SEATTLE — At some point during the past few years, Boise State’s football program graduated from curiosity to dynasty.
The school once known mostly for its offbeat blue turf and trick plays is now simply known as one of the most consistent in college football.
As Boise State prepares for its date in the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas against Washington on Saturday, it rides a streak of seven straight 10-win seasons — the longest of any team in the nation. That includes a 10-2 record this year in what was regarded as a rebuilding season.
The Broncos are 83-8 since Chris Petersen took over in 2006. Among active coaches, he has the best winning percentage (91.2) in the nation.
And for those who might say Boise State benefits playing in the Mountain West Conference (and before that, the Western Athletic Conference), Broncos backers point to the team’s 8-2 record against teams from BCS conference since 2006. That includes two wins each against Oregon and Oregon State as well as wins against Georgia, Virginia Tech and Oklahoma. One of the two losses came in 2007 at Washington.
“That’s given our program credibility,” Petersen said Monday in a conference call with Seattle-area reporters.
The more pressing questions about Boise State these days are: How did the program get where it is? And, how has it managed to stay there, with no apparent signs of slowing?
“I think that’s the interesting thing,” Petersen said. “I don’t know if there’s any one thing.”
College football experts list a number of reasons for Boise State’s rise.
Former UW coach Keith Gilbertson, once an assistant coach and then head coach at Boise State’s biggest rival, Idaho, notes that the school always had a good football tradition even as it grew to Division I status.
“It’s always been a really outstanding football town,” he said.
The school was a junior college until 1968, and was a power at that level for years. One of its stars in the early 1960s was linebacker Dave Wilcox, a Hall of Famer with the 49ers and father of UW defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox.
After making the move to four-year school, Boise quickly rose the ladder of divisions and conferences, and in 1980 won the Division I-AA national title as a member of the Big Sky.
Jeff Caves, who played on the 1980 team, is a talk-show host in the area and works on the school’s radio broadcasts, notes that the school “always made a good commitment to the football program that was just sort of beyond their means.” He recalls the school expanding its football stadium repeatedly in hopes of becoming a big-time program. Among those renovations was the installation of the famous blue turf in 1986.
Still, Boise State had some struggles when it made the move to full D-I status in 1996, such as a 5-6 finish in 1997 that included a 58-0 loss at Washington State. But Boise State hasn’t had a losing record since, with coaches such as Houston Nutt, Dirk Koetter and Dan Hawkins building success upon success before moving on to bigger jobs.
Petersen took over for Hawkins and led the team to its greatest success, a 43-42 win over Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl. The game is remembered by many for Boise State’s trick plays. But another key to the win was that the Broncos (whose defensive coordinator was Justin Wilcox) held Oklahoma’s Adrian Peterson to 77 yards on 20 carries.
Former UW center Ed Cunningham, an announcer at ESPN, had the radio broadcast for that game and has done many Boise State games since. He says those who fixate on the trick plays miss the program’s fundamental soundness. “This is not smoke and mirrors,” he said.
Cunningham says the school has had a good combination of administrative support, solid coaches and it can draw from a wide area.
“They do a great job of evaluating high school talent, evaluating where they fit in,” Gilbertson added.
Often cited as Example A is former Broncos quarterback Kellen Moore of Prosser, who due largely to his size (listed at 6 feet) wasn’t recruited hard by other schools.
Some will note, privately, that Boise State has somewhat lower academic standards that allow it to take chances on players other schools must pass on.
Cunningham even cites the blue turf, saying it gave the school an identity that allowed it to stand out in the minds of recruits. Everyone agrees the talent level at Boise State might be better than sometimes portrayed. Consider that BSU has 18 players on current NFL rosters to Washington’s 11.
“You start adding up these things, there’s just a lot of things that aligned,” Cunningham said. “And they made some choices that I think helped.”
UW coach Steve Sarkisian also cites the fact that Boise State has mostly kept its head coaching hires in the family. Hawkins and Petersen were assistants who were promoted. Many also had ties to Oregon, such as Petersen and Koetter, who were offensive assistants under Mike Bellotti and brought a similar system to Boise.
“What they are doing scheme-wise hasn’t changed much,” Sarkisian said. “You know what you are going to get. Sometimes you can get fooled by the trick plays and the fluff, but in reality they are a physical team. They are going to run the ball and they are going to play good defense.”
Caves says, “the home run (for Boise State and its fans) has been the reluctance of Petersen to leave.”
Indeed, Petersen has seemingly been mentioned for every job that comes open (UW was thought to have inquired in 2009) but has stayed in Boise. Some think maybe he’s waiting for the Oregon job to open. Others say he’s simply comfortable in the smaller spotlight of Boise and has also seen some who have left the program struggle to duplicate that success elsewhere.
It helps that Petersen has a new contract worth a reported $11.7 million for five years.
“That Petersen hasn’t left says volumes about the place,” Cunningham said. “It’s just been a perfect marriage.”