Dawn of a Juggernaut 

The importance of being Broncos in 2004

In 32 years as the radio voice for the Boise State football team, Paul J. Schneider has provided the soundtrack for more than his share of gridiron triumphs. He broadcast for an NCAA Division I-AA national champion in 1980, a national runner-up in 1994 and the winners of four national bowl games in the last five years. He has chronicled a team that has experienced only six losing seasons since World War II, and who holds the longest active winning streak anywhere in college football. But recently Schneider, like many Bronco diehards, talks about football with a bit of a chip on his shoulder. It's the kind of chip that only success, and in particular success in the face of widespread skepticism, can bring.

"I remember years ago, Boise State was playing down at Nevada [the University of Nevada-Reno]," Schneider recalls in his trademark booming-from-inside-the-stable voice, "and they just trounced us--and I mean trounced. After the game [then-Nevada coach] Jeff Tisdale said, 'If we want to move up in the Big West Conference, and in the nation, we can't play programs like Boise anymore. We need a better strength of schedule.'" Schneider grins knowingly beneath his ever-present moustache, "Well, now the worm has turned."

On one level Schneider's invertebrate reference, usually used to describe the revolt of a habitual victim against those who abuse it, may seem like a stretch--after all, Boise State's lifetime 65 percent winning percentage is hardly worm-like, nor is the team's current location on the Top 10 of every national ranking poll. Nor, indeed, is their recent five-year undefeated stretch against Nevada, during which they have outscored the Wolf Pack 259-55. But on the national scene, Boise's biggest drawing sports team--or at least their fans--are playing the role of vengeful worm to the hilt.

Need proof? Just read the dozens of hate-posts that filled Internet forums when ESPN analyst Trev Albert recently questioned the Broncos' entitlement to appear in the upcoming nationally televised Liberty Bowl on Dec. 31. Or track down one of the thousands of local fans who, during a 69-3 televised pureeing of the University of Hawaii on Oct. 29, frenziedly chanted the battle cry, "BCS! BCS!" (more on what that means later) into ESPN's microphones and the homes of millions of viewers. You can ask the celebrities: Regis Philbin, ex-New York Governor George Pataki or Robert Pollard, singer in the renowned underground rock group Guided by Voices, who have all publicly (and always at odd times) claimed affinity for the "Orange and Big Blue." Or the journalists: The New York Times, L.A. Times, USA Today, Sports Illustrated, Fox Sports and ESPN.com, who have all published lengthy if formulaic written features on Boise State football, its unheralded success and maniacally devoted local culture. The consensus among all involved is clear: not only has Boise State arrived as a national powerhouse, they are now an "offensive juggernaut" capable of providing one of the most entertaining spectacles in the sport.

"When I started here, you couldn't find anyone in town wearing blue and orange," Schneider recalls. "The team was made up of three or four smart players, a few JC transfers, some guys who couldn't qualify for I-A athletics and a few who were on work release from some prison ... Now, we wear our gear to cities like Dallas and Houston, and in malls people really let us hear it: 'Hey Broncos!' 'Go big blue!' It's like a cult. It's ridiculous. It's great." The question remains, however: Why now? Being fun to watch is one thing; being a national phenomenon is another entirely. What's the significance of these Broncos in particular? The answers to these questions all lie in the shady depths of the Bowl Championship Series (BCS).

When 29-year-old Gary Craner accepted the $9000-a-year gig as Boise State's one and only athletic trainer in 1972, a similar air of limitless possibility surrounded the program. Under head coach Tony Knapp, the program had just experienced its 25th consecutive winning season, its first bowl game (the now-defunct Camelia Bowl) and were about to play in their second. Regional battles with the University of Idaho, Idaho State, Nevada and Weber State University gave the team all the challenges they needed, and all the motivation they could want. Anyone doubting the intensity of these rivalries needed only to look at the school's athletic logo, which Craner still has the wooden prototype of on his bookshelf: A beefy stallion, rearing wildly in front of an image of the state of Idaho, its front hooves thrashing the U of I hometown of Moscow and its tail lifted expectantly over ISU in Pocatello.

A lot has changed since those promising pre-Smurf Turf days. Craner still inhabits a back office in the Boise State sport complex, but now has a highly specialized five-person staff and several student assistants with which to tend to undergrad athletes. His home base of the weight room, once a tiny wooden shed located under the stadium bleachers, is now a 10,000-square-foot maze of pipes and pads (the old room is used for tape storage). Today's football program has "battled" ISU only once in the last 10 years (a 68-0 surgical dismantling in 2003) and hasn't lost to Idaho since Lewinsky-gate. Most tellingly, however, the old shittin' and kickin' Bronco logo has been relegated to the trophy case. Today's Bronco is a computer-generated headshot with blank, angry eyes, a spiked mane and no regard for geography. This new beast is willing to throw down with any opponent, anywhere.

"I never imagined I'd get to see something like this," Craner admits of the team's meteoric rise to national prominence. "The pieces have fallen into place like magic, almost like a Cinderella story."

To flesh out the analogy, the Broncos entered the ball in November of 2002 by cracking the national I-A top 25 college football rankings for the first time in school history. They were not expected to arrive, nor to stay--actually, Schneider recalls dropping $1000 on the team's first top-25 game ball, fearing it would also be the last. But with the magic pumpkin of ESPN (the team is 15-0 on the network) and the offensive fairy godmother of head coach Dan Hawkins, Boise has stuck around the party like a valet waiting for a tip. The acceleration of the program on the national stage has been so significant, so unprecedented, that ESPN football analyst Pat Forde recently likened the effect to a time-lapse photography experiment. "There has to be a ceiling out there," Forde wrote after the Hawaii game, "but Boise State hasn't hit it yet."

