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Idaho Football

Idaho head coach Jason Eck prepares for first season ready to share legendary insight, build on Vandals’ new identity

By Peter Harriman For The Spokesman-Review

As Jason Eck blows a whistle for the first time at the start of the University of Idaho’s training camp on Aug. 3, the longtime assistant will be on the last leg of his journey to leading a college football team into a game, when the Vandals open at Washington State a month later.

But since he was hired as Idaho’s 36th head coach to replace Paul Petrino, Eck seems to have his arms around every other aspect of heading a program that doesn’t conclude against an opponent on a field, with a score.

He was practically ubiquitous at alumni gatherings, at Vandals’ basketball games and on social media over the past eight months, since he came to Idaho following three years as offensive coordinator at South Dakota State.

Eck, 44, says he has learned something from each of the dozen head coaches he worked for. Maybe that ability to connect with disparate groups came from observing Dennis Erickson during the one year he worked for Erickson as Idaho’s offensive line coach in 2006.

“He was so good at communicating with different people,” Eck recalled at the Big Sky Media Kickoff in Spokane Monday. “From an inner-city kid from L.A. to an 80-year-old booster lady from North Idaho.”

What most prominently distinguishes Eck since he has been in Moscow, however, is a sense of confidence he is up to the job, and a vision for what he wants the Idaho program to be. Two coaches helped shape that. Eck played at Wisconsin from 1995-98 and was a graduate assistant from 2000-02 for College Football Hall of Fame coach Barry Alvarez.

“The players really trusted Alvarez. His confidence rubbed off on the team. I’ve always thought it is better to have an overconfident team than an underconfident one,” Eck said.

His most influential mentor has been John Stiegelmeier, who has compiled a 185-111 record in 25 years at SDSU.

“He was the first guy who told me ‘you should be a head coach,’ ” Eck said.

Such belief in others is a hallmark of Steigelmeier’s career.

“He taught me that if you believe in guys, they will exceed your expectations.” Eck said. “You can get more out of them than they have in themselves.”

He adds Steigelmeier “did more with less and not worry about what you didn’t have. He also did a good job of bringing good people into the organization, not energy vampires.”

Eck says “belief in yourself is very important. The easiest guy to coach is the one who believes in himself.”

But here Eck pivots to the second pillar of his philosophy: Coaching is teaching and figuring out how to reach people and get them to absorb the lessons you are trying to convey. Eck referred to a couple of all-conference players he had with the Jackrabbits. One was a model player and student.

“With 95 percent of the offensive line coaches in the country he would have been all-conference,” Eck said the other all-conference Jackrabbit, was a bit of a knucklehead.

The experience of coaching those two sparked an insight in Eck – the knucklehead was the guy who needed him more.

“Guys who are staying up all night playing video games, not doing their work, not paying attention to their nutrition. You can help guys who can’t do (those) things on their own,” Eck said.

Eck wants the Vandals to be successful because they are built on a foundation of doing even the smallest things correctly and consistently. During practices last spring, assistant coaches led offensive linemen step by step through a block and defensive linemen step by step through a rip move.

“The key at the (Football Championship Subdivision) level is when we get them, players are not Power 5 players,” Eck said. “But to be really good, you’ve got to have a lot of really good Power 5-type players. There needs to be a lot of teaching, bringing guys along, showing them the way.”

Eck wants Idaho’s assistants “to be experts in their field,” but with a predominantly young staff, this involves teaching the coaches.

“We’ve got to make sure we are doing stuff that is applicable to what we are going to be doing on the field,” Eck said. “The players have got to know, and they have got to be able to see that the drill they are doing is important.

“That’s something new to me about being a head coach. I’ve got to keep on it. I have to bring some guys along, develop young coaches.

“As I tried to build a coaching staff, I kind of wanted to get a lot of young guys who are on the rise in their career,” Eck said.

Eck rolled off the names of the Vandals’ assistant coaches when he was at Idaho from 2004-06. They are now assistants and coordinators at Power 5 conference teams and in the NFL.

“Ten or 15 years from now, I want to be able to say that about our staff now,” he said. “This rounds back to being self-confident. As Idaho seeks to identify a starting quarterback from among three contenders.

“We will give them equal reps to start. But I am not into equal reps all the up to the first game. We’ve got to do a good job as coaches of evaluating. We can’t wait until it’s a landslide. Like calling an election, we’ve got to project.”

Confidence and teaching. How they are being applied now will be put to the test Sept. 3 at 6:30 p.m. in Martin Stadium. Because then, Jason Eck will finally get to put philosophy into practice and coach the Vandals in a game.