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Carlson: The Bengals’ road back

Chris Carlson
Carlson Chronicles

In sports, as it is in the equally brutal world of politics, it is all about relationships. And in the long journeys involved in comebacks, sometimes the relationships one never knows about are crucial to the outcome.

Today, under weather forecasters predict to be almost perfect for fall football — clear skies, a cool breeze and glaring sunlight – a less than capacity crowd in Martin Stadium, will see Idaho State University begin the long march back to football respectability under the watchful eye of Mike Kramer, one of the best football coaches ever produced by the Big Sky Conference.

There will be a bittersweet undertone to the contest for both Kramer and Washington State coach Paul Wulff have been friends for years, having helped each other at critical times over the years.

Kramer, knowing much more about the vastly improved Cougars than Wulff knows about the largely unknown Bengals, may be able to engineer a respectable showing for his undermanned squad. After all, he has been a very observant assistant to Wulff the last two years at WSU. ISU, a 27 point underdog, is expected to not provide much competition for the PAC-12 team, but Kramer engineered Montana State’s stunning upset of the new PAC-12 Colorado football team a few years back, something Wulff is sure to remind his Cougar squad about.

Once the game is in hand, Wulff is also expected to liberally substitute, not wanting to rub it in on a friend, so it will very surprising if the final score is one of those embarrassing, 87 to 14 blowouts.

The Cougars clearly should not be looking past the Bengals, remembering all too well also last year’s game against Big Sky conference co-champion Montana State – game in which the Cougars had to come from behind in the last minute to pull out a victory, 23-22. Some of the Bobcats on that team had been recruited by, yup, you guessed it, Mike Kramer.

The relationships, nurtured and developed over the years, are also far more than just the two coaches. Indeed, if there is a seldom mentioned but critical participant and the common denominator in several rings of relationships, it is the tall, prematurely gray-headed Associate Athletic Director for WSU, John Johnson.

Johnson, a 1978 graduate of Spokane’s East Valley High School, initially attended Montana State on a football scholarship but then switched to Eastern Washington University. Following a solid playing career there, after obtaining his degree, Johnson moved into the administration side of athletics.

He showed a talent for the work and rose quickly to become EWU’s Athletic Director. One of his first hires for football coach was that of Mike Kramer. Kramer in turn brought Paul Wulff onto his staff following Wulff’s career as a lineman at WSU and a brief fling at professional football.

In the mid-90’s for a variety of sound reasons Johnson decided it was time to move on and initially sought the vacant Athletic Director’s position at Idaho State, where he was a finalist but lost out to Irv Cross, the sports broadcaster who could be most

Recognizing ISU’s mistake, rival Weber State shortly thereafter reached out and snagged Johnson who performed admirably for the Wildcats during a seven-year (1997-2004) tenure.

While at Weber State, Johnson met and was very impressed with one of the Wildcats track stars, a young man out of Pocatello’s Highland High by the name of Jeff Tingey – yup, the one who now is the Athletic Director for ISU.

Johnson gave Tingey an internship in his AD office which lead to an assistant marketing director’s position and started the young man on his way in athletic administration. A couple years back, when Tingey thought about the Bengals playing an up-scale game, he looked at a struggling Cougar team and placed a call to Johnson who put him in touch with the Cougar schedulers.

And when it came time for Tingey to fire ISU’s football coach last year, and then hire a new one, Tingey almost surely placed calls to John Johnson and Paul Wulff to get their read on his inclination to hire a coach with a proven record of winning in the Big Sky.

Johnson, by this time was of course well ensconced at WSU having been wooed back to the Inland Empire, where he has been ever since. Opportunities have come Johnson’s way but he has been content to remain at WSU. His wife, Lisa, is the women’s golf coach at the University of Idaho, and they have 13-month old twins, a boy and girl, who keep them busy as only twins can. They take the twins with them, wherever they go and they enjoy living in Pullman.

It would take a special opportunity to get them to move. Having watched his friend, Bill Byrne, move from MiniDome Facility director to alumni director at Idaho State and then onto the lofty positions of Athletic Director at the University of Nebraska and now Texas A & M, Johnson knows where he can find a guide should he seek that “special opportunity.”

While this may all sound too much like good old boys taking care of one another, there is another common denominator that makes their relationships all the more special. The world of football is primarily all about winning, but also about winning within the rules and doing it the right way.

All these men have enjoyed some degree of success, enough success to keep them in the game. Whether it is John Johnson, Jeff Tingey, Bill Byrne, Paul Wulff or Mike Kramer, they all know it takes hard work, sacrifice and discipline to win the right way without cutting corners or incurring the condemnation of the NCAA.

When one thinks about it, there are actually very few who do succeed over the long-haul doing it the right way. All the rare Mike Kramer’s and Paul Wulff’s of the world ask of the John Johnson’s, Bill Byrne’s and Jeff Tingey’s, who are their bosses, or a school’s fans, is a little bit of patience while they take the time to build winning programs the right way, one step at a time.

ISU takes that first step back today, and regardless of the final score, it is a step in the right direction.

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