Bluer pastures suit Petersen

Jason King
Yahoo! Sports
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Chris Petersen has led Boise State to a 7-0 record in the WAC and an 11-0 overall mark (ninth in the BCS). The Broncos face Fresno State on Friday.

(AP Photo/Matt Cilley)


Chris Petersen by the numbers
Here's a glance at Chris Petersen's record at Boise State.

Year Overall Conf. AP rank
2006 13-0 8-0 5
2007 10-3 7-1 None
2008 11-0 7-0 9
Totals 34-3 22-1 --
PREVIOUS COACHING EXPERIENCE
1987-88: Freshman UC-Davis
1989-91: Receivers UC-Davis
1992: Quarterbacks Pittsburgh
1993-94: Quarterbacks Portland State
1995-2000: Receivers Oregon
2001-05: Offensive coordinator Boise State

More Boise St. coverage: Blue-Turf.com

BOISE, Idaho – More than 300 people have come to hear his six-minute speech, but as Boise State coach Chris Petersen enters the buffet line, he jokes that there's only one good thing about the booster luncheons he attends each football season.

"I'm just glad these things are on Monday," Petersen says. "This way I can get it over with and move on with my week."

Don't get the wrong idea about Petersen.

The Broncos' football coach is as down-to-earth as your child's Sunday school teacher and as friendly as a Wal-Mart greeter – traits these Boise State diehards obviously admire as they cackle at Petersen's one-liners between bites of banana cream pie.

Still, deep down, Petersen doesn't want to be here.

He said it makes him uncomfortable, which is also how he feels when reporters huddle around him after games or when fans approach him in restaurants and ask for autographs.

"I actually think it embarrasses him a little," Petersen's wife, Barbara, says. "Chris sees Boise State football as a group effort. He knows his assistants and his players have just as big of a role as he does, yet he's the one everyone wants to talk about. He's the one everyone wants to see."

Dislike it as he may, Petersen is getting used to the attention.

He doesn't have any choice.

Less than three seasons into his tenure at Boise State, Petersen is now a member of college football's "it-guy" fraternity, the coach who every school with a vacancy would love to interview thanks to his 34-3 record with the Broncos, who are ranked ninth in this week's Associated Press poll.

The craze over Petersen actually began two years ago, when the rookie head coach showed some cajones by calling three late trick plays that resulted in the Broncos' overtime victory against Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl.

That win capped a perfect season for Boise State – and now Petersen's squad seems poised to accomplish the feat again, as a triumph over Fresno State would make the Broncos 12-0, just shy of their second BCS bowl game in three years.

"We've been fortunate," Petersen says. "We're getting nationwide television exposure, we're improving our (facilities) and recruiting good kids. When you look at the whole picture, this really is a special place – and it's only going to get better."

The question is whether Petersen will be around to see it.

Dirk Koetter used three winning seasons at Boise State to land the Arizona State job in 2001. His successor, Dan Hawkins, went 53-11 in five seasons with the Broncos before moving on to Colorado.

With high-profile programs such as Washington needing a new coach, Boise State athletic director Gene Bleymaier knows it's only a matter of time before schools begin calling him about Petersen. Bleymaier sighs when asked if "Coach Pete" may have a different career path than that of his predecessors.

"I hope so," Bleymaier says. "I hope so."

Before Chris Petersen left his job as an Oregon assistant to join the staff at Boise State, he called a handful of coaching colleagues who had once worked at the school.

"They all either said, 'It's the best place I've ever been,' or 'I hope I can go back and retire there someday,'" Petersen says. "It didn't take long for me to understand what they meant."

Petersen loves that he can arrive home at 5 during the summer and be water skiing by 6 on Lucky Peak Reservoir, where he has a boat. Petersen also enjoys jogging and hiking, so he appreciates Boise's low humidity and mild winters.

Even better, his 10 and 13-year-old sons attend school within five miles of the college, meaning Petersen can pop in for lunch on a whim.

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(Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

“Coach has always said that he'll sacrifice talent for a good person and a good student. I think that pays off on the field.”

– Boise State tight end Richie Brockel.

"When we came here, I'm not sure that we thought this would be a permanent place for us," says Barbara, whose parents bought a house just down the street. "But it sure is feeling that way now. It feels like home."

