BOISE, Idaho -- Lyle Smith was asked to consider his creation in this lovely little village of college football. The same question sprung to mind as it did 64 years ago when Smith arrived here as an assistant football coach.
"They probably wonder," the 94-year-old Smith said of a public still trying to figure out -- and find -- Boise State, "where the hell is that place?"
To quote a Green Day song, it is East Jesus Nowhere, tucked out West in what has been called the most isolated city in the country. That Boise is about to become the first domino to fall in conference realignment is as amazing as the role of the school's former coach.
|Boise State has two Fiesta Bowl wins despite joining D-I in 1996. (Getty Images)|
Or a stadium, or even chair backs. Not that long ago wooden bleachers used to accommodate crowds of 1,000. Boise only started playing football in 1941, the year of the 26th Rose Bowl. It didn't start playing Division I-A football until 1996. While Boise State -- it became a four-year school a year after Smith stepped down in 1968 -- is still modest enough to savor a sellout of 33,000, it is, in a way, about to become everything it hates: A BCS school, an entitled player in the national championship picture, a member of the big-time college football elite.
And it feels so good.
While the rest of the country frets over the latest conference realignment rumors, it is starting for real right here, probably within the next few days. The school with the best record of any Division I school since 2000 is about to leave the WAC for the Mountain West.
An official invitation is expected to come from the Mountain West on Monday. That's huge news whether you're at Michigan or Nevada. Playing as a non-BCS school in a non-BCS league, Boise has two Fiesta Bowl scalps to its credit -- Oklahoma in 2007 and TCU this January. If you're Michigan, you probably know it as the school that has posted three undefeated regular seasons in the past six while whining about not playing for a national championships.
If you're Nevada, a current WAC partner, some part of you is glad to see the Broncos go. They are a program too big for the WAC, but too small to be taken seriously by the system they're challenging.
If you can't beat them, become them. That's where Bob Kustra comes in. The Boise State president admits he has been working the phones, calling his peers in the Mountain West. He's also a former two-time Illinois lieutenant governor who knows a thing or two about politics. The vote, he knows, is not assured. Seven of the nine MWC presidents would have to say yes Monday morning.
"I would not say it's a done deal," said Kustra. "They have to take a vote. I've been reassured by some that things are going well, they think they have the votes. There are others than are in the uncertain column."
Infographic: The future of college football?
It's complicated, sure, but Boise State is willing to take a shot. While the nine-team Mountain West is not a BCS conference with an automatic berth to one of the four major bowls (Orange, Rose, Fiesta, Sugar), it could get there -- with Boise's help. The MWC is nearing at least temporary qualification for BCS status because of its performance over a four-year evaluation by the BCS commissioners. In a strange twist, Boise's performance since 2008 -- currently standing at 26-1 -- would be grandfathered into the Mountain West's evaluation if it joins.
And Boise must join by July 1 in order to begin playing by 2011, the end of the latest evaluation period. Talk about a symbiotic relationship. The Mountain West would get that BCS designation only temporarily for 2012 and 2013, but there are those who believe enough momentum has been created that the Mountain West could permanently become a seventh BCS conference.
At least this isn't about a network or academics. Not when you get down to it. Not unless the Mountain West is looking to crack the nation's No. 112 television market or trying to gain a foothold in the nation's 39th-most populous state.
No, this is mostly about football.
Boise might be rated No. 3 among up-and-coming schools in the West by U.S. News and World Report, on the field it is most likely going to start the season ranked in the top three. That's where it gets more interesting.
That puts Chris Petersen's program in position for a berth in the BCS title game. Criticize the BCS all you want -- and they do in these parts -- but its foundation is still the human polls. Right now, those polls love the Broncos. They have finished in the top 12 in four of the past six seasons, but never started higher than 15th.
BCS or not, the same rule applies: You can't finish No. 1 unless you start high. Grudgingly, Boise is getting respect in the good old boys' club that is college football. Beat Virginia Tech in a neutral-site game in the season opener and Boise's fourth undefeated regular season in the past seven becomes more likely. So does its first national championship berth.