A month later, the team had found their ceiling, their promise-land and their tantalizing Prince Charming in one: the BCS. This football ranking system (I'm assuming for the moment that if you're reading BW for college football analysis, you need to have the BCS explained), instituted in 1998 to ensure that each college football season had a clear-cut champion, currently represents to many football fans a certain kind of order-at-the-expense-of-freedom villainy on par with the Galactic Empire in Star Wars.

The system works (or doesn't, depending on who you ask) thusly: a computer program, utilizing the ideas that inspired both the Death Star and The Matrix, ranks the top 25 teams in the nation, factoring in other national rankings, the difficulty of a team's schedule, how convincingly it wins its games and--most controversially--the conference from which the team originates. The eight teams who are deemed worthy by the computer program are then matched up in four BCS bowl games (the Sugar, Fiesta, Orange and Rose Bowls), each of which result in millions in cash, television revenue and free recruiting both for the schools and their respective conferences.

The problem is that out here in the arid marches of the Western Athletic Conference, our teams are not programmed into the BCS's radar. Like Boise State was once ruled by its regional mindset (remember the horse?), the BCS's creators made their system under the assumption that only big teams from coastal and Midwestern conferences could win a national title. Upstarts like Boise State or the University of Utah (from the similarly ineligible Big West Conference) must "crash" the system by beating BCS-eligible teams, cruelly running the scores up on inferior opponents (remember the aforementioned 69-3 defeat of Hawaii?) and waiting for BCS-eligible schools to lose to improve their own meager rankings.

When Utah thumped Brigham Young University 52-21 on November 20, the program's fate to be the first non-BCS school to break into the BCS was cemented. The Utes, ultimately ranked sixth in the BCS, are Luke Skywalker; Boise State, despite toting the same 11-0 record as Utah, had to be content with being Han Solo. Translation: they made their case as dramatically as possible, ended up ninth in the BCS poll, but many people (read: Trev Albert) still view them as mere smugglers when compared to the sport's more storied programs. It all comes down to that nebulous element that the Wolf Pack complained about a decade earlier--strength of schedule.

In what proved quite an ironic twist, though, Boise State was ranked eighth a week before their season ended and were theoretically BCS bowl-eligible until their final game versus, wonder of wonders, the Nevada Wolf Pack. Against their former naysayers--though no longer coached by Tisdale-- Boise State posted a 58-21 victory highlighted by three aerial touchdowns from star sophomore quarterback Jared Zabransky. The Broncos fell one BCS-spot regardless, as the BCS-eligible Virginia Tech Hokies, Georgia Bulldogs and Cal Golden Bears all nabbed final victories against higher ranked opponents than Nevada. "We need a better strength of schedule," indeed.

To the BCS's thousands of critics, such imprecise positionings are all the proof necessary to scuttle the system and replace it with a system where victors are proven on the field rather than in a hard drive. What that system would look like, however, remains to be seen.

Gene Bleymaier knows about college football playoffs. After all, he was hired as Boise State's Athletic Director just a year after the Broncos ran away with the NCAA Division I-AA national title in 1980--and I-AA uses a playoff system. Bleymaier was a 28-year-old law school grad back then, far younger than the team's head football coach and (if today's collegiate athletics are a guide) probably a few of the players. Today, he has been responsible for bringing the Boise State program to I-A in 1996, for spearheading the creation of the bowl that gave Boise State its first taste of I-A success in 1999 and, yes, for bringing in the team's most visible calling card: the Smurf Turf. The scope of the football program under Bleymaier's leadership has changed so much in the last 24 years, he says, "it's almost like I've changed schools several times." But Bleymaier hopes his program's next major step goes in a regressive direction: bringing some of the I-AA feel back into big time I-A football.

"Obviously, I would like [the BCS] to be different," the lean former UCLA tight end says. "My hope is that it will continue to evolve, or maybe even just go away. You need to have access--that's what makes the NCAA basketball program so wonderful: having some kind of playoff system. Somehow, someway, I hope we can help provide access to post season football. And, someday, to a I-A championship."

Like a true Western gentleman, Bleymaier doesn't name his program as the hopeful beneficiary of any such future change in the BCS. He knows, as the ADs at Utah, Louisville and other BCS challengers know, that each new victory by one of these "mid-major" schools hastens the transformation more than their complaints ever could. "More than anything," he says, "It's just exciting for it to be us trying to break through that barrier. For three non-BCS schools to break into the top 10, from three different conferences, is wonderful. The exposure, visibility and marketability that is being afforded our state, our community and our university is publicity that we can't afford."

The team itself, of course, isn't hurting the image much either with a circus-like offense that regularly incorporates potential coach career-enders like fake punts, onside kicks, all manner of quarterback bootleg sneaks and even, on occasion, the elusive fake fumble (which takes a long time to explain). They do all the things a national powerhouse should--like lead the nation in scoring four out of the last five years--a few that it shouldn't--like allow their opponents 25 points a game on average--but plenty that will make their bowl game one of the most hotly anticipated and highest-rated of the year. For any team, especially a program with just nine years on its I-A resume, that kind of success is no small potatoes.

The AutoZone Liberty Bowl, featuring Boise State against the University of Louisville Cardinals takes place on Dec. 31 at 2:30 p.m. on ESPN. The commentators will most assuredly make use of the phrase "no small potatoes."

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