Although he became the head coach in 2006, Petersen actually arrived at Boise State five years earlier as Hawkins' offensive coordinator. As Hawkins experienced more and more success, Bleymaier could sense that his time in Boise may be short, so he asked Petersen if he could ever envision himself as the Broncos head coach. Petersen told him no.

"Everywhere I'd ever been," Petersen says, "I'd seen what the head coach did each day and thought, 'I wouldn't want that job.'"

A self-described "private person," Petersen had always envisioned himself either working with players on the field or hunkered down in a film room devising scouting reports and schemes. He knew the media responsibilities and public appearances that accompany a head coaching job were important. They just weren't for him.

"Even when Hawk left and I got the opportunity, I thought, 'I don't know if I want to do this,'" Petersen says. "But after some long, hard thought, I figured I'd better take a shot."

The Broncos are glad he did.

Boise State had gone a combined 79-21 the previous eight seasons under Koetter and Hawkins, so the initial fear was that a coaching change would cause the program to take a step back – at least initially.

Boise State's players, who felt betrayed by Hawkins' departure, said Petersen alleviated those concerns during his first meeting with the team.

"Guys," Petersen told the squad, "nothing is wrong here. Nothing is wrong. I was hired by the same guy (Hawkins) that brought you all here. We're going to keep bringing in good assistants and good players. Nothing is going to change."

But things have changed. Under Petersen, Boise State has gotten better.

Petersen's stamp can be seen in numerous areas. Playing on special teams, for instance, was once looked at as a burden by the Broncos, whose kick return and coverage units were usually manned by players who otherwise would rarely see the field.

"Now he puts the all-stars out there," Johnson says. "People see playing on special teams as an honor. Guys will go up and ask if they can get out there and run down the field (on a coverage unit) and Coach Pete will say, 'I don't know if you're good enough.'"

Away from the field, the Broncos said Petersen is different than Hawkins, who was known among players as a "Zen" coach because of the motivational thoughts and phrases he presented to the team each week.

"He's pretty straightforward," tight end Richie Brockel says, "and he always has us ready to play, that's for sure. We could be playing Utah State or Oklahoma … they're going to get the same amount of focus and attention.

"He does a great job of talking teams up. We may look at the record and see that they're 2-8 and think, 'They're probably not that good.' But after he gets done talking about them, we're thinking, 'Man, we better get ready. These guys are going to bring it.'"

The Broncos believe Petersen's biggest impact, though, has been assembling a team full of athletes who are unified both on the field and off of it. Cliques in the Broncos' locker room are non-existent. Athletes don't talk back to coaches and rarely cause problems on campus. Last season 18 players earned academic all-conference honors.

"I've heard of other places where players don't like each other," Brockel says, "but I can honestly say that there's not one guy on this team that I wouldn't want to hang out with on the weekend.

"Coach has always said that he'll sacrifice talent for a good person and a good student. I think that pays off on the field."

Boise State doesn't have trouble attracting strong players.

According to the team's media guide, 11 former Broncos opened the 2008 season on NFL rosters. But even many of them chose Boise State after being overlooked by bigger schools from BCS conferences.

"We pick our recruiting battles wisely," Petersen said. "Some kids worry about how many schools are recruiting them and about what conference they're in or how big a stadium is. None of that stuff is going to have anything to do with their happiness once they get there.

"Some kids understand that. They understand what's going to determine their happiness is the coaches that coach them, the teammates we surround them with and the chance to win a lot. Those are the kinds of kids we want."

The hospital visit, Chris Petersen says, was supposed to be precautionary.

Nine years ago, as the Oregon football team was finishing up an August scrimmage in Eugene, Petersen's 13-month-old son, Sam, took a tumble while playing in the bleachers and bumped his head.

Sam had never been much of a crier, but now he couldn't stop. When Petersen asked the team trainer to examine his son, there didn't seem to be much cause for concern.

"He said that he was probably OK, but to take him to get checked out if he started throwing up," Petersen says. "Sure enough, I was walking carrying him out of the stadium, and he threw up."

Sam's accident in the stands would turn out to be a blessing. While examining the bump on his head, doctors sensed something else was wrong and kept him in the hospital overnight. The following morning, they told Petersen that a massive tumor had been discovered on Sam's brain.

"I still remember the three of them (doctors) walking through that door to come talk to us," Petersen says. "It was like a dream. It was surreal."

