Lyle Smith, the former Boise Junior College football coach and former Boise State athletic director for whom the Bronco Stadium field is named, made his usual stop at the Broncos’ football practice one afternoon in mid-December 2006. There he met members of the FOX broadcast crew, who decided to share his story with their national television audience.
Boise State already had invited Smith, then 90 years old, and his wife, Eleanore, to join the official travel party for the trip to Arizona and the Fiesta Bowl.
FOX flashed vintage photos of Smith on TV screens across America and declared him the “dean of Boise State football” just before the Broncos took the field. They also showed him watching the game several times during the telecast.
It was a rare moment in the spotlight for a humble man who left the coaching profession after the 1967 season and retired as the athletic director in 1981. Along the way, his leadership pushed the Broncos to the 1958 junior college national championship and the 1980 Division I-AA national championship and guided the Boise State athletic department smoothly from the junior college ranks to the NCAA.
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Smith had big dreams for the Broncos, but he never imagined anything like the Fiesta Bowl. “The past pales when we consider what’s going on now,” said Smith, who still lives in Boise. “But it’s been a privilege to have been a small part of the thing.”
Boise State’s rise from an upstart junior college to a national college football power was a 74-year journey packed with success.
“There’s just that winning persona in the program,” Boise State athletic director Gene Bleymaier said.
That persona has a name.
Smith arrived at Boise Junior College in 1946 as the basketball coach and assistant football coach. He took over the football program in 1947, a program that had posted six losing seasons in 10 years.
For the next 34 years — with Smith as the football coach, then as the athletic director — the Broncos never endured a losing football season.
The program jumped from junior college to NCAA Division II to Division I-AA. Bronco Stadium was built, rebuilt and expanded. Smith posted a 156-25-5 record in 20 seasons as the football coach. He hired the next two football coaches, and they combined for a 130-40-2 record. Even George Blankley, the assistant who replaced Smith for a year and a half, went 16-1.
“You talk about the football culture of a place, which is the attitude and the work ethic and the feelings about football, and certainly it all started with (Smith),” Boise State coach Chris Petersen said. “The other guys that have taken the reins since then have been able to hang onto that culture.”
Smith cultivated the toughness and blue-collar attitude that defines the program even today. He emphasized conditioning and hard-nosed football during an era when the forward pass was a trick play, and he did not tolerate any letdowns in effort.
“He expected you to be tough, to get hurt and get up and finish strong,” said Rich Urresti, a Boise businessman who played for Smith in 1962-63. “I learned that from him — how to finish strong.”
Urresti describes Smith as “stern but fair.” His conditioning drills chased off plenty of players and the practices were intensely physical, Urresti said, but the results validated the price.
“What he said, he meant,” Urresti said. “If you believed, you won, and if you didn’t believe, you didn’t play.”
If Smith was unhappy with a player’s performance in practice, he handed him dirty or battered equipment for practice the next day.
On the sideline, Smith’s displeasure sometimes resulted in a hat stomp or a clipboard toss — antics Smith says he rarely used.
“One time, I think it was against Taft, Calif., they fumbled, we fumbled, they fumbled, and we fumbled,” Smith said. “With that, my clipboard went into orbit. That damn clip, when it got up there at the peak, somehow it let go, and all those papers came loose. And here I am standing all alone, and the papers are coming down. I’ve never forgotten that. I hear people say it like it happened every day, but it happened once.”
Players say Smith’s emotions got the best of him more often than that. Bill Smith, Smith’s son and a two-way player for the Broncos in 1963-64, remembers his dad taking out his frustration on his trademark blue fedora.
“That poor old hat took a beating a few times,” Bill said.
Petersen expected to hear stories like that about Smith, whom he has grown to admire in his six-plus years at Boise State. Winning, Petersen knows, sometimes requires a sharp edge.
“He seems like the nicest guy you could ever be around, and I know that’s not the case to win as many games as he’s won,” Petersen said. “That’s not how it works. I’m sure he was, back in his day, very driven, very focused.”
Bill didn’t discover his dad’s competitiveness until he joined the Broncos football team. His dad didn’t bring football home with him, although he did push his three children to excel in school.
