EL PASO, Texas – The dream scenario began to materialize on Monday afternoon.
Robb Akey was in Tucson, Arizona, preparing Central Michigan’s defense for a test against Boise State in the Arizona Bowl when rumors about the Broncos’ availability started to surface on social media.
Dan Akey was in El Paso, Texas, where Washington State players and coaches eagerly waited to find out whether they’d have an opponent in the Sun Bowl after Miami opted out a day earlier due to COVID-19.
Molly and Jack Akey were in transit from Michigan to Arizona, frantically checking their phones when their plane touched down in Oklahoma City for an unexpected refueling stop.
By 5 p.m. Monday, the 86th Sun Bowl had officially devolved into the Akey Bowl.
“The phone started blowing up and everything and it was official that we were playing Washington State,” Robb said. “So this phone was pretty active from a lot of folks and it was pretty cool.”
“We got down here and got to the Top Golf and found out Miami was going to cancel,” Dan said. “So we heard the potential replacement would be Central Michigan and honestly I just couldn’t believe it. I never thought in a million years that this would happen the way it did.”
“I can’t even explain it,” Molly said.
“I talked to some friends at Boise State to see if they were dealing with some COVID stuff and they were,” Jack said. “So then soon as I heard that I was like, dang it might really happen.”
The unexpected and completely spontaneous Akey reunion will officially kick off at 9 a.m. Friday in El Paso, where Central Michigan (8-4) will take on WSU (7-5) in a game that features Robb, a former Cougars assistant and Idaho head coach who’s now in year No. 3 as the Chippewas’ defensive coordinator, facing off his against youngest son Dan, a WSU senior who’s been a student assistant in Pullman primarily working with the team’s running backs since 2017.
One will be on the sideline coordinating CMU’s defense when the Sun Bowl kicks off and the other in the press box lending insight to WSU’s offensive staff, but both Akeys will presumably meet on the field pregame, reveling in a moment that didn’t seem possible five days earlier.
“There has been a lot of phone calls. He’s trying to hide stuff from me, I’m trying to hide stuff from him,” Dan said after WSU’s practice on Wednesday. “We both want to win and it’s going to be really fun because obviously you’ve got bragging rights forever because I don’t know if this will happen again. So, yeah, we’re fired up and a lot of friendly trash talk. Whoever wins is definitely going to talk their smack.”
Dan has already gotten a few words in, sharing WSU’s official announcement on Monday on Twitter with a quote tweet that read, “may the best man win, @RobbAkey.” It didn’t take long for dad, reputed in Pullman and Moscow for his quick wit and one-liners, to deliver a response of his own: “You’re a funny guy little man!!”
The friendly banter won’t overshadow the gravity of the moment for all four Akeys, who spent 13 years on the Palouse – a place everyone in the family refers to as “home” – as Robb worked as WSU’s defensive line coach and defensive coordinator before serving six season as Idaho’s head coach.
“In the Palouse, hell in the state of Washington, we made great friends there and it was home,” Robb said by phone Thursday morning. “We loved it there, that’s where my boys grew up and it was really cool.”
Dan calls his dad “my biggest influence” and “the reason that I’m doing all of this,” while Jack recounts the countless hours both brothers spent trailing Robb around Idaho’s Kibbie Dome, soaking up coaching points even when their dad may not have realized it was happening.
“The way we grew up in it, we were really involved,” Jack said. “We understood it from a different standpoint then kind of other people understand at a very young age. We’re sitting there against Nevada, me and Daniel are telling my dad that they’ve got a quarterback out there on kickoff, so we’re worried about them doing a throwback. We’re sitting there 11 and 12 years old, so it’s been kind of different for us.”
The Akeys have vivid memories of driving to Pullman for the first time not long after Robb accepted an offer from Mike Price to coach WSU’s D-line. It was Feb. 5, 1999, a date the family knows better as Dan’s first birthday. With two dogs and a cat in the trunk, all four Akeys drove through a winter blizzard in Flagstaff, Arizona, stopped overnight in Utah or Idaho and finished the final leg of the 1,150-mile trip the next day.
“It was his first birthday the day we rolled out of town, so I don’t know maybe that was a little sign of things to come,” Robb said. “He was on his first road trip and making his first move. Obviously we were pretty fortunate, we didn’t have to make a lot of moves. We were in the Palouse for a long, long time.
“A lot of coaches can’t say that and for their families. The job is the job and different things happen. We were blessed in that fashion, it was really cool.”
Bowl games have become part of the holiday ritual for the Akeys, who’ve now been to two Sun Bowls, the Rose Bowl, the Holiday Bowl and Humanitarian Bowl as a part of Robb’s coaching tenure. Dan has added another Holiday Bowl, an Alamo Bowl and Cheez-It Bowl during his time as a student assistant at WSU.
“If we’re staying home for Christmas, it’s not a good thing,” Molly laughed.
Family bowl trips probably won’t end when Robb’s coaching career does, though. Jack and Dan both expressed interest in coaching at a young age and hope to dive into the profession full time next fall.
“On one hand, you go, I hope they go do something maybe different, but to me what’s cool is the fact he’s grown up – he and Jack have grown up on our sidelines their entire life,” Robb said. “So every guy that’s played for me has been their big brothers and to me that’s really, really, really cool.”
Dan’s first pseudo internship came in 2015-16 while Robb was coaching the Washington Redskins’ defensive line. Still at Moscow High School, Dan would spend his summers in Washington, D.C., helping his dad in any capacity he could.
“I actually put him to work on some things – calls and stuff like that you might hear from the opponent,” Robb said. “Getting code words and stuff like that you could get off of TV copies and what not. He had some little projects he was excited about.”
In his first season with the Cougars, Dan helped Eric Mele as a special teams assistant. When Mele moved over to coach the running backs in 2018, Dan moved with him and has been with the position group ever since, embracing the opportunity to learn from three different head coaches, two position coaches and a variety of accomplished Coug tailbacks.
“Honestly the best thing for me is the kids,” Dan said. “The kids are great and they’re so much fun to be around. I wasn’t very excited because I started with (Mike) Leach and I wasn’t super excited when he left and there was going to be more change, but that really helped make me a better coach because I started learning a lot more about different schemes, working with different coaches.”
Although both Akeys promise they’re keeping game plans close to the vest this week, WSU coach Jake Dickert joked with reporters on Thursday, “I’ve been keeping kind of a close eye on (Dan).”
Dickert added: “It’s fun, he’s like I can’t wait to beat my dad, I’m going to have this over him for the rest of my life. It’s been a fun little side story of this change.”
As for Molly and Jack’s rooting interests Friday?
“We’re cheering for dad,” Jack assured. “Cougs, no way. No way. We’re going to have to get after him tomorrow, Daniel’s going to have to learn the hard way.”
Molly echoed those sentiments: “We love Dan, but we’re Chippewas now and we want to win this game.”
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