Boise State's Petersen divulges secrets to Broncos' success
Boise State coach Chris Petersen sits down for a Q-and-A with Bruce Feldman to discuss player development, his reading habits (think leadership and organization) and what the future might hold for the 48-year-old coach.
In his seven seasons at Boise State, Chris Petersen has led the Broncos to four top-seven finishes. They've had three in the past four years. Last year was a "rebuilding" year for BSU, and the Broncos went 11-2 and finished No. 14 in the coaches poll. Earlier this week at Mountain West Media Day in Las Vegas, I sat down with Petersen over lunch and we discussed his thoughts on developing players, how much he reads and his future.
Q: How hands-on are you with your quarterbacks now?
Petersen: Eh. It's something that I really like so we're always in cahoots. But I let those guys coach 'em. The guy we got now (Jonathan Smith), he's great. He played for Mike Riley and (Dennis) Erickson and he's coached a few different places, but he's all into our way as well, so it's a nice blend. He's done a great job. We put together this fundamental packet that I hadn't even had in our quarterback play.
Everybody talks about fundamentals. I asked a bunch of coaches, college and the NFL, 'What are your quarterback fundamentals?' And they were like, 'Well, what do you mean?' All these other positions have fundamentals. If you're O-line, it's butt down, feet apart and hands are here and they got their deal. I said with quarterbacks, 'What are yours?'
So anyways we put together a thing.
Q: How did you form your 'rules' as to what you see as your fundamentals at Boise State?
Petersen: We talked to a bunch of people and we had our own opinion. Then you come back to what's your definition of a 'fundamental?' You gotta define it. There's a difference between 'a fundamental' and 'a technique.' There's these basic movements that are gonna show up every day in your position. You'd like to narrow down from three to five, and five's on the heavy side I think. It could even be eye-progression. If that's going to be a fundamental, how are you coaching that eye progression?
Throwing in a confined space with subtle movements to us is a fundamental. OK, so how do you coach and teach that? We've broken that down. Every time we study tape, we see that one of those things show up, either good or not.
Q: OK, so what is the No. 1 fundamental at Boise State for your quarterbacks?
Petersen: Eh. That's always hard. ... It's probably gonna be decision-making in terms of the anticipation. And that's a whole progression as well because there are stages of that in how you teach it is even different from a brand new guy to a guy like (senior starting QB) Joe (Southwick), where the decision-making now it's a feel thing and it comes out. With the new guy, it's more 'This is where your people are going.' The next stage is actually, 'This is who your read is.' From there, you eventually get away from that because you know it and you feel that, and that's all decision-making which is a big ball of fundamental.
Q: What is a fundamental that you guys may focus on more than some other places emphasize?
Petersen: You know it's all stuff that you've known about and paid attention to. We've just really wrapped our hands around it and said, OK, throwing in a confined space is something that you've got to get comfortable with. That is a fundamental. Guys breathing on, touching you, being around you. The good guys, they just slide and that guy is right there, and OK.
Q: How do you drill that?
Petersen: That's the trick. How do you come up with drills for that? We do some crazy stuff with bags and they're throwing on-air at a target and they have all these other bodies around them. And then certainly when they're doing team stuff that continually is in the forefront of their mind, 'OK, I got this.'
Q: Was that as much of a premium five or six years ago?
Petersen: That has been on one of the exciting things I think we've done in the last year or so. For us, it all works. You're trying to simplify it as much as you can because it's not a simple game. How do we make our fundamentals simple and actually be able to teach these guys? For us in the last year and a half or so, I think we've made some progress as coaches in terms of how I'd want to teach this to a young guy or an old guy.
Q: I heard you reference something a few minutes ago. How would you categorize 'Our Way?'
Petersen: I look at it as like The Matrix. There is not any one thing. It's everything. The type of kid we recruit. The culture of our staff. Different themes that run throughout our program that I think really make a difference. From simple things like our 3.0 (GPA) board. We had 61 guys on our team on it last year. To me, that is a big thing. We emphasize it and guys are competitive. We've found that our best students are usually our best players. Those guys who are really focused on football are focused in the classroom. It translates into them taking care of their business off the field as well as on the field.
We have a whole Pyramid of Success that we've obviously based off of John Wooden's and put a different spin on. It has behaviors and values and some goals on it. That's always been our teaching model. We have different themes that we continually bang on, but there isn't any one thing. It's all these things and how they integrate.
Q: I heard you're a big reader. What kind of books have you been reading this off-season?
Petersen: It always stuff about simplifying and organizing. I read the book "Drive" by Daniel Pink. He talks about to truly motivate people you need three things. You need autonomy, mastery and purpose. So if you're working with me and I give you responsibility where you feel like you have autonomy, then you are really driven on whatever it is to become a master of that and then some purpose behind it. I know that's psychology stuff. One of my favorite books is "The Talent Code" (by Daniel Coyle). It's about deep practice and that's been one of our things for a long time. In "Talent is Overrated", Geoffrey Colvin talks about deliberate practice. I think they're a little bit different but right on. I also read "The Slight Edge" (by Jeff Olson). It's basically doing simple things over a long period of time, and those simple things done over a long period of time change your life.