“If there was not a stack of books on the dining room table when he got home, you answered for that,” said Bill, who is the defensive line coach at Northern Arizona. “The idea of, ‘Hey, I didn’t have any homework’ didn’t cut it. He’d always ask, ‘Are you making straight A’s?’ The answer to that was always no. ‘Then you’ve got something to do,’ he’d say.”
Even when Smith made a brief stint as the Boise State baseball coach in the early 1970s, he knew how to push buttons.
“He was already a legend. His football history was well known at that time,” said Karl Benson, the Western Athletic Conference commissioner who played baseball at Boise State.
Smith recruited Benson from Spokane Falls Community College in Washington. When Benson arrived on campus, he marveled at the 70-degree weather in March.
“Is the weather like this all the time?” Benson asked.
“Typical March weather,” Smith replied.
That was enough to convince Benson.
“I can’t tell you how many times we had to shovel snow,” Benson said.
Smith gave Benson another taste of his quick wit.
Benson, a slow-footed runner, was on second base when a teammate got a hit to left field. Smith, coaching third base, waved him home. Halfway there, it became apparent that Benson was not going to make it.
“He’s out by 20 feet,” Smith said to the dugout.
Indeed, Benson was.
• • •
Smith was born in 1916 in Steptoe, Wash., a tiny town south of Spokane, and he grew up in the North Idaho town of Moscow. He was a standout on the football field and the basketball court, helping the Moscow High Bears win two basketball state titles.
He began his college career at the University of Idaho Southern Branch in Pocatello, a two-year school that grew to become Idaho State, then transferred back home to the University of Idaho in Moscow. He played football and basketball at both schools.
Smith earned a physical education degree from Idaho in 1939. He took a job as a football coach, basketball coach and physical education teacher at Moscow High in 1941 after a short stint in the car business.
“The call to get back into jock straps and T-shirts was too much,” he said.
He joined the military in 1942 after learning that the Navy needed physical education instructors to work with pilots and returned to Idaho in 1946. He wrapped up his master’s degree at Idaho and was ready to go back to Moscow High when Boise Junior College hired him as the assistant basketball coach.
Boise Junior College opened on Sept. 6, 1932, with fewer than 100 students and began playing intercollegiate football in 1933. The school was affiliated with the Episcopal Church and was located in Downtown Boise. A taxing district was created in 1939, and the city donated former airport land in 1940 for the campus at University and Broadway streets — the school’s current location.
“There were six buildings on campus when I got here,” Smith said.
His arrival coincided with a wave of potential football players returning upon the conclusion of World War II — and he proved an effective recruiter.
The Broncos were 2-4-2 in 1946 under Harry Jacoby. Smith went 28-0 in his first three seasons and won his first 39 games overall, starting in 1947. The Broncos won the 1949 Potato Bowl in Bakersfield, Calif., and fans met the team bus at the edge of town — the humble beginnings of Bronco Nation. Fans also held a ceremony honoring the team at the Capitol.
“We were lucky in getting some good kids,” Smith said. “They just kind of jelled and took off from there.”
The stadium in the 1940s, which featured bleachers that held about 1,000 people, was built in the same spot as the current Student Union Building. The Potato Bowl triumph prompted construction of a new 10,800-seat wooden stadium on the site of the current Bronco Stadium.
And the winning continued.
The Broncos earned a bid to the 1950 Junior Rose Bowl with a 9-0 record despite losing Smith to the Navy in the middle of the season. Smith, who coached the football team at the Navy base in San Diego during his second tour, watched from the stands as his Broncos lost to Long Beach City College in front of more than 47,000 fans in Pasadena, Calif. It was the team’s first loss since Smith became the coach.
Smith returned to Boise Junior College in 1952 and led the Broncos to a 59-6-1 record over the next seven seasons. He also earned a reputation as a coach players could count on for wins and parents could trust with their sons.
Athletes at the time received scholarships to pay for school. Smith helped them pay the rest of their bills by arranging part-time jobs. Many of them landed jobs driving school buses — with the football and basketball teams trading shifts to accommodate each other’s practice schedules.
Smith built his program by recruiting players in bunches from places like Vale, Ore., Hawaii, Kentucky and Oklahoma. Those players told their friends, opening pipelines.
