Boise State's Chris Petersen eyeing BCS bowl, not destination job
Boise State has grown used to coaches using the program as a stepping stone
Yet even after amassing a 35-4 record, Chris Petersen isn't looking to leave
Petersen sees Boise as an ideal place to live and team with limitless potential
BOISE, Idaho -- The message on the marquee, there at Buster's on Broadway, was simple enough: "Houston, free ribs for life if you stay."
And after Houston Nutt skipped town, so did Dirk Koetter and Dan Hawkins. Even as Boise State football evolved from that team with the funky field into a BCS-buster, few here developed any illusions. They remained resigned, knowing despite Boise's fantastic livability ratings, an ultra-loyal fan base and an ever-expanding horizons, the job remained a steppingstone.
Until now, that is. Until Chris Petersen.
Under Petersen, the Broncos have reached new heights. It started with that Fiesta Bowl win over Oklahoma and continued as the Broncos marched to a 35-4 record in Petersen's three years (including two undefeated regular seasons). If they can get by Oregon tonight -- no easy task, but the Ducks are playing on the famed blue turf, where the Broncos have gone 64-2 since 1999 -- many think they're on their way to more perfection, and another BCS bowl appearance.
So it's no surprise Petersen, 44, has popped up on the wish list of every athletic director in charge of a football problem. What amazes people, though, is the charismatic coach who made his name with the hook-and-ladder shows no inclination to climb the ladder.
"I just know it's a good place," Petersen said of Boise. "We still see tremendous potential in this setup here, without question. (Hawkins) used to say, 'If they can do unbelievable things in Tallahassee, Fla., or Lincoln, Neb., why can't we do those things here?'
"I kind of think the same things."
Yeah, you've heard this before. Every up-and-comer talks about how he loves it here, about what the program can accomplish. Next thing you know, he's wearing different colors, talking about how excited he is to be in this new, bigger, better place and about how much more this program can achieve.
Boise State fans know the drill. Nutt left town after one season -- a couple of days after the free ribs were offered -- calling Arkansas his dream job. Koetter left for Arizona State, and Hawkins is trying to do unbelievable things at Colorado. Could "Coach 'Pete'" be far behind?
Maybe not. "We think we've got our man," said longtime booster Milford Terrell, a former president of the Bronco Athletic Association (and current member of the Idaho State Board of Education).
Petersen has already turned away several interested suitors. Last December, rumors linked him to openings at Washington and Mississippi State. Heck, people in Oregon are excited about rookie head coach Chip Kelly, but until he emerged they figured Petersen was the most likely choice to succeed Mike Bellotti.
Whether Petersen would have returned to Eugene, where he worked as receivers coach from 1995-2000, is a moot point, of course, because the job never opened. Still, something feels different.
"Chris is a little bit of a different animal in that regard," said Bellotti, now Oregon's athletic director. "He's not driven to be a head coach at whatever people might consider to be a major university."
It's hard to explain exactly why. Unless you know the back story, which begins 10 years ago when Petersen was at Oregon, with a bump turned into much more than a bruise.
Petersen's son Sam had just turned 1, an apparently healthy toddler playing with his older brother in the stands during a preseason scrimmage. But when he fell and hit his head, a routine examination revealed a nightmare. Sam had a brain tumor. And though it was successfully removed during an eight-hour surgery, doctors soon discovered the cancer had spread to Sam's spine.
As football season unfolded, Chris Petersen somehow balanced the 80-hour work weeks and family life. His wife, Barbara Petersen, spent a full month living at the hospital with young Sam. Chris divided his time between Eugene and Portland, 100 miles away, where his young son was undergoing treatment.
"I can't imagine going through what he did, working eight to five," said Oregon assistant Tom Osborne, one of Petersen's closest friends. "Let alone going through all of that. I don't have any idea how he did it."
No one's sure. But when Osborne says Petersen isn't the typical coach -- "It's usually ego-driven, but Chris doesn't have an ego," he said -- it begins to make more sense, and to sound like more than idle chatter.
But you're wondering about young Sam Petersen. The family celebrated his 11th birthday earlier this summer. He's healthy, a frequent presence around Bronco Stadium -- "Really into football, and the Broncos," Chris said -- and a constant reminder of why his father doesn't seem very interested in uprooting for the next big thing.
"Certain things happen," Hawkins said, "that add urgency and perspective."
Hawkins should know. He lured Petersen from Eugene to Boise to serve as offensive coordinator, but it wasn't easy. It took an unusual promise: an essentially local recruiting territory. Idaho doesn't produce many BCS-caliber football players; the Broncos scour the nation to find the 'tweeners and sleepers who make up the roster. But Hawkins promised Petersen he would only need to travel to recruit the occasional quarterback. Otherwise, Idaho was his territory.
"It definitely helped that I wouldn't have to be away as much, for sure," Petersen said.
It also helped that Boise ranks high in various livability indexes. Yeah, it sounds like a Chamber of Commerce brochure, but if you've ever visited, you understand why people relocate, and then gush about the Treasure Valley.
"It's a great place, a really great place to live," Hawkins said. "Great people, a lot of things to do, pretty good weather."
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