MOSCOW, Idaho – He was a gregarious personality on the Washington State and Idaho sidelines, leaping, hugging and chest-bumping with his players for 14 seasons on the Palouse. But now, looking across the field at high school kids, Robb Akey keeps to himself.
He doesn’t want to be a distraction at Moscow High football practice, so he sits where he won’t be in the way and doesn’t speak to coaches unless they approach him.
It’s best this way, he said. The former Vandals coach doesn’t want to be a volunteer assistant. He doesn’t want to interfere with the coaching staff.
“I’m just being a dad,” Akey said.
For the first time since his sons, Jack and Daniel, started participating in sports, Akey has the time to travel to their games and be an involved father. It’s a role he was unfamiliar with 11 months ago, when Idaho fired him in his sixth season on the job.
He spent July bouncing from one West Coast city to another – Seattle, Anaheim and Las Vegas – for Jack’s AAU tournaments. And before that came basketball camps, more AAU events and both boys’ basketball seasons in Moscow.
Somewhere along the way, it hit Akey: This break in his career could turn into a “great positive.”
“It’s different, but it puts a little perspective on seeing things from a parent perspective as opposed to a coach perspective, which I’ve got to believe is going to help me in the long run too in a number of ways,” Akey said. “It will help in my coaching career, but I think it’s also helping with my role as a dad, too.”
Before this year, Akey, 47, had played or coached football every fall since the fourth grade. That includes nearly two decades as an assistant at Weber State, Northern Arizona and WSU before landing the UI job in December 2006.
When August rolled around, though, he started spending his afternoons two miles from the Idaho campus, watching Jack prepare for his junior season at Moscow’s Bear Field.
While Daniel, a sophomore, didn’t play football this year, Jack is a starting receiver and safety for the Bears. He had a 220-yard receiving game in the season opener and has four touchdown receptions through three games.
Bears coach Phil Helbling had to persuade Jack to join the team last year, but on the field, it’s clear he’s a coach’s son.
“He’s got great athleticism,” Helbling said. “He’s got great hands. He’s got good awareness of the field. He’s got good routes. I mean, you can definitely tell he’s been around the game for 16 years.”
Helbling, a 25-year-old in his second year running the MHS program, considers Akey a friend who he talks to more about non-football topics than the 4-3 defense. But Akey does offer advice on the best way for Helbling and his staff to handle themselves as coaches, while also giving scheme-related tips now and then.
“He’ll come to practice and watch his kid,” Helbling said. “But it’s totally off in the back. If I want to talk football with him and I’ve got questions, I’ve got the comfort level and the relationship with Coach Akey where I can do that. But he’s totally relaxed and sitting back and just enjoying the ride.
“It’s been really nice for our kids. It’s been really nice for, I know, Jack.”
On Friday night, Moscow hosts border rival Pullman, a team that features quarterback Mason Petrino, the son of first-year Idaho coach Paul Petrino. The next night, Akey will tune in when the Vandals play at Washington State – the bigger version of the Battle of the Palouse.
Akey spent eight seasons at Wazzu before taking the Idaho job, so the game means more than other ones he’ll watch Saturday. But not that much more.
“Having been a part of that game, it’s something I pay attention to,” he said. “But at the same time, it’s also moving-on time a little bit as well. So it’s kind of another one those games you pay attention to, and I’ll be watching a lot of games this weekend.”
Akey spends his mornings reading newspapers and watching film of football games. He immerses himself in college football on Saturdays and even helps Daniel manage two fantasy football teams.
Come the offseason, he’ll be on the hunt for a coaching job. Idaho will pay him his base salary of just over $165,000 through June 2014, the end of his contract. In an ongoing lawsuit, he’s also seeking part of a $105,000 media payment that was due to him if he hadn’t been fired.
“I’d like to think there would be some good (coaching) opportunities,” said Akey, who led the Vandals to one of two bowl appearances and wins in program history.
For now, though, he’s a full-time dad – a job that suits him just fine.