Maybe it’s fitting that Chris Petersen finally decided to leave Boise State just as the BCS era is ending.
In some ways, Boise State was the defining team of the BCS: never given a chance to play for a national title despite repeated quality wins in its few opportunities, always at the forefront of the debate over whether there should be an expanded playoff. But while, yes, the College Football Playoff theoretically could give more access to an undefeated Boise State, the timing still feels right for Petersen to jump.
After Petersen met with Washington officials late Thursday night, it was announced that Petersen had agreed to become head coach of the Huskies on Friday morning, completing an astonishing week for Washington in which a) USC stole its head coach, Steve Sarkisian; and b) Washington replaced him with a better coach anyway.
Petersen reportedly spoke with USC, but it never felt like a fit for his personality. While his name has come up for bigger jobs on a yearly basis since the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, Petersen has always appeared comfortable a step below the spotlight, in a low-pressure Boise State job free from constant attention and the media demands of a high-profile football factory. Given that USC is the total opposite of Boise State, as the most prominent football team in the second largest city in America (population-wise), it never seemed like his destination job, no matter how big the paycheck. Washington, meanwhile, provides Petersen with a big-time job that’s not under such a prominent microscope.
Sure, past Boise State coaches have not exactly gone on to huge success: Dirk Koetter led Boise State to two 10-win seasons, then peaked at Arizona State with a 9-3 record in 2004; Dan Hawkins had seasons with 11, 12 and 13 wins in Boise, but he proceeded to have his reputation destroyed in a disastrous 19-39 tenure at Colorado (Houston Nutt also coached at Boise State for one season). But there’s ample reason to believe Petersen will be a different story.
Widely regarded as one of the top 10 or even top five coaches in college football, Petersen took Boise State to unprecedented levels, with an astonishing 92-12 record, including at least 10 wins seven seasons in a row until this year’s 8-4 downturn, and two wins in the Fiesta Bowl to cap undefeated seasons. Sure, the competition wasn’t great in the WAC and Mountain West, and results would have been different if they played a tougher conference schedule, but Petersen’s Broncos consistently proved themselves against programs from power leagues in one-off chances. In eight seasons, he beat Oregon State twice, Oklahoma, Oregon twice, Virginia Tech, Georgia, Arizona State and Washington; his only losses to power programs were to Washington twice (2007 and 2013) and Michigan State (2012).
For the first time in years, though, this season felt like Boise State had lost its apparent invincibility. In the opener, at Washington oddly enough, the Broncos were sluggish and weirdly uncreative on offense, leading to a 38-6 rout at the hands of the Huskies. They finished the regular season 8-4, losing quarterback Joe Southwick to injury midway through, and failing to win a weak division in which champion Utah State also lost its quarterback (and best player) Chuckie Keeton in October. Perhaps assistant coaching turnover has caught up with him, but Boise State finally hit a wall, which was to be expected at some point. And, really, the program can’t go any higher anyway.
One 8-4 season hardly means that Boise State is over, or that Petersen couldn’t immediately turn things around and win the Mountain West next year, but if there ever was a time to leave, it’s now. Sarkisian rescued Washington from rock bottom and made it competitive again, and now Petersen steps in as a perceived upgrade, aiming to make the Huskies contenders in the Pac-12. Sarkisian might have been the man to bring the Huskies back to respectability, but Petersen might be the man to finish the job and get Washington back to Pasadena.
Despite a troublesome last decade, it’s not as if Washington is a weak job. The Huskies were the best program in the conference in the 1990s, and now they have a spectacular upgraded facility on the shores of Lake Washington. If it’s not a premier job, Washington is a very, very appealing one, especially for a more low-key coach like Petersen.
In other words, there’s nothing to dislike about the move. Petersen’s addition continues to pack the Pac-12 with incredible coaching talent: With David Shaw, Todd Graham, Rich Rodriguez, Jim Mora, Mike Leach and Sonny Dykes, the league has some of the more interesting coaching minds in football. Petersen, obviously, fits right in.
So, aside from those in Boise, this feels like a win for college football fans everywhere. Petersen at a bigger job has always been a fascinating what-if scenario, and now he’ll have one in an intriguing conference with a chance to elevate a program that has had historical success before falling on hard times.
Boise State’s run in the BCS era will always be one of college football’s greatest success stories, even without the ultimate reward, but as we move to 2014 and a new era, it’s time for bigger and better things.