Chris Petersen leaves Boise State quickly, quietly

In eight seasons as head football coach, the Broncos’ leader carried the program to unprecedented heights, including two Fiesta Bowl wins

sports@idahostatesman.comDecember 7, 2013 

— One of the most charming eras in college football history — one that introduced Boise and its university to the world — came to a sudden end Friday morning.

Boise State coach Chris Petersen, courted for years by bigger programs with more prestige and fatter wallets, accepted an offer to become the coach at the University of Washington in Seattle.

“All the rumors and it’s finally happened,” senior punter Trevor Harman said. “It’s sad, it really is.”

Petersen exits Boise State with a 92-12 record in eight seasons — an 88.5 winning percentage that would be a national record if he had the 10 years of experience needed to qualify.

He led the Broncos to five conference championships, five bowl victories, three undefeated regular seasons and four top 10 seasons.

He also turned himself, his program, his city and his team’s funky blue turf into national media darlings.

“He has been Boise’s greatest ambassador,” Mayor Dave Bieter said.

Petersen’s departure was a major news event with few details. None of the key figures — Petersen, Boise State school officials, Washington school officials — spoke to the media Friday, and Petersen did not even issue a statement.

The coach is scheduled to meet the Seattle media Monday and likely will speak to the Boise-area media sometime after that.

Petersen, 49, met with Washington Athletic Director Scott Woodward at a Boise hotel for about 90 minutes late Thursday night. He agreed to terms of a deal but asked to go home, speak to his wife, Barb, and sleep on the offer, according to a story posted on the Huskies’ official website.

Petersen called to accept the job Friday morning and met with the Broncos. He will not coach BSU in its bowl game.

“Coach Petersen’s success and record are extraordinary, but even more impressive is the man himself,” Woodward said in a statement. “His integrity, work ethic and character make him an outstanding fit and leader of our student-athletes at UW. We are thrilled and proud to call Coach Petersen a Husky.”

The sentiment was reversed in Boise — more shock and sadness — but the words were similar.

The characteristics that made Petersen so appealing to Washington — and to many other schools, including USC earlier this week — are the same ones that made him so popular with players, boosters, fans and others in the Boise community.

“I really was shocked,” said Torene Bonner, the CEO of Make-A-Wish Idaho, which partnered with the Petersen family to bring three children to the blue turf for their wishes in the past four years. “It’s going to be a big loss for the whole entire community. All the kids (with wishes) were from elsewhere, who wanted to come to Boise. That reputation of the football team really transcends our community and really reaches out to the entire U.S.”

The Petersen era

Petersen took over a Boise State program on the rise. The Broncos won conference titles in 1999 and 2000 in the Big West, and Petersen arrived as offensive coordinator under Dan Hawkins when the program moved to the WAC in 2001.

Hawkins and Petersen led the team to four straight conference titles and a 53-11 record.

After Hawkins left, Petersen and the staff he assembled in 2006 transformed the Broncos from dominant in the low-profile WAC to fringe contenders for the national championship.

In addition to the two Fiesta Bowls, they came close to appearing in four more Bowl Championship Series games. They were left out because of Utah’s higher ranking in 2008, an overtime loss at Nevada in 2010, a late collapse against TCU in 2011, and a special teams meltdown in 2012 against San Diego State.

Under Petersen, the Broncos were 8-6 against ranked opponents (2-8 previously) and 9-3 against teams from the power conferences (2-16 previously).

“Everything was in place,” said quarterback Jared Zabransky, the starter from 2004 to 2006. “(Petersen) was the last piece of the puzzle.”

Petersen was known for his tactics on offense but his lasting imprint was in other areas. Rival coaches said the difference between the Hawkins Broncos and the Petersen Broncos was the defense. And players appreciated the heavy emphasis on character, which led to a dizzying number of suspensions and some of the best academic results in the country.

Of the 16 seniors on the Broncos’ current roster, 15 will have their degrees by the end of the month. The other — an electrical engineering major — needs one more semester.

Boise State has ranked second in the nation in the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate each of the past two years.

“I know his big thing is accountability,” said former cornerback Brandyn Thompson (2007-10). “And after you leave the program, you really see that. It’s been instilled in you so much you almost get frustrated when you don’t see it in other people.”

Petersen’s low-ego approach was a hit in the locker room, on the recruiting trail and in the community. He was insulated by design — limited media and booster functions — but was gracious, even when confronted by someone wanting a photo or an autograph.

When Kuna High football player Boone Bartlome broke his neck in a playoff game earlier this season, Petersen went to visit him in the hospital. His players stood and applauded on the field days later when Bartlome was honored during a break in a BSU game.

“He’s such a great leader,” Boise State men’s basketball coach Leon Rice said. “That’s what I was always so impressed by.”

Petersen stayed at Boise State so long that he defied comparison in college football. Successful coaches outside of the power conferences don’t stay — they cash in.

On to Washington

“I didn’t think Coach Pete would ever leave, but I can completely understand,” Thompson said. “Just from a business standpoint, how many times can you turn down almost triple your salary?”

Petersen’s raise won’t be at that level, but it will be significant. He was scheduled to make $2.348 million in 2014 — a 369.6 percent increase over his original salary in 2006.

Washington offered to make him the highest-paid coach in the rich Pac-12 Conference, according to CBSSports.com. The contract is for five years and $18 million ($3.6 million a year), the website reported.

Petersen also will have at his disposal a new stadium and football facility that he got a look at when the Broncos lost their season opener 38-6 in Seattle, and a talent-rich roster recruited by Steve Sarkisian, who opened the door for Petersen by taking the USC job.

Plus, until falling on hard times the past decade, Washington was one of the top football schools in the West.

“I’m from Washington, so I’m excited for him,” said former Boise State quarterback Kellen Moore (2007-11). “I think it’s scary, the potential there, with what they have and now with Coach Pete. They have a lot of talent, new facilities, and now they have such a great leader with him.”

The potential at Washington long had intrigued Petersen, former Oregon coach Mike Bellotti told The Seattle Times. Petersen worked for Bellotti at Oregon and remains close to him.

The Huskies, who will open the 2015 season at Bronco Stadium unless they pay a $2 million buyout to avoid a Petersen homecoming, climbed from winless the year before Sarkisian took over (2008) to 8-4 this year.

“(Petersen) had let me know years ago, five to seven years ago, that the Washington job was one that definitely held interest for him,” Bellotti said. “Just the combination of recognition that maybe they could be better, in his estimation, (and) that they had the resources and facilities to regain the level that they had played at in the early ’90s.”

Next for BSU

The challenge for Boise State is to build upon Petersen’s success.

The last two hires came from the existing coaching staff. This one, former players say, should come from the Petersen coaching tree.

“I know Boise has been up-and-coming for years and years, even before Pete got there,” former defensive back Winston Venable (2009-10) said. “But they’re definitely losing a team leader — the leader — and it’s going to be a tough loss for Boise. Somebody’s going to step in there and they’re going to know they have some big shoes to fill, and because of that they’ll give their best effort and bring whatever they have to the table and Boise will be all right.

“I think Coach Pete laid down a foundation for Boise and the Boise players. They’ll have that in their heart going through the rest of their four years. All the kids that the coaches recruited, they’ll have a little bit of Coach Petersen in them, and they’ll be all right.”

Chadd Cripe: 377-6398, Twitter: @IDS_BroncoBeat

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