BOISE – Back in 2006 when Chris Petersen began his first year as head coach at Boise State, he drew up a pretty simple game plan for himself: Give this head-coaching thing a try and re-evaluate at the end of the season.
In so many ways, it’s safe to say things have worked out better than Petersen – or any Broncos fan – could have expected.
When his team plays at BYU on Friday night, Petersen will be on the sidelines for his 100th game as head coach of Boise State, a program that was successful when he took over but one he has clearly elevated, making it, among other things, college football’s winningest during the last seven years.
“I didn’t really set any goals,” Petersen said when urged this week to reflect on his first days on the job. “My goal was ‘hey, I’ll give this thing a shot and see if I can stomach it one year and go from there.’ That’s really how it’s kind of been.”
It’s also been a wildly successful ride for Petersen and Boise State. In the last eight years, few FBS teams have performed as consistently at such a high level.
Since Petersen took over, the Broncos have:
• Compiled an 89-10 record, making Petersen the winningest active coach in the FBS.
• Won 10 or more games seven consecutive seasons, the longest active streak in the nation. From 2008 through 2011, the Broncos posted 12 or more wins per season, the only school to do so since 1900.
• Celebrated five conference championships, with four coming as members of the Western Athletic Conference and one in the Mountain West Conference.
• Achieved in the classroom, as well. An NCAA report issued this week found Boise State ranked eighth in the Graduation Success Rate for FBS schools for the cohort 2003-06.
The Broncos are also one of just a dozen teams nationally to start each of the last five seasons ranked in the AP Top 25. They began this season ranked No. 19, then dropped out after a 38-6 loss at Washington – by far the team’s worst in Petersen’s tenure.
Call 2013 a rebuilding year, but for a variety of reasons Boise State hasn’t yet matched the heights of previous years. The defense is young, inexperienced across the board and struggled to stop high-scoring Fresno State in the season’s second loss. A conference title is still in the crosshairs, but there’s no chatter about the Broncos crashing any BCS parties.
Still, Petersen has refused this year – just as he did so consistently several seasons ago during the apex of Boise State mania – to see success only through the postseason lens, or parlay his success into a bigger, better paying coaching job elsewhere. This year his name has surfaced in the head coaching search at USC, the latest in a string of jobs at bigger, higher profile universities.
For him, satisfaction comes from motivating his players to improve, learn and continue to work harder each week.
“In many ways he’s not changed a bit over the years,” said Broncos offensive line coach Chris Strausser, a longtime friend who began coaching with Petersen when they were on the same staff at Portland State in the early 1990s. “What’s impressed me most over the years is it’s always about the kids with him.
“He has no interest in chasing bigger jobs and bigger contracts ... or being the winningest coach around. It’s always been about making these kids better. I believe that is really what drives him,” Strausser said.
In many ways, Petersen’s imprint on campus has transcended wins and losses.
When he inherited the reins from Dan Hawkins, who left for the head coaching job at Colorado, Boise State was considered a cute little program that played on a gaudy blue field and beat up teams in an inferior conference with a high-octane offense. Few believed the team had the talent and toughness to match up with teams from the powerhouse conferences back east.
That perception began to change after the Broncos won a pair of BCS games, beating Oklahoma 43-42 in overtime in a dazzling 2007 Fiesta Bowl and again three years later against TCU. Under his watch, Boise State has scheduled more nonconference matchups with top programs, including Virginia Tech, Georgia, Michigan State and Mississippi. Two years ago the Broncos flirted with joining the troubled Big East Conference before opting to stay put in a reorganized Mountain West.
Success has also left its mark on campus. Thousands of seats have been added to Bronco Stadium and boosters envision adding another 20,000 more in the future. This fall, the team cut the ribbon on a $22 million football complex built in the north end zone – enhancements Petersen lobbied for to keep the team competitive.
When reminded this week by reporters of his approaching milestone, Petersen seemed caught off guard, embarrassed at the attention and answering questions about comparing himself as a coach then and now.
“I know I have more experience for sure,” Petersen said. “There is no substitute for experience in anything that you do. You can just operate faster, not everything is so painstaking. I think as a coach you can make faster decisions, and hopefully wiser ones.”