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It all comes together for Vandals QB Matt Linehan

Quarterback Matt Linehan, with Idaho’s Kibbie Dome in the background, has gone from an unrecruited high school player to the centerpiece of the Vandals offense. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Quarterback Matt Linehan, with Idaho’s Kibbie Dome in the background, has gone from an unrecruited high school player to the centerpiece of the Vandals offense. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Scott and Kristen Linehan could see it in their oldest son.

They could see he had what it takes to be a successful college quarterback – the natural leadership, the drive, the tall (but still skinny) frame. Matt Linehan just needed a school to give him an opportunity.

And in late 2012, that opportunity didn’t look like it would materialize.

Linehan had just finished an excellent senior season at St. Mary’s High School in Orchard Lake, Michigan. He had grown to 6 feet, 3 inches tall after starting high school at around 5-8, 125 pounds. He was the son of an NFL offensive coordinator and former college QB.

And what was his plan?

“I was going to quit,” Linehan says. “I was done playing football because I hadn’t gotten any offers. I thought about the juco route and didn’t think it was the best route for me. So I was going to play D-II basketball.”

A couple of hours after a mid-August practice, Linehan leans forward in his chair in a Kibbie Dome media work room and marvels at how all of the pieces fell into place for him to land at Idaho. He’s gone from unrecruited to second-team preseason All-Sun Belt and the centerpiece of a Vandals team that expects to be in a bowl game come December or January.

To make it even more special, the redshirt junior stars at the same school – and wears the same jersey number, 10 – that his dad did three decades ago.

None of this would have happened, Linehan and his parents say, if weren’t for Paul Petrino – a coach with the same fiery persona as his QB.



The Petrino-Linehan Connection

Petrino was introduced as Idaho’s head football coach on Dec. 3, 2012. Three days later, he offered Linehan a scholarship.

As soon as Petrino was hired, Linehan decided on a whim to send UI’s new head man the same recruiting tape he had sent to so many other coaches. This felt different, though.

Petrino and Scott Linehan had coached together at Idaho in 1992-93 and at Louisville in ’99. They stayed in contact as they hopped between college gigs and on to the NFL (and back to college for Petrino).

“I remember watching (Matt) throw the ball warming up before the game when I was with the Falcons and they were at the Rams,” Petrino says. “He was out there playing catch with his dad prior to the game.”

Matt Linehan hadn’t even thought of playing at Idaho until Petrino was hired. The previous regime under Robb Akey didn’t have the same connection to the Linehans that Petrino had. Matt had watched the Vandals play a few times on TV and knew his dad and mom had played there (Kristen was on the UI basketball team for two years), but that was about it.

“He was a little kid when we moved from the Northwest and went to Louisville and then got into the NFL,” said Scott, now the Dallas Cowboys’ offensive coordinator. “So he didn’t have a background with our Northwest ties other than going home to see family in the summer.”

Scott grew up in Sunnyside, Washington, and traveled to watch two older brothers, Rick and Ron, play at UI. Matt, meanwhile, had moved a lot with his family across the Midwest and East Coast as Scott took different NFL coaching jobs.

Minneapolis, Miami, St. Louis, Detroit – these were the cities Matt knew, and they were all big.

“Frankly, I didn’t think he would like (Moscow),” Kristen says.

But Matt took to the small town immediately during his recruiting visit in January 2013, just like he quickly realized he wanted to play for Petrino. He committed to UI on the trip and the next week turned down a chance to visit the University of North Dakota.

“All I needed was to get here and be around Coach Petrino, and it was a done deal,” Matt says.

Kindred spirits

They’re both coach’s sons. They’re both competitive to their core. They both have been around the highest level of football.

In these ways, Matt Linehan and Paul Petrino are kindred spirts. They sometimes squabble on the field, but their relationship works largely because they’re wired the same way.

Matt says it was Petrino’s competitive fire – the same trait Scott and Kristen noticed in their son early on – that attracted him to the coach before he committed. Four years later, the intensity they share burns even brighter with the Vandals seemingly so close to being relevant again.

“Matt wants to be pushed, coached hard and driven,” his father says. “And I can’t think of anybody better than Paul to do that. He’s a great motivator, he’s a great coach. But he cares about his players. He’s not going to ever let them to do anything but to strive to be their best and he demands a lot out of players. That’s what drives Matt.”

When Matt missed spring camp after foot surgery, Petrino made sure to pull him aside before and after practices and in meetings. The two would walk through tape and plays to keep Matt mentally sharp.

Petrino wanted his starting QB for the fall locked in, even while hobbling around. And it made an impression on Matt.

“When you’ve got a coach who cares like that — and unfortunately, we don’t get that enough anymore; you don’t get a coach who cares for their players like that as much as he does — to be able to have that is special, and I cherish it all the time,” Matt says.

Matt Linehan, here sacked in a game last year, and the Vandals have a bowl game as a goal. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Matt Linehan, here sacked in a game last year, and the Vandals have a bowl game as a goal. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

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