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From the Ground Up — How Pocatello Rebuilt its Struggling Program
Pocatello struggled for years as conference rivals soared. Now, the Indians are flipping the script
Published: 10/15/2020 12:36:41 PM

On a typical weeknight, you can find the Pocatello High School football team practicing at a nearby middle school or city-owned park. On Fridays, the team is bused either out of town or across it, even for home games.

Things have been that way, or some version of it, for a long time for the Gate City’s oldest prep football program. Some years, it hasn’t gotten in the way of success. Other years, it’s been a cheap crutch for coaches to lean on to defend their shortcomings. 

More recently, an open enrollment policy allowed incoming high-schoolers to attend their school of choice. More often than not, they chose Highland, which has the most prestigious football program in town, or Century, the 20-year-old school that boasts strong academics and state championship contenders in several sports. It left Pocatello, the outdated school downtown that’s lacking facilities, with the smallest enrollment among the Gate City schools. Another crutch to lean on, perhaps, but another obstacle nonetheless.

Today’s generation may not realize it but, despite those roadblocks, Poky High football was once an Idaho power. The Indians won four state titles during a six-year stretch in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, led by beloved coaches Jim Koetter and Brent Koetter. Tom Harrison took the Indians to state runner-up seasons in 2004 and ‘05 before finally breaking through for another championship in 2006.

But the last decade has skewed onlookers’ perceptions. The Indians went 45-48 between 2010 and 2019 and missed the playoffs each year from 2012 to ‘18. Harrison, a legendary coach who has authored 10 state title seasons at three different schools, resigned amid controversy after the 2014 campaign.

Perhaps most importantly, Pocatello entered this season with a nine-game losing streak in the Black and Blue Bowl, the once-fierce rivalry game with Highland that’s devolved into a one-sided snoozer as the programs’ pedigrees have grown farther apart.

So while there’s been plenty of winning to speak of and legends to memorialize, getting Pocatello football back to the top tier of Idaho football is no easy task.

Yet the Indians’ last 12 games have brought that hope back.

After going 4-2 over their final six games of last season — which included the program’s first playoff berth since 2011 — the Indians are 5-1 heading down the home stretch this year. They hold a No. 5 ranking in the most recent media poll and appear on track to win a conference championship. Leading the way is sixth-year head coach Dave Spillett, whose Poky High roots have inspired his rebuilding project that may be approaching its peak.

“Now we walk out on the field not hoping to compete; we’re expecting to win,” Indians defensive coordinator Willie Walker said. “That started way back when (Spillett) started talking about his vision and where he wanted Pocatello High School football to be.”

‘A lot of people thought I was crazy’

In November 2013, Spillett’s Century Diamondbacks were a failed 2-point conversion away from reaching the state title game. The heartbreak from the 27-26 double-overtime loss temporarily clouded Spillett’s success; in four years, he built Century from a one-win program to one that was among the state’s top contenders.

The next season, Century overcame an 0-5 start and sneaked back into the playoffs at 4-5. The back-to-back postseason berths had the Diamondbacks on the right path and marked a 180-degree turnaround from Spillett’s first two seasons in charge, when Century went a combined 2-15.

Meanwhile, Pocatello was trending the other direction. After advancing to the state semifinals in 2011, the Indians missed the playoffs in 2012 and ‘13 and spent the second half of the 2014 season without their head coach. Harrison, who a few years earlier had led Poky football back to state title glory, was suspended indefinitely after Poky’s fourth game of the 2014 season following an alleged verbal altercation with one of his players. He never returned to the Indians’ sideline and resigned after the season.

Just like that, a once-prestigious, now-complicated head coaching job was available.

“Poky was kind of falling by the wayside,” said Walker, who was Pocatello’s interim head coach in 2014 while Harrison was suspended. “We were losing kids to Century and kids to Highland because there wasn’t really any stability at Pocatello High.”

Still, Spillett wanted the gig. It made sense given his history at PHS: He played football and won two state titles there in the ‘90s, decades after his grandfather played football there in the ‘40s. But it was harder to fathom when comparing his situation at Century to Pocatello’s state of affairs. 

Century benefited from Poky’s dysfunction. He had just spent half a decade rebuilding the Diamondbacks into a contender. It would take at least that long, if not longer, to do so at Poky.

“I really hated to see the state that Pocatello High School football was in,” Spillett said. “ …So when that job opened up it was extremely intriguing to me, because I really wanted to get it back to where I felt like it should be and I knew that it was going to be a challenging task.”

On Dec. 8, 2014, Spillett announced his resignation as Century’s head football coach. The next day, he was announced as the new head coach of Pocatello High School football, a move that sent shock waves through the Gate City.

“A lot of people thought I was crazy because we had built something pretty strong at Century,” Spillett said. “Weirdly for me (coaching Pocatello) was an exciting challenge and one that I had a lot of passion about. I got a lot of love for Pocatello football and for Pocatello High School and I really wanted to right that ship and I thought that we could do that.”

‘From the ground up’

Spillett wanted to change a lot about Pocatello football, from the way things were done at practices and on game days to the ways he and his assistant coaches developed their players.

The most visible and immediate difference was the offensive system.

Coach Harrison liked to grind defenses down with a power-run game; Spillett preferred to spread it out and turn up the tempo. It was a major adjustment. Poky was built to stay on the ground and suddenly things were airborne. And while Spillett’s spread attack fell in line with modern football philosophies, it required a dual-threat quarterback with the mind and moxie to match his athleticism and arm strength. Players like that don’t cycle through Pocatello High School each year.

“The rebuilding was from the ground up,” Walker said. “It was an entirely different offense and it was some new stuff that kids had to relearn.”

What was less visible and immediate was Poky’s grander transition.

