Idaho State head coach Cody Hawkins could be Bengals' renaissance man
POCATELLO, Idaho – From the outside looking in, Charlie Ragle seemed like the man for the job.
As the new leader of the Idaho State football team – which has had just two winning seasons since 2004 - he was fiery, passionate and sometimes even emotional. It showed during pregame, postgame and other miscellaneous moments of media availability where he often spoke of wanting to turn things around once and for all.
It appeared he was invested in his Bengal athletes and the Pocatello community.
And despite a 1-10 season under his first year of guidance, things were going OK. At the very least, the team was moving forward with a purpose. Following their 2022 regular-season finale, Ragle spoke of accountability and a 2023 season that would only have fully dedicated players on board.
A new era shimmered upon Holt Arena.
Then one Sunday shortly after the season ended, Ragle gave ISU athletic director Pauline Thiros an unexpected call to let her know he was leaving the school to take up the special teams coordinator position at Arizona State. The very next day, he called together a team meeting to make it official.
Within 24 hours the program went from optimistic to lifeless, back at square one. The vacancy was going to be a hard sell to the next man up.
Just two weeks later though, the void was filled. In walked first-time head coach Cody Hawkins, son of current Big Sky Conference and UC Davis head coach Dan Hawkins.
He’d be tasked with gaining the trust of a now-fractured locker room and solving the formula four coaches over the last two decades have failed to do: finding a way to win.
“I definitely had some skepticism when he first walked in, especially with Ragle leaving the way he did,” said ISU safety Calvin Pitcher, who will be on his third head coach in as many seasons.
But six months later at the Big Sky Conference Football Kickoff weekend, the second half of that quote shows he may be different from his predecessors.
“But he’s just a different guy,” Pitcher continued. “He has a whole different approach than the last two I’ve been with had, so we’re just trying to get bought in how he wants us to be and have the leaders step up and hold each other accountable the way he wants us to.”
It’s easy to buy in to someone who shows a genuine interest in your wellbeing as well as the community’s.
Getting the priorities straight
At Bishop Kelly High School in Boise, Hawkins was Gatorade Player of the Year in 2005. He won back-to-back undefeated state championships. He was a two-time Idaho Statesman All-Idaho Football Team Player of the Year.
Meanwhile, his dad Dan, current UC Davis head coach, was the head coach at Boise State University and his girlfriend, eventually turned wife, called the same town home.
His life was formed in the state of Idaho, so getting him to come to Pocatello wasn’t like pulling teeth – it was actually a perfect fit. It’s a place where his deep-rooted passion for the Gem State will drive him to make a difference.
“It’s awesome to come back home. My wife is from Boise, and I know Boise is home for me so being around people I grew up with, and seeing people I haven’t seen in 20 years is amazing,” Hawkins said. “You’re in a community that’s really special and if you look at how Eastern Idaho has grown ever since COVID, it’s been special. It’s about being around good people. Being around the opportunity to help kids in a community you care about.”
But how about for the things Hawkins doesn’t care about as he embarks on this new journey? Starting with roster turnover. The Bengals had double-digit guys leave via the transfer portal after Ragle left and once Hawkins came on board.
Top players like wide receiver Xavier Guillory and kicker Ian Hershey departed for Arizona State while starting quarterback Tyler Vander Waal left for Northwestern State. They even saw young players like redshirt freshman runningback Jovan Sowell leave for NAIA schools like the College of Idaho.
But that’s OK with Hawkins, who didn’t even try to keep the current players from the 2022 roster. That’s not his style.
“I think trying to retain guys is a bad way to put it because honestly, I’m not trying to retain guys. I want guys that want to be there,” Hawkins said. “There’s a lot of guys who call you and go, ‘Hey coach, what’re you planning to do with the QB position?’ and I’m like, ‘Alright, I already don’t care if you’re here or not.’ What you want are guys that say, ‘Hey, how do we get the whole community and team feeling like a brand, like a family.’”
With those guys elsewhere, it left Hawkins with something he’s more comfortable working with – a group of players that chose to stay at ISU on their own accord and make something out of nothing.
“Me personally, I wanted to build something,” Pitcher said. “I could’ve easily left just like a lot of other dudes did, but I wanted to stay and try to leave a mark and hopefully when my time is done here, I can look back and look at what’ve we’ve done and changed and hopefully it lasts.”
