The first time Chris Petersen sees his former Boise State football players since he told them he was leaving to coach at Washington likely will be on the blue turf shortly before he tries to spoil the most anticipated night in Albertsons Stadium history.
He hasn't even talked to them in those 20 months.
That disruption of years-long relationships is the worst part of what will be an emotional game for Petersen, his assistant coaches and the Broncos' players on Sept. 4. Petersen spoke to the seniors on last year's team at the end of the season but not the returning players.
"Had we not played them, I probably would have talked to them and that's probably the weirdest thing," Petersen said in an interview with the Idaho Statesman this spring. "But just out of respect for everybody, it's not appropriate for me to do that. ... They'll get that later.
"I would definitely have reached out to all those guys. 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."
Petersen was the Broncos' offensive coordinator from 2001 to 2005 and head coach from 2006 to 2013, guiding the program to national prominence and two Fiesta Bowl victories.
Some of the seniors on this year's team were recruited in the spring and summer of 2010, so they built a relationship with Petersen and his assistants over more than three years. Many of the assistants who recruited them are on Petersen's staff at Washington.
Senior safety Darian Thompson remembers how difficult Petersen's final team meeting was for the coach.
"He was very emotional," Thompson said. "You could tell it was a hard thing for him to do to leave, not only because of the success he's had but because of the relationships he built with the players. He was emotional. He couldn't really say that much."
Petersen said he isn't sure whether he'll greet the Broncos' players before or after the game.
"I don't even have a plan," he said. "For us, we're going to keep this thing very much in perspective. ... I just think about us. I just think about getting our team better. And that's honest to God how it's going to be. Fortunately, I've been in there so much I know what that environment will be like, so I think that's a plus. Hopefully we can prepare our guys. This stadium might not be as big as ours, but it's as loud as ours."
He also will try to prepare his team for how much talent is on the Broncos' roster. Players like defensive end Kamalei Correa, linebacker Tanner Vallejo and wide receiver Thomas Sperbeck produced breakout seasons in 2014.
"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."
Petersen told ESPN this week that he might get booed in Boise but his successor and former protégé, Bryan Harsin, disagrees.
It might not be easy to tell what the reception is like. Football, unlike baseball or basketball, doesn't have a natural moment to recognize an opponent.
"Which is exactly how I'd like it," Petersen said. "How do you be the head coach and just blend in? That's what I really want to do."
That will be impossible over the next five weeks as the Broncos and Huskies work toward a clash that will air on ESPN and likely be promoted relentlessly.
Harsin and his players admitted this week that this game feels different than others.
"There's going to be attention on it," Harsin said. "That's the storyline. It's hard to get away from it. You're playing a Pac-12 team, you're playing (an opener) at home for the first time in six years and you're playing the former coach who was there for 13 years and did a lot of great things for Boise State - and that's an understatement. And so as you get into the game, it will be emotional - I know that."
A few other notes from our conversation with Petersen, which will be used for a more complete story in late August:
– On whether he thought about the Boise State-Washington game when he was being courted by the Huskies: "You can't worry about one game. You're not going to not take the job for one game. This is a big picture thing. It's not even a one-year thing."
– On whether the Huskies considered paying the $2 million buyout to avoid this situation: "Never came up. ... They're not going to get out of it because it's not something I really want to do, it's inconvenient for me. So it never came up."
– On what it will be like breaking down film of players like Thompson and senior cornerback Donte Deayon: "I don't even have to put on tape. I know."
– On using the old visitors' locker room: "We might dress at the hotel."
– Petersen didn't keep his house in Boise but still vacations in McCall.
– On fans recognizing him: "I get recognized over here by more Boise people than I do Seattle people, without question. They're great. The Boise people are awesome. There's not been one person from Boise that has ever said anything but nice things to me. Maybe they're thinking a lot of bad things but at least they're polite enough not to say anything. .... It's a lot easier to blend in here. That's much more my style than the other way. That kind of works good. ... I think I'm an old-school guy that somehow missed my era."
Petersen likely will be asked about the Boise State game several times today at Pac-12 media day in Los Angeles. The Huskies were picked to finish fourth in the North.
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