From the moment he was hired at Pocatello High School, Spillett preached character building and producing positive results on the field, as well as off it. It wasn’t a revolutionary concept; many coaches say the same thing. But Spillett felt that his alma mater desperately needed a reputational facelift and hammered it home.

“I want Poky to be a place where the entire community is proud of what we’re doing on, and more importantly off, the field,” Spillett said at his introductory press conference in December 2014. “ … I want good coaches that are willing to take the opportunities to teach life skills and life lessons. We’ll build that strong foundation and (surround) myself with good, strong leaders willing to teach life lessons. The wins will come.”

Pocatello went 3-5 in Spillett’s first season, the program’s third sub-.500 year in a row. The next year was similar at 3-6. Both years, the Indians fell one win short of making the playoffs.
And Highland continued to dominate the Black and Blue Bowl, winning 41-0 and 42-12.
But Spillett knew there was no quick fix for returning Poky to glory.

“His first year in the rebuilding process, it was his vision. We talked a lot about, ‘Here’s what we see for Pocatello High,’” Walker said. “And he set those goals, he set the standard and those first year or two it’s like, ‘OK, we are going to get there,’ and he never ever stopped preaching that vision of, ‘Here’s where we want to be and here’s where we’re striving to go.’”

It was around Year 3 or Year 4, Walker said, that Spillett began taking a different approach.
Poky stopped holding traditional two-a-days, instead opting for one long practice each day, and time on the field was staggered with classroom instruction to enforce the learning process.

“He said, ‘We want to slow things way down and make sure that us as coaches are teaching and our kids are understanding what we’re teaching and what we want to get done,’” Walker said. “We would stop if he felt something was not being understood or things weren’t being done the way that he felt it should be done. We would stop practice and we would actually go in the classroom and say, ‘OK, do you guys understand what we’re trying to do here?’ Then we would go back on the field.”

Pocatello was under .500 again in 2017 and 2018, again losing to Highland and again finishing one win away from making the playoffs both years. 

It looked like 2019 was headed for the same heartbreaking end.

Pocatello began the season 1-3, then won three of four to pull to 4-4 and control its own postseason destiny. In the final week of the regular season, all Poky needed to do to end its long postseason drought was beat Burley, the last-place team in the conference. But the Indians trailed 16-0 after the first quarter.

Led by a do-it-all senior quarterback, Poky stormed back and took a 23-16 lead in the fourth quarter. Burley wasn't done, though, and scored a last-minute touchdown to get within 23-22 and could win the game with a successful two-point conversion.

Poky stuffed the try and celebrated its triumph after years of coming up short. The Indians lost their playoff game by 29 points the next week, but that wasn’t the lasting memory of the season.

“We made the playoffs last year and that’s when, I think, the standard was set,” Walker said. “That group of seniors last year just set the stage for what we have now.”

‘They can go as far as they want to go’

Pocatello opened the 2020 season at a one-year-old, $9 million stadium, with state-of-the-art turf, programmable LED lights and towering bleachers. 

But the new digs don’t exactly belong to the Indians.

The stadium belongs to Madison High School, Poky’s first 2020 opponent. It was built thanks to a $27 million bond passed by Madison County residents in 2017; nearly $9 million of it went toward building the high school’s new athletic facilities.

Pocatello's players walked onto the college football-quality field after practicing that week at their usual stomping grounds — Irving Middle School and city-owned Raymond Park, which, although shaped similarly to a football field, has its terrain interrupted by trees and is frequented by dogs and pedestrians and littered with everything they leave behind.

Normally, Poky has at least one practice per week at Idaho State University’s Holt Arena. So do Highland and Century. The domed turf field also hosts all three schools’ home games. But the facility has been closed to them this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. The blow is lessened for Highland and Century, which can utilize on-campus facilities. Irving Middle School and Raymond Park are a half-mile down the road from Pocatello High School — not a great distance, but enough to be an inconvenience.

The Gate City, like Madison County, recently opened a new football and track and field complex, Iron Horse Stadium, on Highland’s campus. All three city schools are welcome to use it. This season, with Holt Arena out of the mix, it has hosted Pocatello’s home games. The Indians play\ their home games on the campus of their oldest rival.

“I’ll tell you what, it’s really hard for us to call it a home game when we hop on a bus and drive to Highland,” Spillett said. “It’s hard for us to call it a home game when we’re driving up to their school and we’re getting dressed on the track because we don’t have a locker room there. We don’t have a field.”

So when Poky was preparing to open this season at Madison, Spillett used the facilities gap as motivation.

It worked. The Indians knocked off the Bobcats 23-20.

“One of the things we talked about that week going into it was, ‘We’re going to go to the college campus of the University of Madison, which is basically a miniature (University of) Utah,’” Spillett said. “‘We’re going to practice all week at our dog park and then we’re going to go into the best facilities and take it to them and prove that we’re for real.’

“That happened in Week 1 and we’ve continued to prove that throughout the season.”

Poky’s strong play continued in wins against Twin Falls, Jackson Hole (WY), Idaho Falls and Burley. The Indians’ lone loss is to Highland, their 10th-straight loss in the rivalry. Another postseason berth can eradicate that.

The consensus is that last year’s dramatic run to the playoffs springboarded this year’s success.
“I think it’s helped a ton,” said Jadyn Downs, who quarterbacked the Indians to the playoffs in 2019. “I feel like a lot of (the players) didn’t think Poky was a legit contending school. Last year set the standard. They know they need to do that every year now.”

Pocatello’s next game is Friday at Preston. The regular season ends Oct. 23 against Century.
Win both games, and the Indians are conference champions and will head to the playoffs at 7-1.
Things haven’t been that way for a long time for the Gate City’s oldest prep football program.

“They’re a great team,” longtime Poky assistant coach Rick Call said. “They can go as far as they want to go.”

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