When Robb Akey accepted the Vandal head coaching job last December, he brought with him an attitude of "climbing the ladder." For Akey, the next rung on the ladder always was a head coaching position. As for his team, he is positioning the Vandals to climb the Western Athletic Conference ladder.
At the various stops during his climb to the top, Vandal football has been on his radar.
"I’ve been very familiar with this program from the first day that I played college football because we played Idaho when I was at Weber State," Akey said. "I know Idaho and the success that it has had in the past, and the great history that this program possesses.
"It’s my desire to bring that pride back into this program and get it back to the point that it once was where it was a force in Western football and I want it to be a nationally known team."
In addition to bringing back the pride of the Vandal program, Akey seeks to restore the confidence that the team and Vandal fans have in their head coach. As the Vandals’ third head coach in as many seasons, Akey has a restoration plan.
"They need to know that somebody does want to be their coach and intends to build a program here," he said. "I know that they have been told that before, so what they need to see and what I’ve worked hard to show them, is that when I tell them that I’m going to do something, it gets backed up with action."
Akey recognizes the passion not only the players but boosters, alums and friends have for the Vandal athletic programs. He promises to reciprocate with the same intensity.
"People are very passionate about this program," Akey said. "When they see me and my staff come in and be equally passionate about the program, I think they will respect that."
To those on the outside who may still be skeptical, Akey simply points out that becoming a Division I head coach always has been the top rung of his ladder.
"I’m committed to being here and I’m excited about what we can do," he says. "I didn’t take this job to be someplace else. I took this job to be the head coach at the University of Idaho."
During his journey to a Division I head job, Akey has traveled hundreds of miles. The distance between the last few rungs of his climb, however, was only eight miles.
He arrived at Washington State University as the defensive line coach in 1999 and fell in love with the area. When he was given the added responsibility of defensive coordinator for the Cougars in 2003, Akey came to appreciate the many positive aspects of the Palouse.
"I’ve been up here nine years, and I think it’s the perfect place to build a family," said Akey, who has two sons – Jack and Daniel. "I also think it’s the perfect place to build a family of a football team. We have the ability to eliminate the distractions of the city, so when we bring players in here they can focus on what’s important to them and that’s getting their degree and being the best player they can be."
After some time in Pullman, Akey’s two families grew together. About the players at Washington State he said, "I know the players at WSU treated my kids like they were their little brothers, and I know my sons felt that way about them."
When the time came for Akey to ascend to his dream job Jack and Daniel couldn’t have been happier.
"My sons put it to me this way, they said, ‘Dad, now we will have 200 big brothers instead of 100 big brothers.’ "
However, Akey did not simply gain 100 football players as new family, he also welcomed in the entire Vandal nation. The transition should go smoothly though since the Idaho faithful are a group that he has been in close proximity to over the past several years.
Before arriving on the Palouse, Akey spent many years traversing the West on his path to the top of the ladder.
His climb started with his college playing days at Ogden Utah where he was a standout for Weber State University Wildcats and where his first ties to Idaho would catch hold. Not only did he play for the man, Mike Price, who eventually would lure him to the Palouse, he met his wife, Molly, there. Turns out his bride-to-be, Molly Hannan Akey, was the daughter of the man who led nearby Lewis-Clark State College through an important era in its history as the NAIA school’s athletics director.
There he would learn much from Price; the man to whom Akey credits with influencing him the most as a coach. After four years of playing defense for the Wildcats, Akey received his first opportunity to coach when Price hired him as an assistant defensive line coach.
Only one year into his stint as the assistant defensive line coach at Weber State, Akey moved up another rung when he received all of the responsibility for the defensive line. After five years at that level, Akey decided that it was once again time to climb when, in 1995, he accepted a job at Northern Arizona University where a relationship with current Vandal offensive coordinator Steve Axman would be forged.
Just as at Weber State, Akey displayed his desire to lead, and accepted a promotion to defensive coordinator after just one year. In 1999, Price came calling with an opportunity for Akey to coach in the Pac 10. He coached the Cougars’ defensive line for four seasons before being elevated to defensive coordinator in 2003. That step on the ladder included three 10-victory seasons, three top-10 finishes, one Outland Trophy winner, and the individual and unit that led the nation in quarterback sacks.
Now that Akey has finally reached the position of head coach, the job that he has been climbing to for nearly 20 years, he can institute his philosophy of "climbing the ladder" in his own program. In addition to his team climbing the ladder in terms of wins, he sees the whole program in a position to improve in every aspect. With his energetic and energizing personality, Akey hopes to instill in his new team his desire for excellence.
"With the changes in facilities and becoming a WAC member," Akey said, "Idaho is at a launching point right now and we have a chance to build a program that can be what everyone wants their program to be."