BOISE, Idaho -- The message on the marquee, there at Buster's on Broadway, was simple enough: "Houston, free ribs for life if you stay."
And after Houston Nutt skipped town, so did Dirk Koetter and Dan Hawkins. Even as Boise State football evolved from that team with the funky field into a BCS-buster, few here developed any illusions. They remained resigned, knowing despite Boise's fantastic livability ratings, an ultra-loyal fan base and an ever-expanding horizons, the job remained a steppingstone.
Until now, that is. Until Chris Petersen.
Under Petersen, the Broncos have reached new heights. It started with that Fiesta Bowl win over Oklahoma and continued as the Broncos marched to a 35-4 record in Petersen's three years (including two undefeated regular seasons). If they can get by Oregon tonight -- no easy task, but the Ducks are playing on the famed blue turf, where the Broncos have gone 64-2 since 1999 -- many think they're on their way to more perfection, and another BCS bowl appearance.CRYSTAL BALL: SI predicts Boise will bust the BCS
So it's no surprise Petersen, 44, has popped up on the wish list of every athletic director in charge of a football problem. What amazes people, though, is the charismatic coach who made his name with the hook-and-ladder shows no inclination to climb the ladder.
"I just know it's a good place," Petersen said of Boise. "We still see tremendous potential in this setup here, without question. (Hawkins) used to say, 'If they can do unbelievable things in Tallahassee, Fla., or Lincoln, Neb., why can't we do those things here?'
"I kind of think the same things."
Yeah, you've heard this before. Every up-and-comer talks about how he loves it here, about what the program can accomplish. Next thing you know, he's wearing different colors, talking about how excited he is to be in this new, bigger, better place and about how much more this program can achieve.
Boise State fans know the drill. Nutt left town after one season -- a couple of days after the free ribs were offered -- calling Arkansas his dream job. Koetter left for Arizona State, and Hawkins is trying to do unbelievable things at Colorado. Could "Coach 'Pete'" be far behind?
Maybe not. "We think we've got our man," said longtime booster Milford Terrell, a former president of the Bronco Athletic Association (and current member of the Idaho State Board of Education).
Petersen has already turned away several interested suitors. Last December, rumors linked him to openings at Washington and Mississippi State. Heck, people in Oregon are excited about rookie head coach Chip Kelly, but until he emerged they figured Petersen was the most likely choice to succeed Mike Bellotti.
Whether Petersen would have returned to Eugene, where he worked as receivers coach from 1995-2000, is a moot point, of course, because the job never opened. Still, something feels different.
"Chris is a little bit of a different animal in that regard," said Bellotti, now Oregon's athletic director. "He's not driven to be a head coach at whatever people might consider to be a major university."
It's hard to explain exactly why. Unless you know the back story, which begins 10 years ago when Petersen was at Oregon, with a bump turned into much more than a bruise.
Petersen's son Sam had just turned 1, an apparently healthy toddler playing with his older brother in the stands during a preseason scrimmage. But when he fell and hit his head, a routine examination revealed a nightmare. Sam had a brain tumor. And though it was successfully removed during an eight-hour surgery, doctors soon discovered the cancer had spread to Sam's spine.
As football season unfolded, Chris Petersen somehow balanced the 80-hour work weeks and family life. His wife, Barbara Petersen, spent a full month living at the hospital with young Sam. Chris divided his time between Eugene and Portland, 100 miles away, where his young son was undergoing treatment.
"I can't imagine going through what he did, working eight to five," said Oregon assistant Tom Osborne, one of Petersen's closest friends. "Let alone going through all of that. I don't have any idea how he did it."
No one's sure. But when Osborne says Petersen isn't the typical coach -- "It's usually ego-driven, but Chris doesn't have an ego," he said -- it begins to make more sense, and to sound like more than idle chatter.
But you're wondering about young Sam Petersen. The family celebrated his 11th birthday earlier this summer. He's healthy, a frequent presence around Bronco Stadium -- "Really into football, and the Broncos," Chris said -- and a constant reminder of why his father doesn't seem very interested in uprooting for the next big thing.
"Certain things happen," Hawkins said, "that add urgency and perspective."
Hawkins should know. He lured Petersen from Eugene to Boise to serve as offensive coordinator, but it wasn't easy. It took an unusual promise: an essentially local recruiting territory. Idaho doesn't produce many BCS-caliber football players; the Broncos scour the nation to find the 'tweeners and sleepers who make up the roster. But Hawkins promised Petersen he would only need to travel to recruit the occasional quarterback. Otherwise, Idaho was his territory.
