PHOENIX -- The Mountain West Conference's coaches meetings had broken for the afternoon and most of the coaches had scattered, heading to other areas of the ritzy Arizona Biltmore resort. Boise State's Chris Petersen, the most well-known of the league's coaches, had ducked outside to answer a call when a few reporters caught up to him. Former ESPN analyst Bob Davie, an MWC colleague of Petersen's as the head coach at New Mexico, soon approached with a grin.
"You got the right guy there," Davie told the reporters. "He'll stir things up."
Petersen sheepishly smiled.
"Controversial," Davie continued.
"Yeah, that's me," replied Petersen, chuckling at the absurdity of that last word choice as the Lobos coach walked past.
Petersen may be the least controversial, well-known head coach in college football. Even diehard fans probably would struggle to ID him if he passed them on a street despite his mind-boggling 84-8 record in seven seasons as a head coach. There have been no headline-inducing sound bytes or emotionally charged press conferences. He's also one of the few college coaches without a Twitter profile.
However, the program Petersen leads, the Boise State Broncos, have become one of the most polarizing brands in sports in the past decade. A big reason why stems from something that has sprouted in the BCS era, which has fostered a level of connectivity fueled by 24-hour sports coverage as well as social media as fans of the power conferences, particularly in SEC country, nervously keep an eye on the Broncos results while BSU perennially hovers around the top 10.
The Broncos have been to BCS Bowls, winning the Fiesta Bowl both times they've been invited at the end of undefeated seasons. But after last month's news making the upcoming College Football Playoff a reality in 2014, while the power brokers of the sport have also seemingly created a bigger division between the Have-A-Lots and the Have-a-Littles, does this mean things are better for Boise State and that the Broncos have a more viable shot to actually play for a national title?
Petersen was unsure, he said.
"I don't really pay close attention to that, I really don't," he said. "I've never been one of those guys that pays real close attention to things that I don't have any control over. So whatever the rules are or whatever the situation is, we just sit back and say, 'OK, Let's try to make it work.' Even with the BCS stuff, when we have taken care of business, it's worked out OK for us. Whether it's better or not better? Heck, I really don't even know and I don't even think about it like that. It's more, 'This is the landscape this year and let's see what we can do.'"
"Worked out OK" is an interesting way of putting things. Those seasons (2006 and 2009) when the Broncos were undefeated, they made it to a BCS Bowl, but not the BCS Bowl -- the one that really matters -- the BCS National Championship Game.
In 2006, a one-loss Florida team (that was 3-1 vs. top-20 opponents) got to play No. 1 Ohio State. Boise State, ranked No. 8 in the BCS Poll, got to play -- and beat Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. In 2009, the Broncos, ranked No. 6, were sent back to the Fiesta Bowl, while undefeated Alabama and Texas met in the Rose Bowl for the BCS title. The Broncos' credibility among pollsters did seem to swell with each successive strong season, but the gap BSU had to overcome especially in light of suspect league schedules was almost always going to be too great to make that one big leap.
Still, with the other most successful non-BCS conference programs of the past decade -- TCU and Utah -- now embraced by the process as members of the Big 12 and Pac-12 respectively, it's the Broncos who have become the face of the college football system outsider, above teams from Conference USA, the MWC, the Sun Belt or the MAC.
Petersen laughed when he said he doesn't know "why we're always the center of that whole conversation," before being reminded that it's because his team beat Oklahoma in that first Fiesta Bowl in addition to having won seven of eight games against AP Top 25 opponents since the start of 2009.
"Is this (the new four-team playoff) better for all of us in college football?" Petersen asked. "I think a playoff system and a four-team structure, no, I don't think anybody's going, 'That is the answer.' But it's moving in the right direction.
"How do you get an eight-team (playoff)? I think that would be the next really awesome step, and then how do you go even bigger than that? Well, how do we get that all done? We can only play so many games. This is college football. They're students, and you have finals and injuries. I don't have the answers."
While it sure sounds like Petersen would prefer a 16-team playoff format, he says he "doesn't have a clue" how it would get worked out, "because you have to cut down your regular season games for sure. There's probably enough money for everybody to share in that if they did that. I do think bigger than four is what a lot of people would like to see."
