I don’t know, I couldn’t explain it any other way. But whenever you were down, he wouldn’t let you be down.”
Akey brought that exuberance to Moscow, where weary Idaho fans surely wondered if the Vandals would ever be competitive in the Western Athletic Conference. He was the downtrodden program’s fourth coach in five years, but Akey still zipped from practices to news conferences to booster functions with a zeal that was hard to miss.
Even when the Vandals lost 10 straight to close out his first season and won just twice in 2008, Akey’s raspy laugh and frenetic demeanor were usually on display.
“He’s definitely been consistent,” tailback Deonte Jackson said, “and it’s one of the main reasons we’ve been able to come against that adversity that we faced earlier in the season with those games being down (and) just rallying up because at no point in the game does his energy drop. At no point does he lose excitement.”
That energy comes in large part from his adopted father. Like Robb, John was outgoing and would often flash a jovial side, Doreen said. He was a longtime science teacher and eventually became state director of science education in Colorado.
John died from cancer in the summer of 2006, just months before Robb was hired at Idaho.
“I think that was probably the biggest disappointment for him – that our dad couldn’t see that happen,” Todd said.
Growing up, Robb had chances to find out the identity of his birth mother. But he never wanted to, not even when he and his wife, Molly, embarked on parenthood.
The reason was simple.
“I had two great people who said they wanted to be mom and dad,” Akey explained. “I thought that would be disrespectful. … I’ve got a mom and dad, and they’re the only ones.”