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The long shadow of a hidden coaching hotbed

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Marvin Lewis has a record of 112-94-2 in 14 years as the Bengals' head coach. (Associated Press)

When Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis accepted a full scholarship to Idaho State University back in the late 1970s, what he knew of the campus was based on an idyllic description painted by recruiters: a school in the mountains.

It was a long way from McDonald, Pennsylvania, the Pittsburgh suburb where Lewis grew into a formidable quarterback and safety at Fort Cherry High School. It was a long way from Purdue, where Lewis planned to walk on before making a decision that would save his family thousands of dollars. It was a long way from his old way of life. According to a Cincinnati Enquirer story from 2003, some school officials apologized to Lewis when he got there, upon learning he was black, for giving him a white roommate.

"I knew nothing. I knew literally nothing," he told me recently, laughing at the image of a young man stepping off a plane and onto a campus nestled between the Old Tom and South Putnam Mountains.

"They pick you up and they show you the indoor stadium and the mini-dome. That's impressive when you're a young kid. But I was going to be happy wherever I went, because my parents didn't have to pay for school. I was fortunate to go to school there and spend time in the mountain west. Go to Montana, Bozeman; places that I otherwise never would have had an opportunity to experience in life. You want to go back to Yellowstone and places like that."

In that Enquirer story from 2003, Idaho State athletic trainer Phil Luckey credited the conditions in Pocatello for developing the man who would become Cincinnati's head coach.

And as we approach Week 1 of the NFL season, Luckey's words have never carried more weight -- on a level that is surely beyond what Luckey would have imagined. Lewis, who, after concluding his playing career, joined the Idaho State coaching staff as a graduate assistant in 1981 and worked there until 1984, may be the most recognizable figure from that time -- but on any given day during his tenure, he could have made a short drive in nearly any direction and bumped into someone who turned into a big-time influencer in the NFL today.

New Buccaneers head coach Dirk Koetter, a Pocatello native who had been a teammate of Lewis' at Idaho State, had his first coaching gig just down the road at Highland High School (1983-84). Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer was in Ogden, Utah, at Weber State, where he worked as a defensive assistant from 1981 to '88. Bears head coach John Fox was at Boise State in 1980 and Utah in 1982. Chiefs head coach Andy Reid played at Brigham Young in Provo, Utah, from 1979 to 1981 and was a graduate assistant there in 1982 before heading to San Francisco State in 1983. A few years after Lewis' stint in Idaho, Colts head coach Chuck Pagano coached linebackers at Boise State (1987-88). Koetter also returned to the area as the head coach at Boise State from 1998 to 2000.

Some of the NFL's best coordinators and position coaches emerged from the hotbed and went on to mold some of the most talked about players in the league today. Cowboys offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, who is from Sunnyside, Washington, played at Idaho from 1982 to '86 and served as an assistant there from 1989 to 1990 and again from 1992 to '93. Seahawks offensive line coach and assistant head coach Tom Cable played at Idaho with Linehan and served as a graduate assistant there in 1987 and '88 before returning as head coach from 2000 to '03.

Essentially, if you want to win the Super Bowl in 2016, there's a good chance your road travels through beautiful, snow-capped mountains and picturesque national parks. Lewis (AFC North), Zimmer (NFC North) and Pagano (AFC South) could all be considered favorites -- or, at least, strong possibilities -- to win their respective divisions. Koetter is developing one of the best young quarterbacks in football (Jameis Winston), while Linehan is creating a dynamic run-first scheme in Dallas that could once again shake up the NFC East.

"We were kind of way off in the distance of 1-AA leagues, but grew up with kind of early revolutionaries in football," Linehan told me recently.

He added: "We're proud of our Northwest upbringing and heritage. People talk about coaching circles and things like that, and there's a definite fraternity of coaches who grew up here and coached college football in this area."

One reason for the boom? Coaches from the time period point to the Big Sky Conference as the launching pad for the modern NFL spread offense. Dennis Erickson, who later coached the Seahawks and 49ers, brought a version of the spread from San Jose State to Idaho in 1982 (Linehan and Cable were on the Idaho team that Erickson coached to the Big Sky Championship in '85), and the revolution spread as fast as coaches could drive back and forth on I-84.

Records for most receiving yards in a Big Sky game (299, by Treamelle Taylor of Nevada, set in 1989), total yards in a game (876, Weber State vs. Idaho State, 1985) and touchdowns in a game (12, Montana State vs. Eastern Oregon, 1985) were routinely broken and re-set throughout a time of rapid offensive development. Ravens quarterbacks coach Marty Mornhinweg, a quarterback at Montana from 1982 to '85, set 15 school passing records.

"People had to adjust and see the game change at our level before it even hit the major conferences," Linehan said. "We all agreed that we were seeing stuff in our part of the world that hadn't reached all corners of the United States. People were still running pretty conventional offenses. Run-oriented, wishbone, split-back, veer type stuff, and we were rapidly changing that here in the Big Sky."

While that often meant torture for defensive coaches like Zimmer and Lewis, it forced them to be prepared for anything. On top of numerous responsibilities -- Lewis, for example, said he ran the Idaho State junior varsity team, and he would be responsible for everything from calling the plays to wrangling students walking around BYU's campus after a game -- these coaches had to design ways to stop offenses people had never seen before.

Lewis always had a busy mind while crammed inside a dealer car on endless road trips. High school games in Idaho on Friday, driving through the night until game time Saturday.

"Think about riding a bus 10 hours to Reno," Lewis said. "As graduate assistants, if we wanted to go to the games, maybe at like Portland State, we had to drive. Those were fun times. Now, you think about it differently, but when I was coaching at Idaho State and we were going to Northern Arizona and the charter was full ... those were the things you had to do."

Back then, the coaches from the old Pac-10 were idols of sorts. They held lavish golf tournaments -- the obvious object of every young, hungry head coach's affection back at a time when they were making no money and praying their cars could get them from one stadium to the next.

So Lewis smiles when he thinks about the Big Sky Golf Tournament, something of an answer to the world around them. They played in Sun Valley and Ogden. Just a few young coaches swinging away, completely unaware that they couldn't have been in a better place.

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