“Lyle’s kind of like your dad,” said Dave Wilcox, who played at Boise Junior College in 1960 and 1961, is the only Bronco in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and is the father of Boise State defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox. “He’d take care of you. All the people around there knew that if you went to school at BJC on the football team, Lyle was going to take care of you and make sure you did things right. People trusted him a lot and deservedly so. He always did what he said he was going to do.”
The peak of the Broncos’ junior college era came in 1958, an undefeated season that wouldn’t be matched by a Bronco team for nearly 50 years — until the Fiesta Bowl win.
The Broncos rolled through that season, going 10-0 by outscoring opponents 411-67. The team was so deep that Smith rotated three entire units onto the field depending on the situation.
The single-wing offense, an old-time rushing attack that looked more like a rugby scrum than modern football, was unstoppable that year.
“We had some pretty crazy scores,” said Lenny Chow, who was a two-way lineman on the 1958 team. “… We ran, and we ran, and we ran some more.”
The Broncos qualified for the National Junior College Athletic Association championship game, which was in its third year, and were selected to host the game. They throttled Tyler (Texas) Junior College 22-0 in front of about 9,000 fans on Thanksgiving Day.
“We conked their quarterback pretty early,” Smith said. “It probably would have been tougher if we didn’t.”
• • •
Boise State athletics began its transition to the four-year university level in 1968. Smith stepped down as the football coach at the age of 51 and became the full-time athletic director. He hired his college teammate at the University of Idaho, Tony Knap, to run the football program.
“I thought if I stayed as the football coach, we would have stayed a junior college in people’s concept,” Smith said. “And I think I was right. … I knew (Knap) was a good football man.”
Knap installed a wide-open passing attack that quickly delivered results. His teams were 17-3 during two seasons (1968-1969) in limbo between the NAIA, a smaller athletic association, and the NCAA.
Boise State entered the NCAA Division II Big Sky Conference in 1970 and dominated that league with titles in 1973, 1974 and 1975. The Broncos reached the Division II playoff semifinals in 1973 behind star quarterback Jim McMillan, whose No. 12 is the only jersey retired by the school. McMillan was the Broncos’ alltime leading passer until the mid-1990s.
The Boise State-Idaho rivalry also began in the early 1970s. The schools met for the first time on Sept. 11, 1971, at Bronco Stadium. The Broncos won 42-14 in a game that featured a theme that has popped up during every stage of Boise State football success, right through the Fiesta Bowl.
“They pretty much looked down on us,” center John Klotz said of that first meeting with the Vandals. “They were still calling us Boise Junior College. We had a lot of players that got overlooked by Idaho. They called us too slow or too small.”
Boise State didn’t play second fiddle to Idaho for long.
Smith, who opened the concrete Bronco Stadium with 14,500 seats in 1970 and expanded it to 20,000 in 1974, got the most out of the athletic department — just as he had with his players.
“He could make a dollar go longer than anybody I ever knew,” Urresti said. “He could stretch a dollar from here to Caldwell. … He would buy 10 things where most people would buy two.”
• • •
Knap left after the 1975 season — he was 71-19-1 in eight years at Boise State — to take a job at Nevada-Las Vegas, but the Broncos’ winning ways continued.
Smith hired Jim Criner, who was an assistant under Dick Vermeil at UCLA.
Criner installed an I-formation offense that created the famed “Four Horsemen” backfield in 1979 and 1980 — quarterback Joe Aliotti and running backs Cedric Minter, Terry Zahner and David Hughes.
Those teams were highly motivated and supremely talented. The Broncos went 10-1 in 1979 despite three punishments handed down by the Big Sky in an illegal scouting scandal. The Broncos were ineligible to win the Big Sky or participate in the I-AA playoffs, and they could not use opponents’ game films to prepare.
“It kind of hurt at first,” Zahner said. “I don’t know what Criner said or did (to rally the team), but it was like us against the world, and we took it to heart and took no prisoners.”
That momentum, and a hunger for more, drove the Broncos into 1980. The team was loaded with players who had spent three or four years together building toward a shot at a championship.
In addition to the star-studded backfield, the 1980 team included defensive lineman Randy Trautman, a College Football Hall of Famer, and safety Rick Woods, a fourth-round NFL Draft pick.