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The Petersens: Jack, Chris, Barbara and Sam.

(Photo courtesy Petersen family)

After eight hours of surgery, the tumor was removed. But the bad news kept coming for the Petersen family. Four days later Chris and Barbara were told that cancer had spread to Sam's spine.

For the next two years, Petersen's life couldn't have been more hectic, as he had to balance his job as receivers coach at Oregon and his role as a father for his cancer-stricken son. Countless times he made the 110-mile drive – each way – to Portland, where Sam received treatment. Some days doctors would render him unconscious for a full-body MRI. Other trips were for chemotherapy.

"He's had a lifetime dose of chemo," Petersen says. "There's only so much of that someone can go through, and I think he reached his limit."

The treatment worked. After two years, Sam was deemed cancer free. Doctors inserted a shunt into his brain that drains excess fluid through his body and into his stomach, and he's still required to undergo an MRI once a year.

"Otherwise," Petersen says, "he leads a normal life. He's a Miracle Kid."

The situation with Sam changed Petersen's outlook on life. As important as his family had been to him before, he cherishes moments with Barbara, Sam and oldest son, Jack, even more now.

"For awhile," Petersen said, "you're chasing these jobs and dragging your family around the country and going to the next big stadium and the next this or that. Then something like this happens to put everything back into perspective.

"Football coaches can be crazy sometimes. You can get so competitive and driven that it's easy to lose focus on what's important. Balance is important."

That's exactly what Petersen has with the Broncos, which is why taking another job might not be all that appealing. Boise, after all, is an ideal place to raise a family. The nomadic lifestyle that defines the coaching profession might not be for him.

"I can't see him leaving," Brockel says. "People always say that the grass is greener on the other side. But sometimes it isn't."

Indeed, Petersen needs only to look at his predecessors to see that things don't always work out as planned. Koetter went 40-34 at Arizona State and was fired after six seasons. He's now the offensive coordinator for the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars.

"All of the coaches that have (left) there have probably had second thoughts at one time or another," Koetter says. "The quality of life for your kids and your family is tough to duplicate somewhere else.

"Pete is one of the rare, unique coaches in the profession that could fight the temptation to move on to a BCS conference school and stay there a little bit longer than the rest of us did."

Hawkins has struggled since leaving Boise State, too. He's 12-21 at Colorado and is one defeat away from his third straight losing season in as many years.

"I came (to Colorado) for the challenge," Hawkins says. "But everyone is different in terms of goals and philosophies. I know Pete and his personality and what his philosophies and beliefs are. I'd be very shocked if he left. Very shocked."

Bigger schools such as Washington might be able to offer a more lucrative contract, but it's not as if Petersen is in a bad situation in Boise. He makes $850,000 annually – and that figure could surpass $1 million if he meets certain incentives.

School officials said this week that Petersen's contract is worth more than twice what Hawkins made at Boise State and more than three times what Koetter earned.

"The one thing you can't predict is the future," Petersen says. "I've seen too many coaches say, 'I'm never doing this or that.' I've learned from those guys that you never say never. But we really like this place.

"It's hard to move your family. Those are the things I think about. You go to all this trouble to go a different school, yet in the end, you're doing the same thing. It's the same job for you, it's just different for them."

No program, though, can boast the national-best winning percentage that Boise State has accomplished over the past 10-plus seasons. Since 1998 the Broncos are 113-26.

Boise State's last recruiting class featured players from nine different states. Television appearances are increasing each year, and the school recently completed $38 million in stadium renovations that includes a new press box and suites.

The only drawback with the Boise State job is that the school isn't in a BCS conference, which means its chances of competing for the national championship are slim. Non-BCS schools have never been awarded more than one BCS bowl berth in a season, but even that doesn't seem to deter Petersen, who views the situation as an opportunity rather than a drawback.

Asked if he needed a national title to make his career complete, Petersen says: "Nope. That's not my goal in life. Plus, as college football continues to change, who knows how things are going to go? We've already seen it change dramatically. Five years ago who ever thought Boise State could play in the Fiesta Bowl?"

Petersen leans back in his chair.

"There are still challenges here," he says. "I wouldn't go somewhere if it wasn't the right fit. I don't care how much money it's for. It could be for a double-salary-type thing. I still wouldn't do something if it wasn't a good fit – and most places, I don't fit.

"Here, I do."