There is a little known codicil in the college football constitution that requires a coach in a new job to play his former school, square off against an old compadre, rekindle some old hostilities or just turn back the clock in a season’s infant stages.
Think Washington State’s Bill Doba returning home to South Bend in 2003. Think Washington’s Tyrone Willingham affirming Notre Dame’s decision to fire him in 2005. Think Idaho’s Robb Akey gritting his teeth to play Doba and the Cougars in 2007.
Think Dennis Erickson – every year, everywhere.
And now think Mike Kramer, back in the football food chain, bringing his Idaho State Bengals to Pullman on Saturday to do violence against the Cougars. Across the field, of course, will be Paul Wulff – Kramer’s close friend and assistant more than a decade ago at Eastern Washington who last season threw him a lifeline back to the game that had cast him adrift for three years.
“This is why sports is so much better than Hollywood,” offered Kramer.
“When I told Paul last spring, ‘I think I’m going to get Idaho State,’ he looked at me said, ‘We open with them next year. I mean, we open with you next year.’ Then we both started laughing. You can’t rewrite this stuff.”
It isn’t just Wulff and Kramer. Chris Tormey, long ago Kramer’s teammate at Idaho and another treasured friend, now coaches linebackers for Wulff. Kramer grew up a few fence lines away in Colton. His daughter, Gretchen, is a WSU senior.
“It’s unbelievable, it’s serendipity, it’s confusingly fun,” he said.
It’s also without drama because, well, Kramer’s team is going to get drummed.
Yes, that may seem to be a leap considering the Cougars have won all of five games in three seasons.
But the Bengals have been even more hapless and in the FCS underworld, to boot. They’ve won just three games in three years, and only six of their last 51.
There’s additional woe. The NCAA had docked ISU 10 of its 63 scholarships for academic shortcomings (five have been restored) when Kramer arrived.
He has one quarterback in the program who was part of spring drills. Six of his 12 scholarship offensive linemen are unavailable, including senior Brad Shedd, who can play a little. His best defensive lineman, Leki Fuapau, stepped on a quarterback’s foot and tore an anterior cruciate ligament.
“So I’m way beyond this ‘playing Paul’ thing,” Kramer said. “Don’t get me wrong – Washington State is paying us a lot of money to give them a good game. But the reality is, we’re on a 10-game skid, we haven’t beaten a Division I program in more than a year and whether we’re playing Washington State or Washtucna, it really doesn’t matter.
“We’re not even doing a scouting report. We need to line up and play.”
Neck deep in re-engineering the culture at ISU – where, among other things, he must “overcome the myth that Pocatello is a hellhole” – Kramer can provide perspective on the similar mission that’s engaged his friend the past three years. He spent time with the program in 2008, and last year served as an operations assistant – doing any number of chores, not the least of which was evaluating recruits on video.
His assessments are positive, but cautious.
“The front-line guys are beginning to look like they belong,” Kramer said of the Cougars. “You couldn’t say that about previous teams. There were some guys who had no business playing football at this level, but Paul and the university can’t say that.”
Now, Kramer insisted, it’s not just that they can play at WSU, but elsewhere.
“That’s really the question – how many of your guys can play at SC and Arizona State,” he said. “Deone Bucannon is a guy who can play a lot of places, and there are others. And no quarterback is going to make as big of a jump from last year to this year than Jeff Tuel.
“I’ve been around Cougar football with a practiced eye. You take what Paul has now, for players and a coaching staff, and if they find some luck and stay healthy, this team can show people something.”
Alas, the first people they’re going to show it to are Kramer’s Bengals. But he can take it.
After all, he was a senior at Idaho when the Cougars laid an 84-27 nose-rub on the Vandals, and after his three-year exile from the game following a bitter split from Montana State, he is “a pig in high mud.”
Or is that quicksand?
His first discovery upon taking the ISU job? His cellphone can’t fetch a signal inside Holt Arena, where the Bengals play. So he ducks outside to make some calls.
“Doesn’t matter – I love it all now,” he said. “All the minutiae I used to think was a bother? I revel in it.”
Even these skeleton-in-the-closet games. But then, they’re required.