“The one thing that stands out for me is the teamwork and the unselfishness,” Zahner said. “I was one of the so-called Four Horsemen, but I didn’t care if I had the ball, or if I was blocking, or if Ced was in and I was out. We wanted to win.”
The Broncos posted an 8-3 record to earn a spot in the national semifinals and a home date with powerful Grambling, the I-AA equivalent of Oklahoma, led by legendary coach Eddie Robinson.
“I really believe they had a more gifted athletic team than we did,” Zahner said. “I don’t think they came with a game plan, and I don’t think they had the heart we did. They were just cocky. … You talk about wanting to go out and kick some butt.”
The Broncos won 14-9 thanks largely to their defense and advanced to the title game in Sacramento, Calif., against Eastern Kentucky — another powerhouse program.
Boise State jumped out to a 14-10 halftime lead and a 24-16 edge in the second half and seemed in control. An interception and a blown coverage, however, led to a pair of Eastern Kentucky touchdowns that put the Broncos behind 29-24 with 55 seconds left.
Smith, who was the chairman of the I-AA football committee, began walking down from the press box to the stands through the Eastern Kentucky fans to present the trophy. He stopped to congratulate Eastern Kentucky’s athletic director.
“By the time I got to the bottom of the stairs,” Smith said, “we’d scored.”
Aliotti hit wide receiver Kipp Bedard with three straight passes to drive the Broncos from their own 20-yard line to the Eastern Kentucky 14 with 35 seconds left. After three straight incompletions, the Broncos faced fourth-and-10 with 20 seconds left.
Aliotti scrambled and found Duane Dlouhy in the end zone for the game-winning touchdown with 12 seconds left on the clock.
“Our team, we started something,” Dlouhy said, looking back in 2002, “and obviously it’s just gotten better and better.”
• • •
Smith retired from the athletic department in the summer of 1981 at 65. Twenty-six years later, he’s still a ubiquitous presence in the program. He’s a regular at booster luncheons and home games, and he occasionally stops by football practice for 30 minutes or so.
Smith barely recognizes the sport Petersen coaches. The players are bigger, stronger and faster. The schemes are far more complex. The coaching is highly specialized.
He watched in awe as the Broncos pulled out the hook-and-lateral, halfback pass and Statue of Liberty handoff to beat Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl.
“That had to be an experience I’ll take to the grave,” Smith said. “I still see the hook-and-ladder. And I still see that two-point conversion. I can’t figure that out yet. … I got such a charge out of it because I’m looking down there, and I can’t believe what I’m seeing.”
The growth in the Broncos program is just as difficult to fathom. Oklahoma was the nation’s most
powerful college football program in the 1950s, when Smith was stalking the sidelines in Boise. Five decades later, Boise State was better than the Sooners — at least for a day.
“For a person to have invested as much of their life in a place as Dad has and to see that culmination was phenomenal,” said Bill Smith, who sat with his dad at the Fiesta Bowl. “… It would be as if Dixie State College in St. George, Utah, 50 years from now plays (Southern California) and beats them in a bowl game. That’s the evolution that’s occurred. It’s a remarkable, remarkable feat.”
Smith turned 91 on March 17, 2007. Former players took him out for dinner that night — a sign of the respect still attached to the man who set Boise State football on the path to greatness. Coaches usually take a moment during his visits to practice to shake Smith’s hand and chat with him.
Smith appreciates how his successors have advanced the program. They appreciate his role in building a winning foundation.
“People outside of Boise and this university, I don’t think they really know and appreciate the things that have gone on here,” Petersen said. “It hasn’t been on that Fiesta Bowl-type stage, but … if you look at the span of Boise State football, it’s truly amazing.”
Nobody seems capable of pinpointing the reasons the Broncos have enjoyed such success over the years. It is a football town with a blue-collar mentality, but those traits can be found in towns all over the country.
Smith, who has witnessed every bit of the Broncos’ success, has just one explanation for why the program has succeeded at every level and avoided any sustained downturn since the 1930s and early 1940s.
“The winning spirit, the winning idea,” he said, “it’s contagious.”
And the contagion, everyone knows, was Smith — not that he will say it.
“Lyle means everything to this program,” Bleymaier said. “He’s the perfect ambassador for this program. He’s such a gentleman, the epitome of class. He’s everything this program strives to be.”