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Blanchette: With bowl bid official, Vandals can celebrate

MOSCOW, Idaho – As the whistle blows on the irony train pulling into Vandal Station, nobody is quite so pleased with Boise State’s return to the BCS party than the University of Idaho.

Sometimes, happiness is a moral dilemma.

For the Broncos’ reward – and a few other toppling dominos – assured a prize for the Vandals, too: an invitation to play Bowling Green in the Humanitarian Bowl, which was officially issued Sunday after two months of officials from both the game and the school making goo-goo eyes at one another.

Of course, the who, what, where, when and how of the whole deal only muddy up a moment of remarkable clarity.

The Vandals are bowl bound.

After a decade as college football vagabonds and punchlines, the Vandals get to rejoin the big gala, and forgive a few of them if they need to pinch themselves.

“It was hard to ever see this day coming,” said senior receiver Max Komar, who has played for three different head coaches. “When you’re losing, you come to practice every day with a positive attitude but at the end of the day you realize you’re not seeing the reward. But it was pretty clear early on that this could be a special year.”

The appropriate roar greeted the local announcement made by coach Robb Akey at halftime of Idaho’s basketball game at hoary old Memorial Gym – the cozy assemblage already jazzed by the rout of 25th-ranked Portland in progress.

Behind the scenes, that emotion was cut with no small splash of relief.

“After what we’ve been through,” athletic director Rob Spear said, “there was no way you could not have some apprehension until you get the phone call.”

A safety valve for the Vandals opened up earlier in the week when the GMAC Bowl became a likely spot for any eligible Western Athletic Conference team orphaned in the bowl trickle-down. But for the Hum Bowl-Vandal marriage to work out, a few witnesses had to stand up.

Wisconsin needed to beat Hawaii to keep the Rainbows from becoming eligible for their own island luau. And difficult as it might be for any Vandal to root for Boise State, the Broncos needed the at-large come-hither from the BCS to keep them out of the WAC’s three-bowl parlay. Central to that was Texas surviving a scare from Nebraska on Saturday in the Big 12 championship game – the Longhorns getting a second put back on the clock to kick the winning field goal after almost squandering the opportunity.

“I thought that was a great call by the officials,” Akey said, laughing.

Spear reported that it “got a little hairy last week” when Boise State hinted that if it didn’t get into the BCS that it might prefer to spend bowl season with a home game against UCLA. Had that occurred, and Hawaii won its way in, the Vandals could have been destiny’s footwipes – and the Hum Bowl wouldn’t be able to tap into a market of 16,000 UI alums.

“It was good to see Hawaii lose,” said linebacker JoJo Dickson, reaffirming that charity begins at home.

It wasn’t charity that motivated Akey to tell his players point blank that a bowl game was realistically in their future. And it wasn’t delusion, either – even though the Vandals had gone 3-21 in his first two years on the job. He saw enough of the makings that he figured the best thing he could do was coach up the belief.

He also understands that even a bowl game isn’t a final destination.

“We’ve still got work to do to build our program,” he said, “but we have the corner turned. And we also found out it’s OK to not worry about what everybody thinks, but that if you work your tail off you can make it happen.”

Not that they still didn’t have their doubts, even after putting together a 7-5 season.

“It’s been real tense,” Komar admitted. “All week long we’ve been asking Coach Akey, ‘Are we there yet?’

“It’s just such a great thing. The Vandals have been down for 10, 11 years and the community’s been hungry for this. Now that we’ve been able to make a name for ourselves, I see Idaho being good for years to come.”

For the moment, it’s about being good again this year. That the Vandals find themselves moonwalking into the Hum Bowl – having lost four of their last five games – is unfortunate, but secondary. Three of those losses were to bowl-bound teams, and starting quarterback Nathan Enderle missed all of two of them, plus part of the upset loss at home to Utah State.

“We didn’t finish the way we would have liked, but let’s not take anything away from this football team,” Spear said. “Everybody picked us dead last and for us be in this position is an incredible thing for the players and the whole university.

“You’re judged whether you’re a successful program or not on whether you’re in a bowl game.”

They’re in. Go ahead and toot that whistle.

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