Commentary

Broncos buck traditional trend

Originally Published: April 15, 2010
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

BOISE, Idaho -- There is no mold for how Boise State recruits its football players. The quarterback is 6 feet tall and deemed too small by his beloved Washington State, the doormat of the Pac-10. He is also 26-1 as a starter.

There is no mold for how the Broncos coach. Two assistant coaches who left for positions at bigger, more visible schools -- gotta climb that ladder, right? -- have left those jobs to reclaim their old ones on the Boise State staff.

There is no mold for how the Broncos have risen to the top of college football. A school that joined the FBS in 1996 has become a national power without the financial resources afforded the Alabamas of the world, much less the Washington States.

There is no mold at Boise State, and there is no mold on Boise State, either. Two years after completing a $25 million addition to Bronco Stadium, the university is formulating plans to expand the seating again. This time, the university intends to increase the capacity of Bronco Stadium from 33,500 to somewhere in the neighborhood of 49,000.

In the past four seasons, Boise State has gone 49-4, with two of those victories coming in Fiesta Bowls. With 20 returning starters returning from a team that went 14-0 last season, Boise State has earned enough tailgate cred that it likely will begin the 2010 season in the top five.

The BCS rules have prevented the Broncos from making a Butleresque climb to play for the national championship. On one hand, Boise State has been unable to prove itself at the sport's highest level. On the other, the Broncos haven't been exposed as frauds, either.

[+] EnlargeKellen Moore
Brian Losness/US PresswireKellen Moore doesn't fit the prototypical QB build. That was just fine with Boise State.

As a result, Boise State has become the official striptease artist of autumn Saturdays. The Broncos flirt and flash come-hither looks to college football fans, yet they are not allowed to bare their assets for all to see. There are laws, you see, in the BCS.

It is enough to make the university president, Dr. Robert W. Kustra, sputter in frustration. Kustra, a former Illinois lieutenant governor, knows something about athletic frustration. He has a signed jersey from Cubs Hall of Famer Billy Williams in his office.

"We have been fortunate to get to the Fiesta Bowl and achieve significant national recognition," Kustra said. "We can only imagine how much more there would be if we were the Butler of the BCS system."

Last year, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) sent a letter to President Barack Obama excoriating the BCS for antitrust violations. Kustra reprinted the letter as a periodical in February with the Faculty-Club-worthy name of Contemporary Issues in Higher Education, and e-mailed it to every university president in Division I.

"I didn't get any feedback. No one wanted to give me the satisfaction that they had read it," Kustra growled. And then, with a grin, he said, "We did checks on who opened it. There were quite a few who opened it."

Asking the people in power to share that power usually doesn't go very well. Kustra remains unfazed. Coach Chris Petersen, on the other hand, takes the system he is given and works within it. The way Petersen sees it, Boise State's status frees him from the tyranny of the tape measure and the stopwatch.

"I know there would be some schools in some other places out there would say, 'Man, I would like to take that kid, but just couldn't because he just didn't look the part,'" Petersen said. "Well, that doesn't bother us. He might be a few inches short or something. But he's a good player. So that's kind of been our niche a little bit."

Petersen describes his ideal recruit as a "blue-collar, tough kid that loves football and is a good player. What attracts everybody's attention is when they fit the physical mold."

There is no mold at Boise State.

I know there would be some schools in some other places out there would say, 'Man, I would like to take that kid, but just couldn't because he just didn't look the part.' Well, that doesn't bother us.

-- BSU coach Chris Petersen on recruiting

"Is a kid a good player? Can he play?" Petersen asked. "You know, if he fits the mold almost too well, that can work against us because he's going to attract so much traffic that it's going to be a big dogfight."

Boise State beat out Idaho State for defensive lineman Ryan Clady and turned him into the 12th pick of the 2008 NFL draft at offensive tackle. Boise State asked Ryan Winterswyk, a high school safety in La Habra, Calif., to walk on. The fifth-year senior is a two-time All-WAC defensive end.

"They are really honest with you, which really helps," Winterswyk said of the coaches. "When I was coming up through the ranks, they said, 'Hey, if you want to earn a scholarship, you need to get on to the field. That's the way you're going to do it. If you're not playing, you're not going to get one.' Instead of leading me on and on and on, they set the standard and the goal. I think other places … might tell you what you want to hear."

And there is Kellen Moore, the redshirt junior who has yet to shake his high school boyishness. Moore, the son of a high school coach in the wine country of Prosser, Wash., grew up a fan of the nearby Washington State Cougars. In high school, Moore met with Timm Rosenbach, then the Washington State quarterback coach.

