Located 25 miles west of Boise, on a small, grassy campus, the College of Idaho is primarily known for academics. Despite the size of its student population--equivalent to a Boise or Meridian high school--the 130-year-old private, liberal arts college has produced a rare combination of Rhodes scholars, a Goldwater scholar and a regular roster of National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics competitors at the top of their game, both in the classroom and on the field.
But the C of I's sharp-angled athletics center was absent any athletes July 29. Instead, university officials warmed the weight benches, sitting in the shadow of a freshly equipped balcony of elliptical machines and treadmills. Guests and college officials awaited the entrance of C of I President Dr. Marv Henberg, who in short order would christen the school's first new building in 12 years: the $4 million Marty Holly Athletics Center.
Students, parents, faculty and alumni interrupted their late summer plans to return to campus in order to tour the state-of-the-art facility, which wouldn't have been built if the C of I hadn't decided to field a football team--one that has gone undefeated for the past 37 years. It has also gone winless; the Coyotes haven't played a game on the gridiron since 1977. C of I Director of Athletics Marty Holly, a 34-year veteran of the college, isn't even a "football guy."
"Football had come up periodically over the last 10 years," Holly said. "I'd been asked to do a feasibility study on it, and it even got so far that about six years ago, a football committee made up of students and alumni and administrators went to a football game at Carroll [College in Helena, Mont.]. We talked to everyone at that school and came back thinking we would give it a go, but our president and board of trustees said, 'No,' which was fine with me, to be honest."
At the time, Holly said he was concerned by the amount of work it would take to bring such a high-profile sport back to a school so accustomed to living without it. Two years ago, Henberg (who has since announced he'll be retiring in January 2015) helped bring football back to the front burner (BW, Citydesk, "College of Idaho Exploring Possible Return of Football," Feb. 28, 2012). Holly was given the green light to bring back the Yotes' football program after decades of dormancy.
"President Henberg called me into his office on a cold winter day and said, 'We're gonna do it,' and that started it," Holly said.
Meanwhile, the city of Caldwell appears to be faring well amid the college's shift into a 21st century football culture. Eateries such as the Pita Pit and the Human Bean have already staked their claims along Blaine Street, across from the site of the C of I's 90,000-square-foot AstroTurf field. The field is just one recent renovation to Simplot Stadium, which now includes an expanded press box and updated concessions stand and restrooms. In preparation for the Yotes' opening season--it kicks off on the road Saturday, Sept. 6, with the first home game set for Saturday, Sept. 13--C of I has already teamed up with KTIK-The Ticket 1350 AM and Jon Carson Productions to provide live broadcasts of the games.
Still, football has a long way to go before shifting the C of I away from its academics-centric culture. Four years ago, the college instituted its multidisciplinary PEAK curriculum, in which students must complete one major and a minimum of three minors in their undergraduate career. The program requires students to pursue studies in various academic fields in social sciences, natural sciences, fine arts and humanities, and professional studies, as opposed to taking traditional core classes prior to completing courses for a single major or minor.
"At the College of Idaho, we feel pretty passionate about an education that enables students to think about complex issues from multiple perspectives," Paul Moulton, assistant dean of the faculty and PEAK co-creator, told Boise Weekly.
"We reject the notion that colleges should only educate specialists," he added. "Yes, we require our students to have a major and develop a specialty, but with only 28 percent of college students ending up in careers in their majors, we also train students who can think critically, be very adaptable and also communicate better than most graduating college students."
Moulton said PEAK has become a "powerful catalyst" in influencing the way C of I students and faculty think about higher education. This past spring, the college graduated more than 200 students in the inaugural PEAK class.
"With a major revision to our curriculum, I certainly had some anxiety about how it would influence our graduation rates," Moulton said, adding that the C of I boasts the highest four-year graduation rate in Idaho.
"We didn't want to mess with a good thing," he said. "I'm very happy to report that there were no hiccups with our first graduating class in the PEAK curriculum."