Hawkins also doesn’t care for statistical benchmarks as he tries to equate success in his new role. He won’t have his guys thinking about achieving a certain number of wins but rather, creating a better overall feeling regarding ISU football both internally and externally.
“Hey, Jason Eck, he did a great job (with Idaho in his first year), a three-win improvement. If I win four games, am I going to be coach of the year? No, I shouldn’t be, but the feeling is better, the culture is better,” Hawkins said. “The thing about the big shift with the Vandals is that they stopped losing games they shouldn’t lose. They started playing well. They were competitive in every game. Their social media fired up the fan base. I think there are a lot of things that he did that you could take – Now I don’t want to be a Vandal. I’ve been a Bronco, I’ve been a Buff, I’ve been a Buckeye and a Bengal, I don’t want to be a Vandal, but I think he’s a great coach and left a lot of clues to what success looks like.”
Expecting overnight accomplishment would be naïve, but a better collective attitude can be anticipated.
Mike Davis, a senior offensive lineman turned tight end this season, is the longest tenured Bengal, being there since 2018. He’s navigated a tough season or two during his time in Pocatello, and his mental fortitude will serve ISU wonders if things don’t progress as fast as some hope it does.
“The biggest thing is, if something bad happens, ditch it. We can’t hang onto something for the whole game or whole year. Some guys have problems with if something goes wrong, they can’t get over it,” Davis said. “So, for us, mental toughness is going to be a huge part of like, when something goes wrong, knowing we’re fine. On to the next play. Especially in a game of inches man, anything can happen, so you just have to let it be.”
And finally, Hawkins doesn’t care about his title, “head coach.”
What the team achieves will be merely a reflection of how others around him performed. And while the pieces he put in those places get to work, he’ll focus on the energy enveloping the Bengals and how he can best support his staff and players.
“I don’t think being a head coach is cool. You’re a cog in the wheel,” Hawkins said. “My dad was an assistant for a long time, and I grew up knowing that assistants are super important. The players are super important. The media is super important. I’m just a guy. Now the rewarding part about being a head coach is that you think you can have the biggest impact, but my job is not to lead from the front and have my slogan on a bus. It’s about creating a great experience for guys and a community that I really care about.”
Transitioning to the gridiron
Under Hawkins, Idaho State isn’t going down the path of a simple renaissance, but rather reinvention. Along with the cultural changes will come a complete overhaul of the Xs and Os, which had no consistency for ISU last season.
“We’ve struggled a little bit offensively and it carries over to the defense,” Pitcher said at kickoff weekend.
And for the Bengals to generate success in the Big Sky, they’ll have to find their niche. Part of the intrigue of the job for Hawkins was the leniency to “try some things” and “be a little different” from their peers.
But he also did his research and found what’s worked historically for his program. Crafting their ideal scheme will require a balance of old dog tactics and new tricks.
“The history at Idaho State leaves clues. When Idaho State was good, they had a lot of really good local kids. They had a mix of junior college transfers and threw the heck out of the ball and played a lot of crazy zone defense,” Hawkins said. “Like Idaho State has never been a run the ball, man defense team. They’ve never been Weber. And Montana State and Weber State and Montana and Boise State all around us, that’s their brand of football, but we have to be different. Will we be tough? Hell yeah. Are we going to work hard? Hell yeah. But we have to be different than those guys.”
If history is any indication though, the Bengals will turn to the air early and often. An offensive coach with a prolific background as a passer himself, Hawkins has been calling the plays at UC Davis since 2021 with a knack for the air raid.
In 2022, Aggies QB Miles Hastings burst onto the Big Sky scene under Hawkins’ tutelage with an All-Big Sky first team selection after engineering an offense that totaled 3,245 passing yards (second-most in the Big Sky) and 23 touchdowns.
Granted, UC Davis was in a better spot than ISU as far as football goes, but Hawkins will work it to that point. And in doing so, he’ll keep his message and mission steady. It all comes back to a nurturing form of leadership.
“I’m going to demand a lot of these guys,” Hawkins said. “And they’re going to be asked to do things they’ve never been asked before, both strength in conditioning and details in practice but understand it’s a standard and you want to meet that standard because not only do they know that we know what we’re talking about, which we have to prove every day, but they know that we care about them and that’s the most important thing to me.”