Boise State's rise is astonishing, but it didn't happen overnight
The father of Boise St. football, Lyle Smith, started with the program 64 years ago
The program has reached unbelievable heights under current coach Chris Petersen
If Boise St. can beat Virginia Tech tonight, national championship talk will pick up
BOISE, Idaho -- The father of Boise State football is leaning unsteadily on an overturned rubber trash barrel. Already this sunny morning, the temperature has climbed into the low 80s, heading toward hot. Lyle Smith is 94, and he tightly clutches a cane in his right hand to maintain his balance, but he's content, enjoying every moment of his regular visit to the Broncos' practice -- and marveling at the opportunity available to his boys.
"I have high hopes," Smith says -- and this could be the theme for the entire football program, throughout its history.
The latest, most implausible chapter begins tonight, when third-ranked Boise State meets No. 10 Virginia Tech in the most anticipated game of college football's opening weekend. If the Broncos win, we'll all point next to a date in three weeks on the famous blue turf with Oregon State. Win both, and the countdown to another unbeaten season will be on, and the argument will begin in earnest: Can Boise State become the ultimate BCS-buster? Could the Broncos really play for a national championship?
The question around college football, of course, will be whether they should. No reason to poll the people here, because there's no doubt as to their point of view. But even for the most fanatical Boise State supporters, the concept remains almost inconceivable.
That's especially true for Smith, who more than anyone has perspective on the program's sudden rise.
"I can't believe it," he says, "that they have come this far."
The Boise State story usually begins in the mid-1990s. It has been 14 years since the school with the blue field moved up from what was then NCAA's Division I-AA (now known as the Football Championship Subdivision) to I-A (Football Bowl Subdivision). Back then, the slogan that was more an inside joke was "Rose Bowl 2000." No one really expected it by 2000. Or really, ever.
But a few years later, the Broncos were playing in the Fiesta Bowl against college football titan Oklahoma, dominating most of the way, then winning late with a fantastic series of trick plays. The Broncos were cute, cuddly upstarts, a neat feel-good story. There was even the perfect subplot when running back Ian Johnson, just after scoring to win the game, dropped to a knee and proposed to his fiancée, a cheerleader.
"It was crazy," Boise State's junior tight end Kyle Efaw says.
Efaw grew up in town, with season tickets -- Section 121, high above "the blue" -- watching the program win hometown Humanitarian Bowls and thinking how cool it all was. But the Fiesta Bowl?
"I had never thought that would happen," he says.
Who did? And who would have believed, even then, that they'd be in position four years later to potentially win it all? Yeah, everything has changed in a hurry.
This might be college football's ultimate up-by-the-bootstraps story, which is appropriate, since Idaho is a place where they still know bootstraps. But where to begin? Four years ago? Fourteen?
That's when a 30-year-old coach from upstate Moscow, Idaho, arrived at Boise Junior College. The Methodist school's campus had 700 students and six buildings on the southern banks of the Boise River, right next to the town's airfield, which was best known as a stopover on the nation's first commercial airmail run a few years earlier. (These days, Bronco Stadium -- and Lyle Smith Field, and the famed blue carpet, and appropriately the place where the story has taken flight -- sits atop the old runway.)
The football field wasn't blue, but brown. The place was nothing but "a lot of sand and sagebrush," Smith recalls. The fledgling football program didn't have much of a presence in the capital city with a population of maybe 30,000.
The new assistant football coach's first trip to the barbershop, just across the river in downtown, revealed the program's lack of stature. When Smith explained why he'd moved to town, the barber wasn't familiar with the school, much less the football team.
"When the barber doesn't know what's going on, it isn't a very big deal," Smith says.
These days you can't go anywhere in the Treasure Valley without spotting BSU blue and orange and hearing people talk Broncos football. It wasn't that way even 15, 20 years ago. Which is why we need to introduce Travis Hawkes. Born and raised here, a Boise State fan back when it wasn't cool, he remembers crying after each loss to cross-state rival Idaho. The 34-year-old entrepreneur has ridden the Broncos' wave to personal success.
Four years ago this summer, Hawkes opened the Blue and Orange Store in a second-floor vacancy at Boise Towne Square, the area's largest mall. He already owned a successful sports apparel shop, selling licensed team gear for college and pro teams, but a store devoted solely to Boise State merchandise was a leap into the unknown.
The timing, however, was good. That fall under first-year head coach Chris Petersen, who'd been promoted when Dan Hawkins moved on to Colorado, the Broncos rolled to an unbeaten season. When they received a BCS berth in the Fiesta Bowl opposite Oklahoma, Hawkes' sales exploded.