Boise can chase its dream from the WAC. The dream becomes reality a lot easier in the Mountain West.
"I've talked to my Mountain West peers over the last year, two years, three years," Boise athletic director Gene Bleymaier said. "The ADs all know our position. They know Boise State has an interest. There's no question in their minds about that."
In four seasons as head coach Petersen has gone 49-4, becoming a national talking point if not a full-on national power. That could change. Junior quarterback Kellen Moore is a Heisman candidate. The defense that shut down TCU and Oregon last season showed there is some balance to the offensive fireworks.
|2005||9-4||Lost MPC Computers|
|2003||13-1||Won Fort Worth|
But to his credit, Petersen is not one of those beating the BCS drum.
"I think it's good for us if [the Mountain West] becomes a BCS conference," he said. "If it's not we're already at that place."
The concern is that Boise won't be able to steamroll the competition in the Mountain West, but will be good enough to damage title hopes of the big three -- TCU, Utah and BYU. The league could end up looking like the ACC with no dominant team or national championship challenger. At least the ACC is guaranteed that BCS bowl, well, because it is one of the six BCS conferences that get access to those major bowls.
It's looking more and more that the existing Mountain West is better than the ACC or the struggling Big East. But there are no assurances that the Mountain West will stay together with or without Boise. With TCU, BYU and Utah rumored as possible additions to other leagues in the expansion-go-round, that's a risk Boise is willing to take.
"Certainly you'd like to think the conference was going to look like the conference you applied for," Kustra said, "but there are no promises in this world."
The school of 19,000 is not the state's land grant institution (that would be Idaho) nor is it a particularly lofty academic institution, a designation that seems to be a deal-breaker for the haughty Big Ten in expansion. Boise simply has kept winning football games.
Kustra says football has helped enrollment. A chemistry professor told him it may have helped her win a federal grant.
"Sooo," gushed a judge during the grant process, "you're from Boise State. The blue field, the Fiesta Bowl ..."
She got the grant.
"That just goes to show, you can open the door," Kustra said. "It opens the door to who we are academically."
Under Smith, Boise was playing in Potato Bowls and Little Rose Bowls at the juco level. When the school made the jump to Division II in 1973, it won Big Sky Conference titles and competed in that division's playoffs. At I-AA, it won a national championship. It has been playing at college football's highest level since only 1996, almost winning despite itself. Veteran coach Houston Nutt stayed for one year before going on to bigger and better things in the SEC.
Since 2000, there have been three coaches -- hardly a picture of stability under Dirk Koetter, Dan Hawkins and Petersen. But they all won. Koetter (Arizona State) and Hawkins (Colorado) went to bigger jobs but didn't bring the Boise State magic with them.
"We kind of get our type of guy that fits our culture," said offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin, who grew up here and played at Boise State. "It's not just the blue turf but it always starts there. Whether you're a parent or coach, it's always there."
Yes, the blue turf. Boise's artificial turf field is one of only a handful in the country that isn't green. It's a selling point to the point that families on vacation will walk into the football complex -- the doors are always open to the public during regular hours -- and out onto the field to get a glimpse.
The outside resentment of Boise is rooted in tradition that goes almost as far back as Smith's first year at the school. College football remains a sport that rewards longevity. It's the mentality that Michigan has been doing it for 10 decades. Boise has been doing it for 10 years.
"Why doesn't the Rose Bowl spread its revenue around to Boise State?" Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany asked in a recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education. "Well, partially because we developed it. We built it, it's our tradition ... I don't think there's anything wrong with money, but life's a lot easier when you have it than when you don't."
Call it hypocrisy or call for BCS bowl tickets, but Boise's life is about to get a whole lot easier.
"You get yourself thinking back to when it was dirt and sagebrush," Smith said, "The entire picture is gratifying."