Q: Do you read for inspiration or preparation?
Petersen: I think of everything in terms of preparation. This is what you need to do. I'm not into that big motivation stuff. My wife's always looking at me, going, 'Don't you ever just read a fiction book?' Eh.
I'll always read during the season before I go to bed. I might read 15 books during the year. I'm just intrigued by it. Leadership, preparation, success.
Q: People who know Nick Saban well say that he's a much better coach now at 61 than he was at 51 because of the psychology and things that he has immersed himself into. How much are you motivated to keep growing while you're trying to win games?
Petersen: What I am continually doing is trying to see if something fits into the framework of what we're already doing, so I can simplify it.
I think one of the things that I do that's not good with all of this philosophy stuff is I'm a little too complicated. I can know this stuff but I look at it all the time. They (the players) don't. It's gotta be simplified so they can learn it quickly. That's one of the reasons why I'm always on this. It's like a scab that I'm always itching. I can't seem to leave it alone.
Q: Having had so much success and with your career record is 84-8 how much of your motivation is to win a national title?
Petersen: I don't think like that. It's just really to do our best. You want to feel like it's right and the whole process is correct. It flows right and we're all working for this continuous improvement. That's huge. I feel like we have very good coaches but if they don't have that passion to figure out the next little thing than they're not really the guy that we're into.
Q: Is coaching as much fun now as --?
Petersen: No. Not even. There's so many times where I'm like, 'How in the hell did I get myself into this situation?' I think about it all the time when I started at UC Davis. I remember wearing a Michigan sweatshirt on the field during practice.
Q: At UC-Davis?
Petersen: Oh yeah while coaching. It was the kids and the time we put into it, and we were still really successful there. It's so funny. I remember talking to Paul Hackett who was a Davis guy. I was at Davis when I went with him for a year to go to Pittsburgh (in 1992). He goes, 'So why do you want to leave Davis?'
I told him some line that I can't even remember now. And he just shook his head and goes, 'You're just like the rest of those guys. I'm just telling you. You're leaving the best place you're ever going to coach at in terms of coaching and winning.'
He was right. There was none of this other stuff there.
Q: So when did it all change and start to go downhill? Like when you had to do more media?
Petersen: Ha ha. Yeah. Probably that. Dealing with a lot of the stuff that is so important to your program, and I get that. I don't have a natural affinity for that. I like teaching. I like coaching. I like being with our staff. I don't enjoy the media thing. Who would?
Q: Well, some guys probable are more comfortable with it, maybe because they know there's more of an ego component to it?
Petersen: I wish I was like that because I'd be a better fit for the job. I'm just not.
Q: Whenever a big job comes open or is about to, your name gets thrown out there. It happens even with speculation that one day you'd be a guy who could succeed Mack Brown at Texas, where they have the biggest media responsibilities in the country.
Petersen: It's all about the fit. There's so many beautiful things about certain places. But then you think about, what are your strengths and weaknesses? And what do you want more of or less of?
Q: And you know yourself pretty well by now.
Petersen: Wuh. I mean this is painful for me.
Petersen: No, I don't mean this. I just mean this Media Day.
Q: And this one is small and relaxed.
Petersen: And for some of those guys at certain schools, it's 'Media Day' every week. That's just college football. Even at Boise State, it's completely different now than it was a few years ago. It's relative.
Q: Ten years from now what are the chances that you're still coaching?
Petersen: Oh my gosh. Ten years from now? I don't see that.
Q: What do you want to do after coaching?
Petersen: See, that's my problem. I'm one of those guys that needs to do something.
Maybe teach. I don't know. I don't think I'd have any problem being a position coach. Somewhere.
Q: Would you want to be a position coach in the NFL?
Petersen: I could do that. I wouldn't be opposed to that. I want to be Chris Ault's consultant.
Q: Do you view life after coaching at Boise State as the bigger the program, the bigger the headaches potentially?
Petersen: I know this: You're just trading one set of problems for another wherever you are. We have our issues.
I don't know if there's so much the appeal for other places, but maybe you feel like you need a change like you've feel like you've run your course at that place. Like everything has a shelf life. Like you just need a change for the next thing.
Q: Still looking at other places like you said 'the grass isn't always bluer some place else?'
Petersen: I know you're just trading one set of problems for another. I don't have those any more, but I got these now. They're different. Do you need these new problems. I've been at Boise for my 13th year. When we moved there my son was going into kindergarten and now he's off to college. How many coaches say that? That was cool. At one time I thought that was so great, but heck sometimes when you have to move it forces the kids to develop other skills.
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