Boise State has also found another positive from the changing climate around major college football in the wake of the playoff: an increased willingness from power conference schools to schedule the Broncos for home-and-home dates, not just a single date where BSU is the visitor.
"I think that's true," said BSU AD Mark Coyle, who adds that he reached out to several Big Ten, SEC, Big 12 and ACC schools.
"There were more noes than yeses," Coyle said. Ultimately, the Broncos were able to book home-and-homes with Virginia (for 2015 and '17), Florida State (for 2019 and '20) and Oklahoma State (2018 and '21). "Obviously, some things have fallen into place with the new playoff system and the strength of schedule that I think all of us are waiting for it to be defined, but I do think those things played into our hands to help us schedule some of these series."
While many assume a bigger stage translates into a deeper recruiting pool, Petersen downplayed the notion that with its increased visibility his program would be able to land a better caliber of prospect.
"I would take the guys that we've been recruiting since I was there in a heartbeat if we could get those same guys," said Petersen. "They've proven that they're fighters, competitors and tough guys who love football, and that's always been a good formula for us."
The nucleus of the Boise State machine was built on the likes of QB Kellen Moore, who BSU beat Eastern Washington for; and "two-star" recruits Doug Martin, a RB; Shea McClellan, a DE and DB George Iloka, among others.
If anything, Petersen said the Broncos are dealing with a more competitive landscape for prospects after word gets out on the Internet that Boise State has offered some unheralded recruit.
"It gets tougher and tougher with the world we're living in," he said. "It's hard to find a guy that nobody knows about. Half the time, we recruit a guy that might not have much going, and we know he's going to have a lot going right after that because of the media world that we're living in and everybody's paying attention to that.
"They're gonna definitely look (when they hear Boise's involved with a recruit). There's no question. I guess that's a good thing, but it can be a frustrating thing too. Do you just think, 'Go do your own homework.' I think our own coaches do a good job of trying to do a lot of homework."
While no one is projecting a Bronco team returning just 10 starters as a BCS title contender this fall, Boise State figures to be dangerous once again in 2013. Last season was a rebuilding year for Petersen's team that had to replace six NFL draft picks (three who were taken in the first three rounds) plus Moore, who made the Detroit Lions as a free agent. Still, the Broncos finished 14th in the coaches poll -- the lowest his teams have been ranked in the past five years.
Petersen is encouraged by the development of QB Joe Southwick, who shined over the final third of the season, producing a 9-0 TD-INT ratio with a 70 percent completion percentage while becoming more of a running threat.
"Joe made some good strides," said Petersen. "It was hard work in progress. To his credit that kid showed up every day and you could see it over our last four games of the season. He really started playing at a good level."
The next step in Southwick's development relates to his consistency, said Petersen, himself a former record-setting QB at UC-Davis.
"When you get to this point, it always comes down to consistency, and what I mean by that is it comes down to about two to four throws a game. And that changes everything, whether it's a shot downfield, a critical third down or where the ball is placed on a receiver so that now maybe instead of the receiver should've made the catch, the ball is placed in a different spot so he's going to make the catch. It's really those subtle things that maybe the fans in the stands don't know but all of the coaches see that, yeah, he's taken a step there."
It should help Southwick that all-league center Matt Paradis and left tackle Charles Leno, a two-year starter, are back along with Matt Miller and Kirby Moore, the Broncos' top two receivers from 2012. Southwick also should benefit from staff stability since this is the first offseason where he's had the same quarterback coach (Jonathan Smith) after having three different ones in his first three years in the program. Defensively, BSU has a lot more question marks to sort out.
"It's always hard to tell in the spring what you're like as a team," said Petersen. "I always have a hard time judging that because you just go against yourself all the time, but I do think we have some good tools there to work with. The thing that has always been encouraging about the kids that we've coached is they understand after spring ball how much work there is to do. They understand when we start the season that it's all about still improving. I think last year was a great example of that. We were struggling early on. But they kept working, and we did get better. That's what's really satisfying coaching-wise is when you can feel those things."
Controversial? Nah, not Petersen, but don't be surprised if his team is ready to stir things up again in 2013.