Chris Petersen’s annual summer vacation in McCall was at least a week shorter this year, friend Scott Butterfield said.
“I know it was because of the game,” Butterfield said.
That game — the 2015 season opener featuring Petersen’s former players on the Boise State football team and his current players at Washington — has been widely described as awkward and emotional, an unpredictable mixture that has drawn national media attention and a summer of questions about the unique contest.
The man who was the face of Boise State for eight years and transformed the Broncos from a regional success to a program of national prominence will walk out of the dingy visitor’s locker room Friday night at Albertsons Stadium, not the posh football complex built to keep him in town. He’ll wear purple and gold and stalk the foreign west sideline.
Twenty of the 22 expected starters for the Broncos were recruited to Boise by Petersen, the coach with low-key charisma who is renowned for his determination to build men as much as football players.
In all, 49 current Broncos were on the roster while Petersen was the coach.
And he’ll bring with him to the blue turf a coaching staff primarily made up of former BSU assistants.
“There’s a good portion of the team that’s connected to that coaching staff,” Boise State senior safety Darian Thompson said. “They’re the reason why we came to Boise State. If anything, it’s going to fuel the fire to want to go out there and win — especially at home in front of our crowd.
“It’s a regular game, as far as you’re either going to get a point in the win column or the loss column, but when it comes to the emotional side of it, I think there’s a little more added there.”
Petersen left the Broncos in December 2013 and hasn’t seen many of the players since. He struggled to deliver the news that he was leaving, Thompson said.
“He couldn’t really say much,” he said.
The difficulty of that sudden departure was exacerbated by a game that had been on the schedule for three years: the 2015 opener between Petersen’s old and new teams.
He reached out to last year’s seniors before the Fiesta Bowl but refrained from contacting returning players. He has seen some — he bumped into defensive end Sam McCaskill during a family dinner at the Fiesta Bowl and lives in the same neighborhood as center Marcus Henry’s family in Bellevue, Wash.
Petersen hopes to rebuild those relationships after this game ends.
“I would definitely have reached out to all those guys,” he said during an interview with the Idaho Statesman this spring in his Seattle office overlooking Husky Stadium and Lake Washington. “When you leave, it’s so weird and awkward, and then you don’t really follow up at all. And the reason you don’t follow up is you play them. That’s weird. ... This is why we coach, to have lifelong connections and bonds with those kids.”
Players often cited Petersen as a key reason that they chose Boise State. His sincerity, broad-based program and success wooed parents and inspired prospects.
When assistant coaches left, recruits kept their commitments because of Petersen.
“Chris Petersen is a one-of-a-kind guy,” Henry said.
Said McCaskill: “He made a big point of talking about what a real man is and taught me a lot of life lessons I’ll always take with me. He’s really been a big role model for me.”
Petersen arrived at Boise State in 2001 as the offensive coordinator under Dan Hawkins, and he built one of the nation’s most productive and creative attacks. Despite some reservations about what the job entailed, he succeeded his boss when Hawkins left for Colorado after the 2005 season.
Over the next eight seasons, Petersen posted a 92-12 record during one of the most successful tenures in college football history. He led the Broncos to two Fiesta Bowl victories and five conference championships while winning three national coach of the year awards.
And repeatedly, he rejected overtures from schools with fatter wallets and larger fan bases to raise his two sons in family-friendly Boise.
“We didn’t really see it coming,” Thompson said.
Rumblings persisted during the 2013 season, during which the Broncos struggled to an 8-5 record, that Petersen seemed less energetic. He decided to pursue a new challenge when the Washington job opened — he flirted with USC, too — but said he wasn’t searching for one.
Butterfield sensed something was off during that season. He and Petersen became friends in 2001 and played golf together during their summer vacations in McCall.
“He just seemed worn out,” said Butterfield, a regional manager for Lamar Advertising and Boise resident. “I guess I was like everybody — I was shocked that he left, but I think it was all about a new challenge and a new journey.”
