SALT LAKE CITY — Steve Fifita stood on the field where he once terrorized teams visiting Rice-Eccles Stadium, saying hello to friends and family.
When one man welcomed him "home," however, he quickly shot back, “I have a new home now. I can call it a second home, but I’ve got a new home now.”
In his first season as Idaho State’s defensive line coach, Fifita is unapologetic about his commitment to the Bengal program. Coaching against the team he helped last season didn’t bother him, nor did it provide any extra motivation as he prepared the Bengals to take on the Utes.
“Just another stop on the map for me,” he said after Utah’s 56-14 win over Idaho State Thursday night. “I’m not very sentimental.”
Fifita, who holds a special place in the hearts of Ute fans as a two-time All-Mountain West player and as the MVP of the 2005 Fiesta Bowl victory, wasn’t the only former Utah player trying to help the Bengals thwart the Utes in their first game of the season. Former Utah linebacker and All-Mountain West player Spencer Toone is in his second season with the Bengals.
He coached linebackers last year, but this year is the co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach. Toone spent two seasons at Utah State as a graduate assistant under now-Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen.
“It was great being able to walk in. It’s familiar territory,” said Toone. “A lot of emotion, a lot of great memories were made here, so it’s good to be back. It’s tougher being on the other sideline.”
While taking a beating from the Utes might be difficult, Toone said the work he and Fifita are engaged in at ISU is as fulfilling as it gets for a coach.
“It’s great to be part of that change that occurs,” he said of trying to help establish a tradition of winning at Idaho State. “That’s what we’re trying to do here. When you do that, I think there’s something a lot more special about that then just carrying the flag of what was done before you.”
While both men feel they experienced that to different degrees while playing at Utah, Toone also experienced it as a coach at Utah State. He was a defensive coach when the Aggies reached their first bowl game in decades and then when they followed that up by matching the program’s best record in school history.
“It’s good,” he said of trying to turn a program around. “It’s hard. It’s not easy and there are a lot of challenges that come with it. But at the end of the day, you can hang your hat on turning a team around, and that’s what we really want to do.”
Fifita said he talks to his players about what it takes to be a successful program year after year.
“I’ve been a part of turning it around and that’s what I preach to my guys,” he said. “I know how hard it is. I know what it takes, the sacrifice and all of the hard work.”
Despite the fact that Utah was able to earn 238 yards rushing and 351 yards passing against the Bengal defense, head coach Mike Kramer had some praise in his assessment of the ISU defense.
“Defensively we never really were a factor,” Kramer said. “But if you’ve seen us play in the last three years, we were more of a factor defensively than we have been. We’re better defensively. We’re a long ways from where we want to be. But we’re better.”
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