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Bronco football played a key role in Boise State’s academic and research success

Football season is off and running. While most fans are focused on the week-to-week analysis of wins, losses, new talent on the field and bowl possibilities down the road, for me it’s a reminder of how Boise State football played a leading role in the transformation of Boise State in recent years.

No matter how you size up the exposure of the football team and the university over the years, they all pale in comparison to the night Boise State took the national stage before millions of viewers and a packed house at the Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Arizona, on Jan. 1, 2007, to compete in what has been described as the best college football game ever played. To this day, strangers I meet in airports with no connection to Boise State reminisce about the three trick plays that won the game.

On our way into the stadium that day with my 7-year-old grandson, an Oklahoma fan leaned into my ear and suggested I not take the youngster into the drubbing his Sooners were about to give the Broncos. The more authoritative oddsmakers had the same take on the game. Then I endured a pre-game meeting on the field with the Oklahoma president who acted as though the Almighty has destined an Oklahoma win and showing up at the Fiesta Bowl was just another day at the office.

To add insult to injury, the Oklahoma marching band appeared to have enlisted half the state’s population that engulfed most of the field. Boise State’s band at the time was much smaller in size and served as yet another reminder of the Goliath the Broncos faced from all directions.

Truth be told, all signs pointed in the direction of an Oklahoma win, until I made my way back to my seat through the innards of the stadium and found myself outside the locker room where Coach Chris Petersen was giving the team his last-minute motivational speech before taking the field. I heard the coach speak often, before and after games and on the lunch and dinner circuit. But never had I heard the coach with such “colorful” and fiery language you wouldn’t hear in church, as he reminded his players how Oklahoma fans, coaches, players all dismissed Boise State as an unworthy opponent that interfered with their New Years’ holiday.

“Who knows”, I thought, “maybe we can pull this off? These guys are honked!”

And pull it off we did, in grand fashion that put Boise State on the map and challenged the conventional wisdom that only the traditional powerhouse programs deserved a place on the field in the big bowl games.

Meanwhile, back at my office, over 200 emails arrived from around the nation, complimenting Boise State on blasting through a rigged system by the major conferences to keep mid-major programs at bay.

But there was another dimension to the win over Oklahoma that may have gone unnoticed were it not for those emails from football fans. They were coming from fans of Texas, Nebraska and other Big 10 and PAC 12 schools who were congratulating Boise State for arriving at its new exalted status. These were fans of successful football programs, but they were also fans of the academic and research reputations these schools built.

Why couldn’t Boise State attract more students from across Idaho and the West as these schools had done? Why couldn’t Boise State build a reputation for academic and research success to match the football team’s reputation? Why couldn’t Boise State copy the trick play mentality of the football program to ignite innovative and creative thinking around academic programming?

The timing was perfect to take the university’s academic and research success to that national stage that welcomed and celebrated our football program.

Boise State’s recruiters hit the ground running as they showed up at the same high schools our Fiesta Bowl-winning athletes attended and signed their academic all-stars. The Honors College grew both in size and the quality of its programming, which enabled recruiters to sign outstanding high school scholars.

Faculty recruited talented professors and researchers interested in expanding the university’s research portfolio, and they would be rewarded with doctoral research designation by the Carnegie Foundation. Thanks to faculty leadership, the core curriculum every student takes, the University Foundations program, was redesigned and improved.

Donors, many of them traditional donors to athletics, stepped up and expanded their giving to academic programs and the university’s aggressive building program.

The football team would chalk up two more Fiesta Bowl wins after the 2007 win. Take those three Fiesta Bowls out of Boise State’s recent climb to academic and research success and the Boise State of today might look quite different.

Once the faculty and staff of Boise State capitalized on the national acclaim football success delivered, they created their own strategies for how to achieve doctoral and research success and how to attract the finest students to the university.

The innovative spirit and drive that fueled Boise State’s three Fiesta Bowl victories and sparked new thinking across the campus can be seen in every classroom, lab and office. The football program played a key role in getting Boise State to where it is today.

Bob Kustra served as president of Boise State University from 2003 to 2018. He is host of Readers Corner on Boise State Public Radio and is a member of the Statesman editorial board.
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