Spend 10 minutes with Mike Kramer and you know the Big Human marches to the beat of a different drummer. Kramer’s grasp of history, whether it’s World War II history or the history of the Big Sky Conference, permeates almost every conversation. His diction and vocabulary are unique and distinctive. When it comes to the ever-changing landscape of college football, Idaho State’s head football coach refuses to conform or toe the party line.
Kramer planted his Big Sky Conference roots as a defensive end and offensive lineman at the University of Idaho between 1972 and 1975. He spent the next eight years coaching high school football, making stops in his native Colton, Washington and Helena High School in Montana. By 1983, he was coaching inside linebackers on Dave Arnold’s staff at Montana State and in 1984, he helped Bobcats to the Division I-AA national championship.
By 1989, Kramer was coaching defensive line at Eastern Washington. In 1993, he took over as the head coach for the Eagles, peaking four years later as EWU won the Big Sky and advanced to the semifinals of the I-AA playoffs.
In a move that shocked the rest of the Big Sky, Kramer left EWU on the heels of a 7-4 campaign and a second-place finish in 1999 to take the head job at Montana State. His Bobcats bottomed out his first season, going 0-11 in 2000. But by 2002, Montana State earned the first of three Big Sky titles under Kramer, defeating archrival Montana for the first time in a generation and snapping “The Streak”, a 16-game skid against the hated Grizzlies.
In 2006, Kramer led the Bobcats to their first playoff win since the 1984 national championship season. The following spring, a cloud of controversy derailed the program, resulting in NCAA sanctions and Kramer’s firing. He would not get back on his feet as a head coach until Idaho State hired Kramer before the 2011 season.
Since rejoining the Big Sky, Kramer has seen as much change during his five seasons at ISU than ever before. In 2012, the league expanded from nine to 13 teams, adding North Dakota, Southern Utah, UC Davis and Cal Poly as football-playing members. This off-season, the league announced Idaho would rejoin the fold as a football member for the 2018 season. In July, Andrea Williams officially took over for Doug Fullerton as the first new commissioner for the league since 1996.
“I think the potential loss of Montana and Montana State to the elite forced us to grow,” said Kramer, referring to UM and MSU’s potential candidacy to join the Western Athletic Conference before the league cut football all together. “Now we are faced with the Pac 12, which has become it’s own empire especially with it’s TV contract. The Mountain West Conference is now struggling to find its niche. And the Big Sky Conference has become this unyielding, 14-team traveling circus that wants to preserve an eight-game schedule and Montana and Montana State can’t play nine conference games because then they won’t be guaranteed six home games during an 11-game schedule. The math is working against our continued development and the challenges to our new commissioner are strong in football. It would be awesome for me to watch how she unfolds it.”
From continued expansion or potential retraction to the unbalanced scheduling that has influenced the final league standings to the necessity of playing FBS opponents each season, Kramer has an opinion on it all. And most of his thoughts defy the status quo.
With a 13-team league and an eight-game league schedule, each Big Sky team does not play four conference opponents each season. In 2012, Cal Poly did not play Montana, Montana State or Eastern Washington; the Mustangs shared the league title. Last season, Southern Utah did not play Montana or EWU and claimed its first Big Sky crown. The unbalanced schedule continues to be controversial among the league’s head coaches (Read more here) with Kramer serving as perhaps the most vocal opponent of skipping opponents each season.
“I hate it. I hate it. Hate it. That means I can’t talk about the league,” said Kramer, who no doubt relishes talking about the state of the conference whenever he can throughout a given football season. “I don’t see four teams this year. I haven’t seen UC Davis since Ronald Reagan was governor.
“The league is too big. Somebody has to say it: this is just not comfortable and everyone is uncomfortable with it because everyone talks about it all the time. It precludes all conference balloting, it precludes all playoff selection. We have so many teams, we get lost in the long list of scores on the East Coast by the East Coast media. The East Coast media is not the selection committee but they influence them. ‘Did Montana play and win? Good I’m voting for Montana. Did NAU win? Who’d they play? Southern Utah? Oh, Southern Utah is awful, I’m not voting for them.’ You can’t rise your program.
“Last season, our best teams can’t get enough East Coast recognition to get enough exposure on the East Coast and rise in the polls. We are so big, we get fewer teams in the playoffs than before percentage wise. If you took the number of teams from the Great West that were in the playoffs and we were still getting three in from the Big Sky, the percentage is less. More has produced less by getting this big.”
