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Youth leadership

The University of Idaho has Division I-A's youngest coaching staff, including, from left, Alundis Brice, Steven Peterson, James Cregg, Joel Thomas and Jonathan Smith.
 (University of Idaho / The Spokesman-Review)
The University of Idaho has Division I-A's youngest coaching staff, including, from left, Alundis Brice, Steven Peterson, James Cregg, Joel Thomas and Jonathan Smith. (University of Idaho / The Spokesman-Review)

If a post-1995 song comes on the radio, Idaho assistant head coach Jeff Mills has little hope of identifying the song or the artist. If it’s classic rock, the playing field tilts Mills’ way.

“I’m not really hip or up with the times,” said Mills, who, at 40, is the elder statesman of Vandal assistant coaches, the youngest staff in Division I-A football. “They’re more up to date on the trends. My kind of music has gone by the wayside.

“This might be the first staff I’ve been on that listens to rap. Something will come on and the guys will say, ‘Jay-Z.’ I’ll say something when it’s a group from the ‘70s – you know, CCR.”

Musical tastes aside, there is one thing the entire staff is in tune with: head coach Nick Holt. The 42-year-old subscribes to a work ethic steeped in long hours, intensity and infinite energy.

“The speed of the leader determines the rate of the pack,” Mills said, “and Coach Holt sets a fast pace.”

For players and coaches.

“I love the season,” said co-offensive coordinator Joel Thomas, 30, a former UI standout running back. “It’s kind of my weight-loss program going to practice. There was one point in practice last season where I was purposely sitting back and watching my guys to see if they’d run on their own because they have to do it in a game.

“So we come in and watch the film and it was a good practice by the offense and Coach (Holt) looked at me and said, ‘What’s wrong with you? You’re not running.’ The next practice I’m out there running past everyone. That’s why he hired us. We’re guys that can demonstrate and lead by example.”

There is experience among the nine full-time assistants, despite the statistics on their birth certificates.

“I’m a dinosaur,” joked 38-year-old co-offensive coordinator Nate Kaczor, who worked for ex-Vandals coach John L. Smith at Utah State.

Thomas has been at Louisville and Purdue. Offensive line coach Jason Eck was a graduate assistant at Colorado and Wisconsin. Defensive line coach James Cregg has worked at Colgate and Colorado State.

Receivers coach Chad Q. Brown’s resume lists stints at Purdue, Dartmouth and Washington & Jefferson. Linebackers coach Johnny Nansen has been at four schools, including Louisville. Cornerbacks coach Alundis Brice, a former NFL player, was a grad assistant at Alabama-Birmingham and Mississippi.

Quarterbacks coach Jonathan Smith, 26, was a grad assistant at Oregon State, his alma mater, under Dennis Erickson and Mike Riley.

“I’d say about 75 percent of the drills I do are from those two guys,” Smith said.

Still, Smith made adjustments from his first year at Idaho to this season.

“There are quite a few things I emphasized last year that I’m not doing this year because I thought it was a waste of time,” Smith said. “I’m much more direct when I present the plan to these guys. I thought I might have overloaded them at times last year.”

“It’s not about your age, it’s about the way you go about your business,” Kaczor said. “I know (Tampa Bay defensive coordinator) Monte Kiffin is a guy that Coach (Holt) thinks a great deal of. Monte isn’t 40 years old anymore, but his enthusiasm for the game is unbelievable. Nick’s style is show me you love football, physically show me. He’s always full speed. We almost have the carpets worn out in the hallway.”

There have been growing pains, as with any first-year staff, and sideline warnings were common in 2004. Holt, entering his second season, has had to deal with a rebuilding program, a road-heavy schedule, a fairly steady diet of losses (some lopsided and some on the final play) and tragedy. Idaho cornerback Eric McMillan was shot and killed last September, a day after the Vandals lost to Washington State. And Brice pleaded guilty to maliciously disturbing the peace, stemming from an August 2004 incident in the parking lot outside a Moscow nightclub.

“He’s just always tried to handle things with a positive resolve,” Mills said of Holt. “There are so many people that are negative and looking from a negative perspective. He doesn’t. His attitude is from a positive standpoint and he gives us motivation to keep pushing and moving forward.”

For the first time since Keith Gilbertson’s crew in 1987 and 1988, Idaho had no staff turnover after last season, which has helped with continuity, planning, recruiting and, well, coaching. Smith indicated that some of his colleagues had opportunities to go elsewhere but declined “because there’s a genuine feeling that something special is going on here.”

Kaczor, from the coach’s booth upstairs, calls offensive plays. Smith relays the play to the quarterbacks, and Thomas is in charge of personnel groups for the formation. Holt is the defensive coordinator and calls plays for that side of the ball.

“If I have time I’ll make the adjustments myself with the defense,” Holt said. “Otherwise, I have great coaches and I can relay it through them or they know and can do it themselves.”

The staff works long hours, but Holt maintains a schedule that allows for family nights on Thursday, when coaches generally head home soon after practice. Friday mornings, depending on whether the game is home or away, coaches usually have time to eat breakfast at home or drive their kids to school. Sunday evening generally becomes a family event at the Kibbie Dome with meals prepared by the coaches’ wives.

That makes Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, when the coaches work late, easier to digest.

“You get used to the hours and it’s really not as bad as it seems,” Smith said. “(Holt) is adamant about getting out of here and a lot of times he has to kick us out of here. Sometimes we’ll be done working and we’re just sitting around talking and hanging out.”

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