"It definitely helped that I wouldn't have to be away as much, for sure," Petersen said.
It also helped that Boise ranks high in various livability indexes. Yeah, it sounds like a Chamber of Commerce brochure, but if you've ever visited, you understand why people relocate, and then gush about the Treasure Valley.
"It's a great place, a really great place to live," Hawkins said. "Great people, a lot of things to do, pretty good weather."
Petersen's home is a short drive from the office, which is a few steps from the Boise River's recreational greenbelt. Barbara and the boys -- Sam and older brother Jack, 13 -- can visit Bronco Stadium, or Petersen can head home for lunch. There's a settled support group for Sam's medical needs, and a real connection with the community.
Combine that with this: "All (Sam's illness) did is reinforce our mindset," Petersen said. "I'm kind of a homebody. One of the negatives in the coaching profession is you have to pick up your family and move."
Football plays into this, of course. Petersen has built on the foundation his predecessors laid, and taken the Broncos higher than anyone would have dared dream. Although the blue turf at Bronco Stadium remains the city's No. 1 tourist attraction, the Boise State program is no longer viewed as a quirky curiosity. It seems crazy, but folks here believe it's possible, one day, to become the ultimate BCS-buster, to bring home a national championship to Boise.
Seems crazy, but the school was a junior college until the late 1960s, and the football program was Division II, then I-AA (now Football Championship Subdivision) and didn't become a I-A (Football Bowl Subdivision) program until 1996. Yet here the Broncos are now, a perennial threat to the BCS' established order. Would you really bet against them?
Sure, Petersen would likely have a more realistic chance at winning it all at other places. He could also make more money -- a whole lot more money. But those who know him insist a paycheck's not a driving force.
"He's not caught up at all," Boise State defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said, "in BCS conferences and bigger schools and bigger paychecks."
"None of that is going to determine my happiness," Petersen agreed.
Petersen's salary -- and as important, his assistants' pay -- has increased; he's making as much as most coaches at mid-level schools in bigger conferences. The school and community appear committed to supporting the program and providing resources. The prevailing mindset is ambitious optimism.
"As good as Boise State has been in the past, as good as it is right now, we just really feel that there's a lot more here, in this city, in this place," Petersen said. "We just know Boise is going to continue to grow. It's such a great place to live. And as that happens, and more resources and finances become available, we just think this place can take the next step. And that's exciting to be a part of."
Boise State fans couldn't be happier Petersen's still a part of it. Just ask Terrell, who owns and operates DeBest Plumbing and has a luxury suite in Bronco Stadium's recently completed, $38 million Stueckle Sky Center, and sees big things ahead for the Broncos under Petersen.
"I don't think he's in it for the big hype," Terrell said. "I think he's got a program he knows he can continue to build on."
Terrell's not just wishing. He's seen the other guys say the right things, then catch a plane in the middle of the night. All those years ago, he ate lunch with Nutt while the coach was in the middle of Arkansas' coaching search. Nutt told Terrell and a few others something like: "I'm not going anywhere. I'm happy here, my family's happy here, I'm not interested in any other jobs."
A couple days later, Nutt was calling the Hogs.
"There's some of that in your head," Terrell admitted. "But on the other side, we know Chris Petersen. You always have to worry, but with Chris, I don't worry as much, and I don't think the community worries as much."
Petersen won't say never. Even as he professes his commitment to Boise State, and his affection for life in Boise, he leaves himself an out. He's still young, and things change; he knows one day he might hunger for a different challenge. But he's not looking to leave.
"If you're going to go somewhere else," he said, "you'd better be pretty sure. I've seen people go to situations that they thought were going to be better, and then they're not better."
Nutt's dream job turned into a nightmare; he's now Ole Miss' coach. Koetter didn't last at Arizona State; he's the Jacksonville Jaguars' offensive coordinator. And after three underwhelming seasons in Boulder, Hawkins is under pressure to win now. The grass isn't always greener. Sometimes, blue isn't bad.
"We know it's a pretty good place here," Petersen said. "We don't take it for granted."
All these years after Nutt's departure, Buster's is still the place for pregame appetizers and postgame brews. A couple blocks south of Bronco Stadium, it's decorated in orange and blue, and the marquee remains available for last-ditch pleas in case another big name comes calling for Boise's coach.
Free ribs for life? Petersen could probably choose the restaurant, and the entrée. And here's the thing: Broncos fans are daring to believe he just might.