After three stops coaching high school football in California, Herb Criner walked into a promising situation when he became football coach at Coeur d'Alene High in 1980.
After years as a boys basketball power, the Vikings were eager for the same success in football, and were willing to do what it took to achieve that success - improved weight room, year-round football players, etc.
Criner "was given the perfect opportunity. And if you failed, it was because you basically screwed up," he said with a laugh.
Criner and the Vikings didn't screw up.
Much like Mount St. Helens, which made the news shortly before Criner interviewed for the Coeur d'Alene job, the Viking football program erupted.
In 1982, Criner's third year at Coeur d'Alene, the Vikings won the program's first state championship. Three years later - one year after Criner left to coach with his brother, Jim, at Boise State - Coeur d'Alene won another state title.
During that six-year stretch from 1982-87, Coeur d'Alene made the playoffs each season, played for the state title five times, and won it twice.
"I said to the players, when I met 'em up there in 1980, that if we stick together and do all the things (the coaches say to do), we'll be state champs," Criner said the other day, in a phone interview from Meridian. "And, lo and behold, the kids bought into what we were doing."
Criner plans to return to North Idaho when Coeur d'Alene's 1982 squad is honored as this year's "Legends" team at the 51st annual North Idaho Sports Banquet, scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Saturday at the Best Western Coeur d'Alene Inn.
IN THE late 1970s, Criner said school enrollment was declining in California, and with less teaching jobs available, coaches were having to hire nonteachers (Criner called them "walk-ons") as assistant coaches. Criner believed coaches - even assistants - needed to be on campus, so he started looking for a situation where that was still possible, which led him to Coeur d'Alene.
He recalled the first couple of years, taking his team down to the summer football camp at Boise State, where his brother was coaching, then taking them to the Idaho camp when he helped then-Vandal coach Dennis Erickson get that camp started.
The Vikings went 5-6 and 7-3 his first two seasons, then put together a dominating 12-0 campaign in ’82 where Coeur d’Alene outscored its opponents 338-108, including four shutouts.
Criner recalled all the miles Coeur d’Alene traveled on a school bus — an estimated 4,000, to Boise twice during the regular season, to Pocatello for the state semifinals, back down to Twin Falls for the title game — en route to the championship.
He recalled shoveling the snow out of the bleachers at Coeur d’Alene’s field before the Vikings’ first-round playoff game with Meridian ... beating Highland and Merril Hoge in the semifinals in Pocatello, then weathering a snowstorm and a flat tire on one of the buses on the way home ... having to abandon the motel in Twin Falls the day before the title game, because the plumbing wasn’t able to accommodate all the needs of the players and coaches at the same time. ... beating eventual Washington state champion Gonzaga Prep, and being regarded as champion of the Northwest, not just Idaho.
Coeur d’Alene had numerous players in the program in the early 1980s who would go on to play in college.
“We had two or three real good running backs (on that ’82 team), and a ton of good receivers,” Criner said.
And just the depth at quarterback in those days was a bit mind-boggling.
The starter on that ’82 team was Steve Halliday, a senior. But he suffered a broken finger early in the season, paving the way for junior Scott Wellman to get playing time. Halliday returned late in the season, and both he and Wellman threw touchdown passes in Coeur d’Alene’s 55-13 rout of Twin Falls in the state title game.
“And guess who my third-stringer was?” Criner said.
That would be a sophomore with potential — name of John Friesz. Wellman quarterbacked the Vikings in 1983, when they reached the state title game. Friesz took over in ’84, leading the team to the state semifinals. The next QB in line was Duane Halliday, Steve’s brother, who guided the Vikings to the state title in 1985.
CRINER LEFT Coeur d’Alene after the ’84 season, and coached five years at Boise State, then became a senior associate athletic director at the school.
Now 78, he retired in 2006. His son, Scott Criner, was recently named head football coach at Rocky Mountain High in Meridian, and there’s rumblings Herb may help his son out. Herb visited Moscow over the past five years when his nephew, Mark, was assistant coach at Idaho. And Herb still keeps tabs on the Vikings, who are currently putting together a run similar to the one Herb started in the early 1980s.
“I’m thrilled to death with what coach (Shawn) Amos has done up there,” said Herb, who has seen the current Viks play in recent years when they were down in the Boise area.
“I enjoyed every bit of it,” he said of his time in Coeur d’Alene. “I think the world of Coeur d’Alene.”
Mark Nelke is sports editor of The Press. He can be reached at 664-8176, Ext. 2019, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at CdAPressSports.