In that same spring term, the college completed an intensive yearlong committee search for a faculty chair in Judaic studies. A former faculty member of the Harold Schnitzer Family Program in Judaic Studies at the University of Oregon, Dr. Federica Francesconi, was appointed to serve as the Howard Berger-Ray Neilson Chair in Judaic Studies. The latest program, set to launch in the 2014-2015 school year, promotes a greater academic understanding of Jewish traditions, culture and philosophy--the first such offering in the Intermountain West.
This summer, the C of I has also made available summer courses in politics, psychology and foreign languages for $360 per credit. In addition, thanks to a partnership with Idaho State University, the college will add a physician's assistant program to its graduate catalog.
"In the past, we have not offered summer courses, but the college would like to expand these opportunities in the future," said Moulton. "We also significantly lowered our summer tuition rate to be more compatible with other local schools."
Amid the latest academic changes, the football program gained momentum. The C of I found a head coach in Mike Moroski, a 56-year-old University of California at Davis graduate who played eight pro seasons with the Atlanta Falcons, Houston Oilers and San Francisco 49ers.
He told BW in September 2013 that recruiting players for the Yotes' football team "starts with the academic component," but the perception remains on campus that so-called football culture might damage the firmly established, academics-first environment that attracts many students and faculty.
"When we were interviewing coaches, there were doubts among the faculty, but I think President Henberg approached it the right way," Holly said. "He went to several academic departments and presented 'The Plan' and encouraged faculty to poke holes in it. I think that's what we didn't do in the past.
"There were, and still are in my opinion, doubts, and we have to prove that 100-something football players--or any large influx of students--can keep the same standards and keep what we love about the college the same," Holly added. "We've worked hard to make sure the school doesn't change negatively."
As it stands, some alums are willing to give football a cautious, but fighting chance.
"While at first I was resistant to the idea, I am postponing further judgment," said Jenette Noe, a 2013 alumna. "I think it is important that the College of Idaho continue to put education before athletics, but I think it may be an opportunity to rally the community and spotlight our often overlooked college."
The C of I is not without its holdouts. In the past year, senior Macey Horch said the lack of respect for rigorous academic standards among some football players was clearly visible in her classes.
"I was a TA for an introductory class last fall. There were football players who would not show up to class or lab. It was really disrespectful to the professors," she said. "I'm not saying all of the football players are like that. Some of them are great, but it was appalling the number of football players who didn't reflect well on campus--even after apparently being reprimanded by their coaches concerning attendance."
Despite the positive publicity, Horch remains critical of the college's decision, saying the value of higher education should be measured by academics, not the merit of a single team.
Though the Yotes won't play their first home game until Sept. 13, the college has been working overtime in anticipation for the fall term to come. In 2013, students prepped for the upcoming year by instituting YoteFam, an initiative to boost support for athletics among the student community. The staff at the college's department of Alumni and Parent Relations is working to bring C of I alumni back to Caldwell in droves for the football season opener with revamped homecoming events.
Though some still doubt the decision to bring football back to the C of I, the energy around Yotes football is catching beyond the streets of Caldwell.
"The doubt that maybe students or faculty had about bringing it on, I don't see any more," Holly said. "A few years ago, the faculty was mad because we were thinking about restarting football, now they're mad because they don't get reserved seats.
"People are noticing our school, and we have to take advantage of it in any way," he added. "We did everything we could to make the program family friendly, and it's going to be good entertainment."
Until then, the college is ready to shake things up if not for the state of Idaho, then at least for Caldwell and the C of I campus. The once skeptical Holly is now driving the bandwagon.
"I had no idea what I was embarking on or how big this would be, and I truly believe this is going to change the college and the city of Caldwell," he said. "We set benchmarks; we had to raise X-amount of dollars, and we exceeded everything. That's really opened my eyes. It's the most exciting time to be with the college."
Skylar Barsanti is a 2014 College of Idaho graduate, former editor-in-chief of the Coyote student newspaper and a past Boise Weekly intern.