BOISE – From 1993 to 2001, the Nebraska Cornhuskers went 102-12 (89.4 winning percentage) and won three national championships.
With diverse formations, some pro-style, Nebraska used impeccable execution and overwhelming offensive line size and power to jam big backs down opponents throats. It complemented a downhill running game with speedy option quarterbacks. Contrary to popular perception at the time, its long-time and an all-time great coach Tom Osborne claimed that he’d run the option – which is what the Cornhuskers were known for and was a prominent offense of the era — 25-30 times a game.
To the consternation of most diehards, Boise State’s run will always be remembered by its trick plays, like the Huskers were for the option.
According to Hailvarsity.com, the Cornhuskers didn’t have a top five recruiting class in those nine years, and had six that were 15th or worse.
It’s a far cry from the Alabama or Miami dynasties, which were launched and kept in motion with yearly top five classes, making Nebraska the most unique college football dynasty of the last few decades.
While the Cornhuskers were in the annual running for the best recruits, they often failed to convince them to come to the farm and prairie lands of Lincoln, instead relying on second and third tier players, many of whom (like Tom Rathman) had been overlooked by other elite programs.
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Sound familiar yet?
Osborne was a coach similar in demeanor and philosophy to the departed Chris Petersen.
Both are well read in psychology (Osborne has a doctorate degree in educational psychology, Petersen a master’s degree in education). Both had progressive coaching styles, emphasizing team chemistry over authoritarian boot camp discipline.
Osborne, like Petersen later, had system, recruiting and player development niches that gave his team a competitive advantage unmatched for years in the Big 8/Big 12, the kind that could beat the superior speed of teams on both coasts.
Programs across the country, likely through improved strength and conditioning programs, recruited and developed players that had both the power and speed to physically match up with Nebraska.
In an attempt to stay ahead of the changing football landscape, Bill Callahan was hired away from the Oakland Raiders in 2004, where he had built a dominant offense using the best pass blockers in the game, and infamously changed Nebraska’s offense to resemble and mimic an NFL team under the same premise.
It failed. Heads rolled.
In 2004 and 2005, Memorial Stadium resembled the death throes of the Aztec empire, a sea of red indeed, as the previously spoiled Cornhuskers fan base became soiled by their own blood lust.
Fans, developed and nurtured over generations, remain myopic about the Cornhuskers future.
And while they’ve been competitive since, the Cornhuskers have never returned to their previous dominance. Because of geographical constraints, they never will, at least not for anything close to a decade.
From 2002 to 2012, Boise State compiled a 129-15 (89.5 winning percentage) record, went undefeated twice and won two Fiesta Bowls. Petersen, like Osborne, was the offensive mastermind of the dynasty, both as head coach and offensive coordinator, implementing a culture that every coach since has tried to maintain, emulate or rebuild.
Under Petersen, Boise State discovered and utilized niches in three facets: system, player development and recruiting.
After a disappointing 2012 season on offense, after which one of the reputedly smartest college quarterbacks of the last decade graduated, Petersen changed his offense, an attempt at modernization through simplification, removing most of the things that made Boise State great under his watch.
It worked to an extent, but largely because Boise State still had superior athletes than its peers in the conference. When matched up against equal or better athletes like those of Washington, BYU and Oregon State, the Broncos offense was overwhelmed at times, unable to surprise superior foes like they had much of the previous decade.
Times have changed. Not the speed of athletes, but the speed of information and analysis. Programs are smarter, more self-aware, and while there’s greater divide between the haves and have-nots, parity within conferences is ever-increasing.
Resource-deficient Mountain West schools have embraced more realistic identities in a hope to maximize their positions. San Diego State’s gritty, ball-control approach has worked under Rocky Long the last four years. Wyoming appears headed in the same direction under the decorated, old-school Craig Bohl. Option teams like New Mexico or Air Force can seemingly surprise any given year. Should passing teams like Fresno State and San Jose State find the right quarterback/receiver combination, dominant seasons are possible. Programs like Colorado State and Utah State aren’t that far behind Boise State and gaining, fielding the combination of stability, inspiring coaches and recent success, all of which typically lead to long-term gains in recruiting.
The brand equity Petersen helped build over years still pays today in dividends of perception, which has created a middle-term resource advantage (sweetheart television deal).
But why did Petersen choose 2014 to leave? Every coach’s message gets stale over time, so the thinking goes, and Petersen cited a nondescript need for change. But his lack of public insight is most revealing.
Maybe he saw the writing on the wall, a wall most fans deny exists, and one into which Boise State will eventually run, perhaps soon.
The marketing campaign under first-year head coach Bryan Harsin was genius: part homage to the feel-good times, part a step into the future, the kind Petersen was unwilling to make. It paid respect to the golden days while subtly acknowledging the program’s (perhaps self-imposed) shortcomings under Petersen, like his unwillingness to partake in fan engagement and implement a broader, modern recruiting approach — anyone, anywhere.
But as Boise State fans will soon find out, embrace the past is more marketing than reality.
The Broncos aren’t going back to the offense of old; that too had a shelf life and was bound by circumstances (like a genius quarterback), as Petersen knew. Instead, they will run a hodgepodge of concepts, according to reports, gleaning the knowledge from a young, diverse and enthusiastic coaching staff.
If it works, it will appear brilliant at first, malleable to opponent and quarterback. If it doesn’t, offensive coordinator Mike Sanford and Harsin will appear uncommitted, indecisive and weak-willed.
Either way, it’s not a long-term plan, as it lacks a coherent identity from which to build. If it sputters, the natives will get restless.
The only effective long-term strategy for maintaining dominance is recruiting via coach/program brand and access to the country’s elite athletes, creating a virtuous cycle of success, a feedback Boise State was once in under Petersen.
But location created a limit. Petersen left because he couldn’t land the same recruits in Idaho that he can in Washington, where the potential for a perpetual dominance exists.
Boise State fans concern themselves with their team eventually making the expanded cut into the power five, but it’s a pipe dream, as most are unable to corral even a few friends and relatives to fill a 30,000 seat stadium every other weekend — an embarrassment for any big-time program.
In reality, Broncos fans should be looking in the rearview mirror, frantic over its ability maintain lead-position among the mid-majors.
But given the dismissive attitudes towards Utah State over the offseason, for example, there’s a substantial gap between perception and reality which typically indicates the one true test of fanhood is on the horizon.
When dreams are crushed and truth comes crashing down, how does it handle adversity? Boise State fans have never really encountered that. If the fan base’s immediate resentment and historical revisionism of Petersen’s tenure is any indication, hard times are ahead.
Unlike Nebraska, Boise State lacks the backbone of long-time, grandfather-father-son fan support to have staying power as the rest of the conference eventually rises around it.
The elements of Boise State fandom: novelty, indignation towards hierarchy, and the underdog hero narrative will soon all vanish, just as the advantages its program once had.
What then is left?
Tom Osborne’s specter looms over Lincoln, as he’s transitioned from Athletic Director to Athletic Director Emeritus — a ghost that’s never died, and his presence a melancholy reminder of the juxtaposition between old glory and current reality.
Chris Petersen could be Boise State’s poltergeist, having stolen away its soul in the dark of night after a surprise flight from UW administrators into Boise, whence it was taken back above the thick forests of Washington into Seattle. Geographically close, but in every meaningful way far away and unattainable.
The obsessed-with-details Petersen, his fingerprints still on every adornment in the Broncos facility, his persona a holograph hovering over Albertsons Stadium, his success a day’s drive away — it may all add up to a haunting reminder of both what Boise State can’t be in the future, and what it will never relive.