The good thing about these kids is they love these games. They have a chip on their shoulder. This is their opportunity. A lot of them feel like ‘I could play at a higher level’ and things like that. —Spencer Toone, Idaho State co-defensive coordinator
SALT LAKE CITY — There will be a couple of familiar faces on the opposing sideline when Utah opens the football season against Idaho State in seven weeks. Former Utes Spencer Toone and Steve Fifita will be working with the Bengals at Rice-Eccles Stadium that night.
Toone is Idaho State’s co-defensive coordinator and safeties coaches, while Fifita oversees the defensive line. Both completed stellar careers for Utah’s defense in 2005 before heading to the NFL.
“It’ll be interesting being on the other sideline and looking around. It’s a place you’re very familiar with — yet, you’re all of a sudden the visitor,” Toone said. “So it’ll be a different experience but one that both myself and Steve Fifita will enjoy.”
Toone, a linebacker who made 113 tackles for the Utes as a senior, acknowledged that he’s looking forward to revisiting his alma mater where he has a lot of special memories.
“It’ll be a fun game, a fun atmosphere,” Toone said. “It’ll be great to see the stadium again.”
Fifita, a lineman who was the defensive MVP in Utah’s Fiesta Bowl win over Pittsburgh in January 2005, isn’t sure how it’ll feel to be back on the hill. However, he’s excited to come back and be part of that atmosphere — emphasizing that “there’s nothing like going back to your alma mater.”
The Aug. 28 season opener has been circled on his calendar from the get-go.
“I don’t reminisce too much. I don’t dwell on stuff from the past too much. But it’ll be tough to come out there and be in different colors,” Fifita said. “I’ve never cheered against Utah. So this will be the first time. It’ll be an interesting deal. So we’ll see what happens.
“You don’t know what you’ll go through until you step out there and do it,” he continued.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said it’s all just part of the business. He noted that in the world of coaching a lot of paths get crossed — friendships, associations and alma maters.
“In this profession that happens all the time,” Whittingham said.
Ironically, the game will also feature Whittingham and new Utah offensive coordinator Dave Christensen on the same sideline for the first time since the coaches worked together as assistants at Idaho State in 1990.
“It’s been awhile,” Whittingham acknowledged.
Now, it’s Toone and Fifita working together in Pocatello. They both joined Mike Kramer’s staff at Idaho State in 2013.
Toone, a Blackfoot, Idaho, native who played for the Tennessee Titans, prepped for his current position with graduate assistant stints at Florida and Utah State. Fifita’s professional playing career included stops with the Frankfurt Galaxy (NFL Europa), Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots and Alabama Vipers (AFL). He helped coordinate Utah football academics before moving north to coach.
“It’s great to see those guys doing so well with their careers this early on,” Whittingham said.
Toone and Fifita, though, are busy helping to building a program. Idaho State went just 3-9 in 2013 and lost its last six games, including season-ending setbacks at BYU (59-13) and Weber State (32-7).
Now comes a Pac-12 opponent.
It’s a challenge the Bengals relish.
“The good thing about these kids is they love these games. They have a chip on their shoulder. This is their opportunity. A lot of them feel like ‘I could play at a higher level’ and things like that,” Toone explained. “They kind of want to prove that. They look forward to these games. In no way do they go in thinking, ‘Hey, we’re going to bow down or anything, or we’re going to get killed.’ They’re looking to get out there and compete.”
That’s the attitude they have, Toone added.
“The way I explain it to my guys is they’re football players just like you. They’re just regular guys. I will tell them that the level of execution is going to be a lot higher. The room for error is a lot less,” he said. “That stuff definitely comes into play. But, I don’t feel like it’s David versus Goliath.”
Fifita noted that he was an underdog as a player — a smaller guy — who had people telling him what he couldn’t do.
“I never believed it,” said Fifita, who added that whatever big odds people say Idaho State faces in the opener is out of the Bengals’ control. “I won’t play the David versus Goliath card, but the room for error is very minimal.”
Even so, Fifita is excited to see his defensive linemen get tested against the Utes.
“I’ve got a couple of guys that will put up a good fight there,” he said.
The Bengals are determined to become consistently successful.
“They’ve had some ups and downs. Most of it’s been toward the down, but we’re looking to build it the right way and build it from the ground up, which we’ve done,” said Toone, who is proud that Idaho State’s team grade point average is over 3.0. “So we have great kids. We’re building it the right way. When we get it successful we’re hoping that it’ll sustain that success instead of just having ups and downs.”
Idaho State hasn’t won a Big Sky Conference title since 2002. The following year the Bengals went 8-4. They’re just 22-89 overall in the 10 consecutive losing seasons that followed.
“Right now my goal is just to make Idaho State as good as we can be,” Toone said. “ ... I’d like to see it become a more prestigious football school and build a program there.”