BOISE, Idaho — It’s been four years now, and Travis Hawkes is still amazed each day when he sees the pile of Boise State merchandise waiting to be shipped out.
When he was a kid, nobody wore Boise State gear. Even at Broncos games, maybe half the stadium would be dressed in blue and orange — and some of that was folks simply pulling out their blaze orange hunting jackets and calling it team spirit.
Now people all across the country want a spot on the Boise State bandwagon. The school that 15 years ago was playing in what was then Division I-AA, a team once known more for its funky blue field than its record, has emerged as college football’s most unlikely powerhouse.
It has two undefeated seasons and just four losses over the last four years. Its 134-31 record since 1997 is the best of any school (sorry Florida, Texas and Ohio State). Its current 15-game winning streak is second-longest in the country.
And, now sitting in the third spot of the AP Top 25, the Broncos might just be the team that breaks the BCS once and for all.
“Six, seven, eight years ago, the idea Boise State would be No. 3 in the country and would be talked about as a contender for the national championship would have gotten you laughed out of the room,” said Hawkes, a Boise State grad and owner of The Blue and Orange Store. “Now people are just crazy for the Broncos.”
In fact, the only ones not caught up in Boise State-mania might be coach Chris Petersen and his players.
“We certainly appreciate where we are but, I’ve got to tell you, we don’t think about it very much,” Petersen said Tuesday. “We just think about the next team on our schedule and all the problems that Wyoming causes us.
“We care about the rankings when we’re done playing.”
Founded as a junior college in 1932 by the Episcopal Church, Boise State only received full university status in 1974 and has long been overshadowed in these parts by the more established University of Idaho. While enrollment is climbing and Boise State is making a name for itself in research, most of its 20,000 students commute and more than 40 percent are 25 or older.
Its campus is as scenic as it is compact, with the Boise Foothills in the background, the Boise River running along the northern edge of campus and the city’s rose garden and zoo just across the Friendship Bridge. Those who don’t ride skateboards or bikes to class can hop on an old-fashioned red-and-green trolley car, part of the campus shuttle service.
Despite a student body that is largely nontraditional — or maybe because of it — the school is full of passionate Broncos fans. Hats, T-shirts, shorts, sweat pants — name an article of clothing that could be emblazoned with the Boise State logo, and it’ll be seen on campus.
“It’s cool,” freshman Mercedes Valdez said. “That’s our school, that’s where we go. We’re a part of that.”
Added Boise State President Bob Kustra, “It’s just a grand moment for Boise State and I think everyone … feels that. No matter what you do here, people are really excited about that.”
People in town, too.
Boise is more than 300 miles from Salt Lake City, the next closest major city, so there is no natural allegiance to a specific professional team. The Broncos are the closest thing to a pro team Boise has, and the town embraces the Broncos wholeheartedly.
Go to any restaurant, bar or party, and the talk is about Boise State. Houses and cars alike are decked out in Boise State colors. The sign outside one hotel read “Good Job Broncos,” and the release of the latest Top 25 led the news on one local TV station Sunday night.
“I’m from Seattle and I used to watch the Pac-10. It took me four years or so to warm up to (Boise State), but now I’m its biggest fan,” said Dave Custer, director of operations at the Bittercreek Alehouse downtown. “I’m an even bigger fan than I was of the Washington Huskies. That’s the power of it.”
Make no mistake, though, Boise State is more than a cute, cuddly underdog.
It may not have the rich tradition of, say, Alabama or Notre Dame, but it does have some history. Boise State won national titles at both the junior college (1958) and Division I-AA (1980) levels, and it was the lower-division runner-up in 1994. Lyle Smith went 156-6-6 with six undefeated seasons when Boise State was still a junior college.
The Broncos went through a rough patch in the ‘80s — they didn’t win more than eight games from 1982 to ‘89 — and the idea they’d become a powerhouse seemed farfetched when they moved up to what’s now FBS, with 13 wins their first three seasons.
But Boise State won 10 games in 1999, and the Western Athletic Conference — all of football, really — hasn’t been the same since.
“The way this program’s progressed, that’s thanks to all the people that came before us,” defensive end Ryan Winterswyk said. “Thankfully the guys that came before I got here knew what they were doing and were a bunch of good guys that played hard and were competitors and wanted to win. That’s kind of the formula to have a good team.”
Boise State has won seven of the last eight WAC titles, including five straight from 2002-06. It has two Fiesta Bowl victories in the last four years, including that wildly entertaining upset over Oklahoma in 2007 that included a hook-and-lateral, Statue of Liberty play and a postgame marriage proposal.
“The table was set pretty good,” Petersen said of the program he inherited in 2006 after five years as the Broncos offensive coordinator under Dan Hawkins.
“One of the things this program struggles with a little bit is the expectations,” Petersen added. “Because if you look around, we’re still behind the eight ball compared to a lot of these other programs that are doing things that we’re doing. We’re not even in the same ballpark.”
Indeed, Boise State’s accomplishments this last decade are all the more impressive when you look at its resources.
It is not a typical football factory. Its budget for the entire athletic department is $32 million, with Petersen making $1.2 million. Alabama’s athletic department budget was $82 million in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2009, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Tide coach Nick Saban makes $4.7 million alone.
Bronco Stadium may as well be the Not So Big House, seating less than 34,000.
“I have a saying I repeat often here: Boise State is a great university with a great football team attached to it,” Kustra said, “not a great football program that happens to have a university attached to it.”
And while the caliber of players that Boise State can recruit is improving, the roster is still decidedly blue-collar, filled with guys who were either snubbed or downright ignored by the power conferences. Winterswyk, on the preseason watch list for the Bronko Nagurski Trophy given to the country’s top defensive player, was a walk-on. Austin Pettis, who hauled in the game-winning catch against Virginia Tech, took one recruiting trip, to Boise State.
And yet, the Broncos just keep winning.
“We’ve just got to keep that same thing, having that Bronco mentality, that chip on your shoulder,” Pettis said. “Just going with that mentality that everyone still is against you even though we’re starting to get recognition now.”
There’s another side to Boise State’s success that adds a little more pressure to win — name recognition. Student applications rose 9.1 percent the year after the 2007 Fiesta Bowl. Licensed merchandise generated almost $750,000 in royalties last year, money that helps fund scholarships. A football fan in Salt Lake City donated a big chunk of money for the new business school.
The Broncos have helped give Idaho national recognition, too.
“We don’t have anything else to export. We have natural beauty,” Custer said. “It’s fun to have this unexpected thing to export, this great football program.”
And this season could be the biggest yet.
The Broncos survived what is expected to be their biggest test by beating then-No. 10 Virginia Tech at Washington’s FedEx Field. They play Oregon State on Sept. 25, but the game is at Bronco Stadium, where Boise State is 63-2 since 2000. Fresno State and Nevada look to be Boise State’s toughest WAC foes, but the Fresno State game is in Boise and the Broncos have won 10 straight against the Wolf Pack.
Get through the regular season undefeated again, and Boise State could find itself back in Glendale, Ariz., this time playing for the national title.
“Are we good for college football? I think so,” Pettis said. “You don’t always want those big powerhouses winning every single year. It’s just like in professional sports, when the Patriots are winning a bunch of years or the Lakers or the Celtics are winning a bunch. You want to see some underdogs come through sometimes.”