"An awesome guy," Moore said. "He was like, 'Maybe something happens, but if there's a 6-5 guy, we're probably going to take an opportunity and see what we have there.' I understood. I'm a 6-foot quarterback.

"And then Boise State called me …. Really, their whole deal wasn't driving you to come here to Boise State. It was, 'Here's an offer. This is what we're all about. If you want to join, join.' They aren't out there calling you day in and day out, trying to rope you in. They just kind of present the formula and say, 'If you feel like this is what you're all about, we'd love to have you.'"

[+] EnlargeRyan Winterswyk
Andrew Weber/US PresswireThe Broncos have been successful adapting players to new positions. Ryan Winterswyk was a high school safety before becoming an all-WAC defensive end.

If Greg Maddux played college quarterback, he would be Moore: He throws it hard enough to get there and paints the corners. Last season, when he threw for 3,536 yards, 39 touchdowns and three interceptions, Moore finished second in the nation in passing efficiency.

John Barnes, the longtime coach at Los Alamitos High in Orange County, Calif., has sent "five or six" kids to play for Boise State in the past few years, including Orlando Scandrick, now a three-year staple in the Dallas Cowboys' secondary.

"They do a good job of finding a really hungry kid that wasn't the highest-recruited guy but they see potential," Barnes said. "Once he's there, they totally sell them on the program. They look for a quality kid, a kid who will buy in, a kid who is looking to prove something. Every kid thinks they should be at SC or Notre Dame. That's true. They get the kid who is overlooked. They bring out the best in him. They really do."

Barnes said he has sent more than 100 players into college football. Some coaches, he said, make their players endure the sport rather than enjoy it.

"Their coaches make football enjoyable," Barnes said. "College football is not enjoyable in a lot of places. It is enjoyable there. They treat them good. They're not afraid of patting a guy on the back and telling him he's doing a good job and they're glad to see them, instead of cussing him and telling him what he can't do."

In the middle of practice one day last week, Petersen had the offense and defense lined up opposite each other for 20 yards. Between them, two players from each side engaged in wheelbarrow races. After three races run amid enormous shouting and cheering, the team went back to work.

Petersen, 45, has a master's degree in educational psychology. He reads the Harvard Business Review for tips on leadership. He just recommended "Team of Rivals," a 2005 study of President Abraham Lincoln, to Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops.

"It's such an unbelievable account of Abraham Lincoln's life and what a truly phenomenal leader and person he was," Petersen said. "I can't imagine the stress and turmoil he went through."

Petersen is driven to succeed, as is every other coach in a profession filled with psychotically competitive people. But he is able to step back. Petersen watched his 11-year-old son Sam endure a brain tumor as an infant and live to tell about it. That may be why Petersen is still in Boise and not at a traditional power.

Chris Petersen
Steve Conner/Icon SMIChris Petersen has lost just four games in his four seasons at Boise State.

"It's so hard in this football world that we live in to not get caught up in that type of stuff," Petersen said. "You start hearing about 'This guy going there,' and 'This guy got this job,' and 'This guy's making this much money.' And you start thinking, 'What about me?'

"There's not a place out there that I'm going, 'Wow, if that place opened up and I had a chance …. That's not me. But there could be something down the road where it all works. But I could also see myself staying here for as long as I coach. And I have no idea how long that is.

"You know, this is a hard job. It is a hard job, and people just have no idea. This is going to go on my fifth year. I always say that's 35 years, because coaching is dog years. There's no question. So I've been a head coach 35 years. That's a long time to coach."

No one has applied the concept of dog years to the Broncos' climb into national championship contention. They won a Fiesta Bowl at the end of the 2006 season, and they won a Fiesta Bowl last January, and they won a lot of games in between.

This fall, when Boise State opens against Virginia Tech, they will be seen as equals at kickoff. The Broncos haven't lost a regular-season game in the two years that Moore has started at quarterback. The fact that the "neutral" game with the Hokies is being played at FedEx Field, which is 2,400 miles from Boise and 290 miles from Blacksburg, is a burden shrugged off.

"We're just up in Boise, Idaho, doing our deal," Moore said. "… I think two years ago, we missed out on the BCS. Sometimes things don't work out. Life's not fair."

Moore chuckled as he said it.

"Last year we had that opportunity," he continued. "That's just kind of the way it works. The formula of college football right now, I think it just takes a couple of years. It isn't college basketball, where Butler can just kind of get on a streak. What [ex-BSU quarterback] Jared Zabransky did in 2006 is kind of helping us in 2010, in a way. I think just the tradition of Boise State has carried on."

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com