Cheek enjoying the ride at Boise State
To Jeff Cheek, there is only one place like Boise, Idaho. That other special spot in his heart is reserved for South Lake Tahoe, where he grew up appreciating the beauty around him and developing into a football player striving to reach a higher level.
Cheek played offensive lineman for Boise State from 1999-2001, then spent eight years away from Boise, building his football coaching resume at high schools and small colleges throughout the West.
His return to Boise State in 2009 was a homecoming in more ways than one. Cheek had played with and for many of the current Boise State coaches when the program was just beginning to show signs of becoming a national power.
“It’s awesome up here. It’s the only show in town,” said Cheek, a 1996 graduate of South Tahoe High. “It’s building and only going to get bigger.
“It has a place in my heart right next to Tahoe, and this is about as close as it gets.”
Cheek just completed his second season as the Broncos’ graduate assistant. He spent this past season assisting offensive line coach Chris Strausser, who has great respect for his former starting offensive lineman.
“He has a great understanding of what it takes to play here and what it takes for our guys to get better,” said Strausser, a Boise State assistant for the past nine years, including six as an offensive line coach. “A lot of guys respect that he played here on one of those teams that really got the program to the next level.”
Cheek’s knowledge of the game and coaching experience have come in handy for Strausser.
“Absolutely, he’s a guy we trust quite a bit,” Strausser said. “Sitting down and game-planning or grading a game, I have no hesitation to see what he thinks. He’s a very good guy to bounce ideas off.”
Strausser said since coaching Cheek during his senior season in 2001, he’s learned that few people love the game as much as the former All-Coast Conference lineman at De Anza College.
“The thing that stands out about Jeff is that he is a football junkie,” Strausser said. “When I go home, the last thing I want to read about is college football. He knows everything that is going on in college football.”
His sincere love of the game has made Cheek’s entry-level job coaching work that much easier to embrace.
“There’s not one day when I wake up that I say, ‘God, I have to go to work,’ ” Cheek said. “I like hanging out with the coaches and players, that camaraderie. There are so many positives, and then every week you get to compete and put it on the line.”
Cheek immediately turned his attention to coaching after his playing career ended. He spent 2002-03 at Nampa High as an offensive line coach, then committed his 2004 and 2005 seasons to Eastern Oregon University as the offensive line and assistant strength coach. In 2006, Cheek served as Humboldt State’s defensive line coach and video coordinator before heading to Golden West College in Huntington Beach, Calif., where he performed the duties of offensive coordinator and offensive line coach during the 2007-08 seasons.
“He’s gone about it the right way,” Strausser said. “When he first finished here he wasn’t ready to jump into the graduate program.
“Coaching at those (smaller) schools, it’s a labor of love, not necessarily a great living unless you are the head coach.”
Once Boise State’s one-loss season ended in a bowl win over Utah in December, Cheek was responsible for putting together a compilation of stats and film of the 2010 season. By the time he is done Cheek will provide film of every offensive play the Broncos ran during the season.
“It’s so we can fine-tune our offense. … learning why something worked or why it didn’t,” he said.
As he looks back on the Broncos’ 12-1 season, Cheek still can’t get over the 34-31 overtime defeat to Nevada. The Pack decided against recruiting Cheek more than a decade ago, even declining an offer by Cheek to walk on. Those slights have remained with him.
“Personally, it’s one game that I would want to win,” Cheek said. “It’s going to take a while to get over it.”
Cheek visited his parents in Carson City over the holidays and said it was difficult going through the Reno-Tahoe Airport.
“It was weird losing to them. I was just glad to get out of there,” he said. “We were fortunate to have a game the next week. Without a doubt, everyone took the loss hard, but we had to tie up our bootstraps, watch film the next day and just move on.”
Dedication, continuity and loyalty are some of the reasons current coach Chris Petersen has compiled a 60-6 record over the past five seasons, including bowl wins over Oklahoma, TCU and Utah.
“I’m sure he gets offers and calls all the time. But I don’t see him as a guy who wants to deal with the NFL,” Cheek said. “He’s very happy here, where he can recruit the kind of players he wants, who are willing to learn, are from good families and are willing to put the hearts on the line.”
Cheek’s description of Petersen’s loyalty to the program was spot on when Petersen recently declined overtures from Stanford to fill the spot vacated by Jim Harbaugh.
The five-week recapping of the 2010 season will lead Cheek and the rest of the Boise State staff up to spring ball. By then, Cheek will likely know if he’ll stay on as graduate assistant for a third straight season.
“If they offered me a job, without a doubt I’d take it,” Cheek said. “There’s no turnover here. Coaches want to stay. They make good money. It would have to be something pretty good to get somebody to leave.”
That inflexibility in staffing will likely mean Cheek will need to move on to garner a full-time assistant position.
“The nice part of being a GA is that everyone knows you are trying to get a job. There’s no need to hide it,” Cheek said. “The coaches are definitely on the lookout and have a friends in a lot of places.
“I still have another year, so it’s nice to have that leverage.”
In the meantime, Cheek knows that the Boise State coaching staff has his back.
“Like any profession, it’s hard to get a job right now,” Strausser said. “I think he’ll have some opportunities over the next few months. He’s a very employable guy, and he’ll get a job when the right time comes.”