The problem only stands to get worse with the addition of a 14th team unless the league eliminates current members, expands its league schedule or separates into two divisions. Kramer has an entirely different idea.
“Play 11 conference games,” said Kramer, who is 9-31 in Big Sky games at Idaho State with six of those wins coming during an 8-4 campaign in 2014. “You play 11 opponents, you have 15 teams and you miss four. Then we have no problems scheduling. It would be great. It would solve the unfairness to having to play a money game or to find a hapless opponent to balance it. Our scheduling is all over the map. Let’s play each other. We have nice enough stadiums. We are close enough. Why should Northern Arizona have to play Arizona or Arizona State every year? Last year, they gave up 77 and then ended up being 7-3 otherwise and not getting into the playoffs because they got killed by Arizona. It’s counter productive.”
Montana and Montana State have established fervent enough fan bases that the Griz and the Bobcats do not need to play FBS opponents in order to earn a paycheck. Each can host Division II or fellow FCS teams and make enough at the gate to avoid playing what some coaches deem as “body bag games”.
For every win like Portland State’s 24-17 upset of Washington State or North Dakota’s 24-13 win over Wyoming last season, there are decimations like Idaho State’s 80-8 los at UNLV last fall. ISU has played two FBS opponents in each of Kramer’s five seasons at the helm. The average score of ISU’s FBS games under Kramer is 59 to 11, with the worst losses coming at Nebraska (73-7) in 2012, Washington (56-0) and BYU (59-13) in 2013 and Boise State (52-0) and UNLV last season.
“Remember now, one of our teams (Portland State) beat a Pac 12 team that went to a bowl game (Washington State), yet we lost to Boise 52-0 and the next week we lost 80-8 to UNLV and we never recovered psychologically,” Kramer said. “THE challenge I face this year easily hands down is how can I coach my team through two seasons. The first three and the last eight. I don’t care about those first three. I’m going to make sure we survive them. I don’t care what the score is. I want to come out of Corvallis and say ‘Hey, great, preseason is over, now let’s go.”
“We lost to UNLV by 72 points. I said into the headphones in the first quarter, ‘If we don’t slow down, they are going for 100.’ If we keep playing those games and that $17 million TV contract keeps driving those Pac 12 teams farther away from where we are at — and we have two of them scheduled this year— that’s not a mountain. That’s outer space.”
As much as Kramer opposes certain trends within the conference, the challenges of coaching still stoke his internal fire. At EWU, Kramer posted a 13-20 record that included just seven Big Sky wins in his first three seasons before a breakout 12-2 season in Year 4 in 1997. MSU won just five games in Kramer’s first two years at the helm before breaking through with a win in Missoula in 2002 and back-to-back shares of the Big Sky title.
ISU’s arc followed a similar path. The Bengals won just six games Kramer’s first three seasons, including just two against league competition. In 2014, Idaho State experienced a breakthrough, posting an 8-4 record that included six league wins. But ISU took a step back last season, giving up more than 40 points per game and winning just one league game (UND).
Still, Kramer relishes the optimism that accompanies new beginnings each fall. As he sat in a conference room at the Marriott Hotel in Park City, Utah for the Big Sky Kickoff annual media convention, Kramer looked around a room filled with new faces. Aside from NAU head coach Jerome Souers, Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh, and EWU head coach Beau Baldwin, no man has been even as long as Kramer has been at Idaho State. Kramer said he hopes to coach in the league for as long as he’s allowed.
“How many coaches have sat in this room who are no longer in this room? And who has made the move successfully,” Kramer inquired. “In the Big Sky, (former Montana head coach) Bobby (Hauck) went up and got blasted. Nobody is going up and out of the Big Sky. Beau (Baldwin) might be the next candidate. But given the history, (former EWU) Coach (Paul) Wulff went up (to Washington State) and got blasted, Dennis (Erickson) went up and got blasted, John L. (Smith) went up and got fired, Mick (Dennehy) went up and never was the same.
“Who’s gotten carried out instead of forced out? (Former BYU head coach) Lavell (Edwards) did. Coach Erickson is still banging away at the age of 70 because he’s not willing to be carried out. I’m not dead, you know? I think about it all the time now. I want to be carried out.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.