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May 24, 2007

Consistency key to Boise State's success

Nine hundred miles from the blue turf, in a bowl game far from the cozy confines of Bronco Stadium, Boise State ceased to be a mid-major novelty.

In only their 11th season since moving up from Division I-AA, the Broncos crashed the Bowl Championship Series party and ended the season as the only undefeated team in the country with a 43-42 overtime victory over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl.

Boise State will begin the 2007 season with the nation's longest winning streak (13 games), a dark horse Heisman Trophy candidate in Ian Johnson and with its former quarterback gracing the cover of the sport's most popular video game.

Clearly, the Broncos have bucked the trend.

Without the benefit of a rich recruiting base or media market, Boise State has arguably become the winningest and most recognizable non-BCS program since 2000.

Since 1996, Boise has overcome the death of a coach and three other coaching changes, but has continued its growth into a BCS bowl contender and media darling.

"You've got to have luck and make good decisions and have a lot of variables fall into place," Boise State athletic director Gene Bleymaier said. "Fortunately, that's happened for us."

Four years into his tenure as AD, Bleymaier made one of his biggest and most public decisions for Boise State. When Boise State needed new turf for Bronco Stadium in 1986, Bleymaier pushed for something distinctive.

It resulted in the Broncos becoming the only college football program with a blue field. The turf became a curiosity for television viewers across the country.

"We thought that would be to our advantage," Bleymaier said. "We had a president that was willing to take chances to support that innovation. That's paid off for us and helped us tremendously."

As Bleymaier is quick to point out, the so-called "Smurf Turf" pre-dated the Broncos move to Division I-A by 10 years and their first bowl appearance by 13.

Even with the one-of-a-kind field, the formula to build Boise State into a college football power nearly stalled from the start.

Coach Pokey Allen, who was to shepherd the program into Division I-A, coached only two games in 1996 before his death of cancer. His replacement, Houston Nutt, stayed only one season before leaving for Arkansas.

By the time Oregon offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter became Boise's coach in 1997, the Broncos had played for four coaches in three seasons. Koetter only stayed for the next three seasons, going 26-10 with two Big West Conference championships.

During Nutt's and Koetter's brief tenures, Boise State established two key factors that would lead to its development the Humanitarian Bowl and coaching staff consistency.

Bucking the trend
Where Boise State has been: The Broncos were a junior college program until 1967 and joined the Big Sky Conference in Division I-AA in 1970. Boise won six Big Sky titles and one Division I-AA national championship from 1973-94. Boise State moved into Division I-A and the Big West Conference in 1996 and joined the WAC in 2001.
WhereBoise State is now: Boise State won its fifth consecutive WAC championship in 2006 and scored a program-defining win over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl in a 13-0 season. The 43-42 win over the Sooners was the Broncos' first win over a BCS-conference opponent away from Bronco Stadium.
Where Boise State is going: Boise State has the nation's longest winning streak at 13 games. The Broncos will have a chance to win its first road game against a BCS opponent when they go to Seattle to face Washington on Sept. 8. Boise State's WAC dominance could be challenged in the Nov. 23 season finale at Hawaii.
The Big West had lost two bowl tie-ins in two years, prompting Bleymaier and the Boise community to volunteer to host a bowl game.

"The bowl game was really born out of necessity," Bleymaier said. "We had to make a decision that we made a commitment to Division I football, and if that means hosting a bowl game, so be it. That all plays into creating that tradition and creating that type of I-A presence in the community and getting people to feel part of a bigger program."

The Humanitarian Bowl beamed Boise State's blue field onto national television, and more importantly, put the Broncos on television for three of the four bowl games from 1999-2002. Boise State won all three of its appearances.

Between the blue field and the bowl game, Boise State could not be ignored.

In a market of more than 100 Division I-A football teams and a bowl season ballooning from 20 to 32 bowls, Boise State had pulled off a publicity coup.

"Anytime you buy a car stereo or cell phone, exposure to the product makes you more willing to buy it or be a part of it," said Colorado coach Dan Hawkins, who coached Boise State from 2001-05.

After Boise State earned its second Humanitarian Bowl bid in 2000, Koetter left for Arizona State. Rather than bring in an unknown element, Bleymaier promoted Hawkins - Koetter's tight ends coach - to head coach.

Shortly after, Hawkins would retain consistency on the offensive side of the ball by plucking wide receivers coach Chris Petersen from Oregon. Petersen, like Koetter before him, served as an offensive assistant to Mike Bellotti.

Petersen was promoted to head coach after Hawkins left for Colorado in 2006.

"They've kept the same philosophy and the same values," said Jared Zabransky, starting quarterback for both Hawkins and Petersen. "They've gotten guys that have been in this system. They believe in the same offense. It's not tough on players to deal with changes."

Hawkins credited his old boss with helping Boise continue its upward trend.

"A lot that Dirk established was how to do your business and establish some continuity and consistency," Hawkins said. "When Dirk left, everything went up a notch in developing a culture to be one of the top teams in the country.

"If you have kids, you'll find if you change the rules and guidelines you have trouble getting into a groove. It was the same Boise (before Koetter arrived)."

Boise State found its groove.

The Fiesta Bowl was the story of the bowl season - and will continue to be a plotline in the coming months. The NFL drafted a school-record four Boise State players in April. Running back Ian Johnson, who will marry cheerleader Chrissy Popadics during the offseason, returns as the nation's leader in rushing yards per game.

Away from the field, Boise State will be the subject of a documentary to be aired on ESPN and possibly a feature film about the 2006 season. Zabransky will grace the cover of EA Sports' NCAA '08 Football video game.

Bronco Stadium also will feel the effects of Boise's breakthrough. In January, the State Board of Education approved the construction of a new press box and additions to luxury suits, club sections and loge boxes. Eventually, the stadium will expand from 30,000 seats to 40,000 seats in a $35.9 million project.

"I do feel like we have arrived," Bleymaier said. "This is not a flash in the pan. We've won consistently. We're optimistic that we can continue to win."

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.

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