Editor's note: This is the third in a four-day series on the viability of Montana moving up to big-time college football. The future of the Montana Griz will be the focus on Sunday.
BOISE, Idaho - Their skyrocket success serves as enticement, daring the Montanas of college football to dream.
The Boise State Broncos represent a best-case scenario for all Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) teams pondering a move up. An example of what is possible for those that risk stability for a spot in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS).
Unfortunately, for every Boise State, there's a handful of Idahos. FBS teams that can't seem to escape the shadows, are rarely seen on television and are frequently bullied by larger, more established big-time programs.
The Broncos weren't immune to growing pains when they moved up 12 years ago. Yet from the dirt of a 2-10 debacle in 1996 quickly blossomed a program of prominence. Boise State improved to 5-6 in 1997 and has since reeled off 11 straight winning seasons, seven coming after a switch from the Big West to the better-known Western Athletic Conference in 2001.
"We had our blip and it could have affected us negatively," Boise State athletic director Gene Bleymaier said of the Broncos' 1996 debut in the Big West. "But we were able to recover quickly."
Not even Bleymaier could have imagined what would happen leading into this decade. The Broncos have won seven conference titles and played in six bowl games.
That success has helped the athletic department's budget grow from $6.1 million in 1996 to $26.15 million. Attendance at home football games has jumped from roughly 26,000 in 1996 to over 30,000 the past four seasons.
And Boise State continues to think bigger. Last week the athletic department presented a budget with $29.4 million in projected revenue for 2008-09 to the Idaho State Board of Education.
"What has really changed for us has been the visibility ESPN has afforded us, becoming known around the country," Bleymaier noted. "When we were I-AA, as successful as we were, outside of the Big Sky Conference nobody really knew who we were or ever watched us play.
"Now the last 4-5 years we've had half of our games on ESPN, which is national television, which is significant. That has helped the community, the state and the institution."
Boise State's enrollment has also increased 10 of the last 11 years. The boost of 644 students last fall marked the first time an Idaho school had passed the 19,000 mark.
Meanwhile, the richest of the WAC athletic departments continues to make improvements, which is the reason the football program became so successful in the first place, according to Idaho athletic director Rob Spear.
"What they have done is they have built for success, and when success hit, now they've capitalized on it," Spear said. "Our people like to say we beat them in football 12 years in a row. Yeah, while we were beating them, they were building. They were building a weight room, adding facilities, and they were adding on to the stadium.
"All of a sudden, they ended up getting into the WAC in 2001 and we didn't. The separation of our programs went from there on. That was part of it, because they positioned themselves for success. Had Idaho been doing those things all along, maybe we could've been that school that moved out and into the WAC."
Boise State's latest renovation to Bronco Stadium costs $37 million and is slated to be completed in August. It will bump seating capacity up from 30,000 to 32,000 and present a window of opportunity for some of the 3,000 Bronco fans on a waiting list for season tickets.
"It's a very large project for this athletic department, the biggest ever," BSU athletic department official Bill Trenbeath said. "There's no doubt Boise people have been looking forward to this for quite a while."
The project involves the construction of a new press box and merchandise store, 38 luxury suites, 44 luxury boxes and about 740 club seats. But Bleymaier and the Broncos won't stop there.
"We purchased East Junior High School, just a quarter of a mile from here, that will give us 15fi acres we can access next summer," Bleymaier said. "We'll move the (running) track out of Bronco Stadium and our next expansion will be to horseshoe the south end of the stadium and add another 6,000 seats.
"We're also adding women's softball, building a facility right now. The growth is hopefully going to continue and we'll continue to add women's sports as part of our gender equity plan. Every five years we're scheduled to add another women's sport."
At the heart of Boise State's impressive growth in its athletic department is the generosity of alumni and the thriving Boise business community. The incentive to give, spearheaded by the success of the football team for close to three decades, cannot be understated.
"You need a winning tradition and the support of the university, the administration, and the community," Bleymaier said in addressing the requirements to move up from FCS to FBS. "They need to be behind it and know it is going to up the ante in a lot of ways.
"There are numerous examples of schools that have felt comfortable staying at that (FCS) level. Being successful, I can't criticize them for that. I think you need to look at where you're going to go and can you be successful in that conference? Nobody likes to lose, whether it's Little League baseball or pee-wee football or whatever. If you can win where you are, people are happy. To move up and become a doormat is not a wise move."
Boise State's football image throughout the Northwest and the country is that of a winner. The average fan may not have known much about the Broncos in the 1990s, but he/she can recite with amazing clarity the plays that produced a stunning overtime win over Oklahoma in the 2007 Tostitos Fiesta Bowl.
The people of Boise are also a big part of the Broncos' success. Their passion for football has sustained the Humanitarian Bowl since its humble Boise beginnings in 1997, and their interest in track and field produced a then-record-setting attendance mark of 24,100 for the 1994 NCAA Championships.
When Boise State made its leap of faith into FBS football in 1996, Bleymaier knew he could depend on the community for support. That confidence made the transition about as smooth as can be expected.
"We felt the future was bright in that the growth in the valley was certainly not going to be capped any time soon," Bleymaier said. "We felt we could compete at that level and our booster club and community would support that and embrace it."
The young athletes of Idaho have upped the ante to maintain their presence on the Boise State team. There were 15 players from the Gem State on the Broncos' roster in 2007.
"If you can play at the top of I-AA there's not a whole lot of difference between that and I-A," Bleymaier said. "Over the course of time (moving up) may limit it a little bit. But we still take walk-ons and we had a number that have earned scholarships after two or three years.
"You set the bar higher and student athletes find a way to get over it."
The same could be said of the Boise State football team and its loyal fans.
Sports writer Bill Speltz can be reached at 523-5255 or firstname.lastname@example.org.