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Idaho Football

Idaho great Mike Iupati a welcome addition as volunteer coach at Vandals’ spring camp

Former Idaho Vandals lineman Mike Iupati goes through drills while a rookie with the San Francisco 49ers on Aug. 2, 2010.   (Tribune News Service)
By Peter Harriman The Spokesman-Review

MOSCOW, Idaho – The new volunteer coach helping with the University of Idaho’s offensive line this spring is a big guy.

Presumably, he has a big man’s appetite. If he ever needs to grab a sandwich and smoothie, he will certainly be welcome at the UI student-athlete fueling station. After all, he was a major donor.

If the pantheon of the Vandals’ greatest offensive linemen starts with Pro Football Hall of Famer Jerry Kramer, you don’t have to go far down the list to find All-Pro, four-time Pro-Bowler, Super Bowl XLVII starter and consensus All-America, Outland Trophy finalist and 2009 Humanitarian Bowl winner Mike Iupati.

Iupati starred for the Vandals between 2006-09. The UI quarterbacks he blocked for, Nathan Enderlee and Brian Reader, must have labored under the happy delusion that pressure from the interior defensive line was a quaint football anachronism, like leather helmets.

A chronic neck injury prompted Iupati to retire from the NFL at age 33 following the 2020 season after five years with the San Francisco 49ers, four with the Arizona Cardinals, and a final two with the Seattle Seahawks.

Iupati and his wife, Ashley, and four sons have set down roots in Star, Idaho, near Boise, and for the past couple of years,

Iupati has scratched any residual football itch by volunteering part time as a College of Idaho coach. He also kept up his ties to the Vandals as a financial contributor.

This spring, though, he has returned to Moscow.

“He was trying to figure out what to do with the rest of his life, and he got the blessing from his wife,” to investigate coaching as a career, according to UI head coach Jason Eck, a former UI assistant nearly two decades ago who helped recruit Iupati.

“Mike is a great Vandal. We reconnected right away when I got back here,” Eck said.

A change in NCAA rules that permits Football Championship Subdivision schools such as Idaho to take on volunteer coaches who do not have to be graduate assistants gave UI the flexibility to bring back Iupati, Eck said.

Offensive lineman Mike Iupati played for Idaho from 2006-09.  (Spokesman-Review Photo Archive)
Offensive lineman Mike Iupati played for Idaho from 2006-09. (Spokesman-Review Photo Archive)

This summer, Iupati will pursue a Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship internship with the Los Angeles Chargers, under their new coach Jim Harbaugh, who was Iupati’s head coach with the 49ers.

“My wife got excited for me,” Iupati said of his desire to explore coaching as a career.

“It has been kind of weird to be back here,” Iupati said. “But it has been phenomenal.”

Iupati said Moscow and the campus have “changed a lot” since he played for the Vandals, pointing to the new ICCU Arena.

With Idaho, Iupati is assisting offensive line coach Cody Booth. As a practical matter, Eck said, Idaho has 15 offensive linemen out for spring ball.

“We are able to do two groups,” Eck said. “Booth takes half and Mike takes half. We are able to get in more reps and that speeds development.

“… Certainly, you can coach if you didn’t play a position. But it adds something if you did.”

“I played for a lot of great coaches in the league,” Iupati said of his 11 years in the NFL, noting he has technical and strategic insights to pass on to the Vandals.

“You want to put your guys in the best position to win, especially the one-on-one battles,” he said. “In the end, it’s all about physicality.”

That’s the kind of observation of someone who played at 6-foot-5, 330 pounds, and who still stands out on the sidelines wearing sweat pants and a sweat shirt among linemen in shoulder pads and helmets.

Iupati also wants to get across to the Vandals the goal of spring ball.

“One step at a time,” he said. “We’re not playing a game next week. Just get better day to day. (Spring ball) is a good way to compete and evaluate yourself as a player.”

Iupati has been in Moscow two weeks. He said his interaction with the UI players has been all football-related.

“We haven’t got to know each other on a one-on-one level,” he said. “But that will come.”

Iupati got a pleasant surprise this weekend when his wife and children came to Moscow to surprise him.

The boys darted along the sidelines and in the Kibbie Dome stands Saturday morning while their dad helped run position drills and observed a scrimmage.

Eck said he was reasonably satisfied with the initial scrimmage.

“There were good things on both sides, bad things on both sides that we’ve just got to clean up,” Eck told the team. “But there were good things to build on.”

He added the Vandals would “go live a lot more than last spring” with 91 players out for spring practice.

Idaho redshirt freshman receiver Mark Hamper won the daily practice award after catching a pair of touchdown passes. The first was from redshirt freshman quarterback Jack Wagner. The second, from redshirt freshman quarterback Hogan Carmichael, concluded practice on a high note.

“The second and third offense got it going today,” Eck said.

Iupati, holding a scrimmage script almost as an afterthought, did more watching than coaching during the live portion of practice.

For a former Vandals star considering a new career, the road in spring football runs in both directions.

“This is a great opportunity for us to look at him, too,” Eck said.