MOSCOW, Idaho – Had life taken a different course, Chris Tormey’s athletic legacy would be bounded by the universe of Gonzaga Prep and Idaho Vandals fans in the early- and mid-1970s.
They would remember him as a Spokane high school standout and an All-Big Sky Conference linebacker, defensive end and team captain who persevered against a pair of serious knee injuries before spending a brief time in the Washington Redskins’ preseason camp in 1978.
Afforded a redshirt year by one of those injuries, Tormey took the opportunity to, as he said, “focus, become introspective. See what life was about outside of football.”
Following his tryout with the Redskins, Tormey was contemplating whether to pursue a career in teaching or business.
Then he got a phone call.
It set in motion events that led to an ongoing four-decade coaching career. It’s a ride that included being on the staff of the 1991 national champion University of Washington team, and head coaching stops at Idaho and Nevada.
In five successful years at his alma mater, Tormey completed a trifecta of defeating Boise State three times (the Vandals’ most recent victories in the series), toppling Washington State once (the first Idaho win against the Cougars in 34 years), and leading the Vandals to their first bowl win, against Southern Mississippi in the 1998 Humanitarian Bowl.
Coaching has expanded Tormey’s legacy to the point he is being inducted into the Idaho Athletic Hall of Fame on Saturday in conjunction with the annual North Idaho Sports Banquet at the Coeur d’Alene Resort.
Sports is equal parts scores and stories. The scores establish the framework of a Hall of Fame career, but the stories give it color and texture. Tormey’s fateful phone call as he considered his future after his short time in the NFL is one such story. The call came from his former world history teacher, the Rev. Patrick Stewart, G-Prep’s chief administrator.
“He used to call me Mel,” Tormey said.
The disparity between a rangy linebacker and a rotund crooner (Mel Torme) with a similar last name apparently amused a Jesuit priest with a sharp wit he used to enlarge teenagers’ concept of the world while keeping them in line in the classroom.
“He said, ‘Mel, I understand you’re looking for employment, and you have your degree.’
“I said, ‘Yes, Father.’
“ ‘Are you quite sure about that?’
“ ‘Yes, Father.’
“ Then meet me at Jack & Dan’s at noon.’ ”
G-Prep had an unexpected opening for an assistant football coach and teacher.
“Over a red beer and a ham sandwich, (Stewart) offered me a job for $11,500,” Tormey said of his lunch that day at the iconic Spokane bar.
Two years teaching and coaching at his old high school convinced Tormey that football was his future. In 1980, he became a graduate assistant at Washington. After two years as a GA with Don James’ Husky teams, Tormey joined Dennis Erickson’s Idaho staff as a defensive line coach.
He returned to Washington in 1984. Over the next 11 years, he coached tight ends and linebackers, and was promoted to defensive coordinator when James resigned and Jim Lambright succeeded him.
His experience at Washington with James defined Tormey’s coaching strategy.
“Don James was at his zenith. He was disciplined, focused, intelligent,” Tormey said. “He ran his program like a CEO runs a large company. Everyone was held accountable. There were systems in place for everything. I decided if I ever became a head coach to incorporate as much of Coach James’ system as possible.”
Tormey got that opportunity when John L. Smith – a former housemate when Tormey and Smith were assistants with the Vandals – left as Idaho’s head coach for a similar job at Utah State.
Tormey sought James’ advice on whether he should return to Idaho for his first head coaching position. He said James told him, “If you think you can win, you’ve got to take this job.”
It was a consequential time for the Vandals. Under Erickson, Keith Gilbertson and Smith, they had established a 15-year reign as a perennial Big Sky championship and playoff contender. When Tormey took over in 1995, Idaho was playing its final season in the Big Sky Conference before making the ambitious move up to what is now the Football Bowl Subdivision.
“It was five of the best years of our lives,” Tormey said of his time in Moscow with his wife, Kellie, and daughters Leah and Emily.
“Our kids were kindergarten age. It was a special time for our family. A great time for our girls.”
An overall 32-23 record that included the 1998 Big West championship and Tormey being named the conference’s coach of the year resulted in interviews for head coaching jobs at UW and Oregon State.
In 2000, Tormey left Idaho for Nevada. The highlight of his four-year tenure with the Wolf Pack was a 28-17 victory against UW in Seattle.
Tormey returned to Washington as an assistant between 2004-08 before spending two years at Hawaii, a year at Washington State, and 1 1/2 seasons at Wyoming as defensive coordinator.
He was the head coach at South Whidbey High School in Langley, Washington, in 2014 before heading to the Canadian Football League as linebackers coach with Montreal in 2015.
Following a season with the Alouettes, he became linebackers coach for the BC Lions for three years. This season, he has the same position with the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
At first glance, the series of jobs might seem like a desperate chase. But it amounts to tending a relationship that has been fundamental to Tormey since Stewart inquired about him looking for employment as a football coach.
It’s a relationship that includes many Idaho connections. Fellow Idaho Athletic Hall of Famer Carl Kilsgaard and longtime Spokane Vandals booster Norm Fredekind helped recruit Tormey to Idaho as a player. Don Matthews, a former Idaho player and CFL coach, was a Vandals assistant when he convinced the team to honor Tormey’s scholarship offer after Tormey was injured in high school.
John Yarno, Idaho’s All-America center, was a high school friend, Vandals teammate and fraternity brother. Former Idaho coaches Erickson, Gilbertson and Smith and former Vandals assistant and Hawaii head coach Greg McMackin have been in Tormey’s orbit for decades. He has stories about them all.
“You come together with people you would not ordinarily know or associate with,” Tormey said. “You create friendships that last a lifetime.
“Football has been my livelihood. It’s part of my DNA, my life fabric. The last 52 years have always been about the next season, the next game. I’ve been lucky to have that.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.