On his way out, Petersen told the Broncos in his final address that they needed a change, too. They would be better off, he told them. He knew who the candidates to replace him would be and expected the hire to inject some “new juice” into the program. Bryan Harsin, a former Boise State quarterback who was Petersen’s offensive coordinator for five years, got the job.
Petersen’s message, combined with the lessons he taught the players previously about the need to buy into a program and handle adversity, helped the team’s leaders guide a young roster through a trying month.
“He taught us to be a man day in, day out, so when adversity strikes like that we’re all prepared for it,” Thompson said. “Leaders like myself, Marcus (Henry), other leaders on the team, kept everybody sane and focused on the next year coming up.”
Petersen watched with pride from afar as that galvanized roster rolled to nine straight victories last season, won another Fiesta Bowl and extended the program’s streak to 13 years of appearing in the Top 25 (now 14).
“We’ve followed them,” Petersen said. “We see those kids. You’re like, ‘We knew that guy was going to be good.’ You could feel it. You knew when you recruited them.”
And now Petersen will try to beat those players with a Washington team that is somewhat reminiscent of the 2013 BSU team: young but talented, and opening with a contest in which the other team holds a significant emotional edge.
In 2013, Washington celebrated the reopening of Husky Stadium by crushing Boise State 38-6 in a rematch of the Broncos’ bowl win the previous season.
In 2015, the Broncos likely will play in front of the largest crowd in stadium history with something to prove to their old coach.
“It will be emotional — I know that,” Harsin said. “... I don’t think it’s just another game. If you said that, you’d just be talking. It’s not just another game. It’s at home. It’s against a team that we’ve played in the past and against the former head coach and staff members who sat in their homes and recruited these guys, who had ... personal talks. They know each other. It is different.”
The ties extend to the coaching staffs, too. Some of the coaches on opposite sides are close friends who worked together for as long as a decade. That’s easier to handle, they say, because coaches are accustomed to facing their friends.
The coaches have maintained their friendships and even worked the same camp in Utah during the offseason, with hugs all around, Harsin said.
“You talk about everything other than football,” said Washington defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski, who was on Petersen’s staff at Boise State from 2006 to 2013. “... It’s a competitive game so we’re going to compete and have fun with it, but yeah, I’m going to be happy when that game is over.”
The Washington assistants also have stayed in touch with their former players. Thompson spoke to Washington running backs coach Keith Bhonapha as recently as July before deciding it was time to stop. Bhonapha recruited him to Boise.
“As it gets closer, it gets more awkward,” Thompson said in late July.
No one will experience that awkwardness quite like Petersen. He brought those 49 players to Boise but didn’t stay long enough to see them blossom.
The Broncos, unlike many teams that lose coaches, have said little since he left that could be interpreted as negative. At most, they’ve said they enjoy Harsin’s energy — the element Petersen told them they needed.
But for this reunion to happen in a high-stakes football game in front of more than 36,000 people isn’t ideal for anyone.
“After spending three or four years with those guys, we miss them,” senior tight end Jake Hardee said. “They were a big part of our lives here and us developing as players. It will be good to see those guys.”
The nation will be watching on ESPN to see the reception Petersen receives from his former players and, as Thompson put it, “the fans who used to love him.”
But it might not be easy to tell.
This isn’t baseball or basketball, where introductions are part of the production. There isn’t an obvious moment for Boise State to recognize Petersen.
“Which is exactly how I’d like it,” said Petersen, whose wife and two children are expected to attend the game. “How do you be the head coach and just blend in? That’s what I really want to do.”
He certainly won’t be able to do that Friday night.
He couldn’t do it during his getaway to McCall, either — not in a town full of Broncos eager for the most anticipated home game in school history.
“He seemed relaxed and he seemed confident,” Butterfield said, “but you can tell, being up there and being around all the Bronco people this summer, he was just not looking forward to coming back. ... It’s really going to be hard for him.”