Nearly 24 hours after he cleaned out his Holt Arena office while high school state championship games were being played a few hundred feet away, Rob Phenicie was in a corner room at the dome, fulfilling one of his final duties as Idaho State head coach.
In a meeting with athletic director Pauline Thiros on Tuesday, Phenicie was informed he was out as the Bengals’ head coach. Even to Phenicie, this was not a shell-shocking announcement. In five seasons at the helm of the ISU, he compiled a 16-25 record and won less than a third of ISU’s Big Sky games.
In that corner room after the Bengals’ 14-0 loss to Idaho, Phenicie was blunt about his shortcomings.
“I know I had to be a better head coach. “I can’t be upset at the decision because your record is your record. Bottom line is you need to win games.”
Phenicie wasn’t the only person in Holt Arena on Saturday who struggled to do that. On the Vandals’ sideline was coach Paul Petrino, faced with almost the same exact situation as Phenicie.
Petrino was fired earlier in the week but stayed on to coach the Vandals in their season-finale. And after the game, Phenicie ran over to Petrino and put his arm around one of the few people in the world who could relate to him.
“Hey, you know they got me, man,” Phenicie said he told Petrino.
“Oh they did?” Petrino responded. “Well they got me.”
“Yeah, I know,” Phenicie said.
College football is full of the wacky and the weird. The joy of the sport is in its quirks, the type of idiosyncrasies that fans have deemed normal. Like a creepy, metallic potato turning into a trophy. Or teams playing on a blue field. Or a pair of guys who have been canned coaching against each other.
It is bizarre. It is ridiculous. It is incredible to those without a dog in the fight. Seriously, in what other procession could people get fired and still do their job?
There’s an episode of “Seinfeld” where George Costanza quits his job on a Friday, regrets it and returns to work the next Monday hoping everyone would forget. He waltzes into his office with a smug grin.
“How you doing?” Costanza asks with a chuckle.
His coworker peers at him with a disgusted look. “What are you doing here?” She says. “I thought you quit.”
Saturday was basically college football’s version of “Seinfeld.” Two fired coaches who showed up to lead their football program. The twist? No one asked a single question. No remark of, “Hey, didn’t those guys lose their job earlier this week?” Because, in this sport, peculiarity is normal.
The outlandish circumstances transferred onto the gridiron, the actual game hitting on the same notes of its pregame storylines: Partly funny, partly depressing.
Neither team ran the ball for more than three yards a carry. Idaho State was sacked eight times. The Bengals missed a pair of kicks. The Vandals didn’t even hit the century mark passing. Both teams combined for a quartet of first-half turnovers. No points were scored in the final three quarters.
If there’s ever a competition to determine the ugliest football game ever played, Idaho and Idaho State will have a heck of a submission.
What both schools have, too, is less questions to answer about their coaching decisions. The future of Phenicie and Petrino loomed over both the Vandals’ and Bengals’ seasons. Uncertainty like that isn’t good for any school. Attendance was thin at the Gem State’s two domes and interest waned.
Both schools felt a coaching change was their best course of action, despite the fact that Petrino’s buyout was over a half-a-million dollar and Phenicie is still almost $200,000.
“This is something that you have to prepare for,” Thiros said of the buyout. “It fiscally impacts your program to not have great attendance or to have a constituency that’s discouraged. When you weigh all things, this may be a short-term loss but it’s a long-term investment.”
Whoever Idaho State hires will face the task of reversing years of misfortune. To find the last Bengals’ coach who finished their tenure in Pocatello with a winning record, one must go back 40 years, back to Dave Kragethorpe, who went 21-14 in his three seasons at ISU and brought the program its lone national championship.
Since that 1981 title, Idaho State ran through a revolving door of coaches without any change. In the last four decades, ISU has put eight different people at the helm of its football program. The result? One playoff appearance.
Thiros’ task is a daunting one: Find a coach who can win in Pocatello.
“We need a dynamic leader,” Thiros said, while acknowledging the athletic department’s role in helping the next ISU coach succeed.
“You can’t just make a coaching change and everything else be the same. We’ve made some really big strides, some things coach (Phenicie) talked about like adding a strength coach and bolstering nutrition and improving the arena. We’re going to continue to do those things.”