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Boise State's rise is astonishing, but it didn't happen overnight

BOISE, Idaho -- The father of Boise State football is leaning unsteadily on an overturned rubber trash barrel. Already this sunny morning, the temperature has climbed into the low 80s, heading toward hot. Lyle Smith is 94, and he tightly clutches a cane in his right hand to maintain his balance, but he's content, enjoying every moment of his regular visit to the Broncos' practice -- and marveling at the opportunity available to his boys.

"I have high hopes," Smith says -- and this could be the theme for the entire football program, throughout its history.

The latest, most implausible chapter begins tonight, when third-ranked Boise State meets No. 10 Virginia Tech in the most anticipated game of college football's opening weekend. If the Broncos win, we'll all point next to a date in three weeks on the famous blue turf with Oregon State. Win both, and the countdown to another unbeaten season will be on, and the argument will begin in earnest: Can Boise State become the ultimate BCS-buster? Could the Broncos really play for a national championship?

The question around college football, of course, will be whether they should. No reason to poll the people here, because there's no doubt as to their point of view. But even for the most fanatical Boise State supporters, the concept remains almost inconceivable.

That's especially true for Smith, who more than anyone has perspective on the program's sudden rise.

"I can't believe it," he says, "that they have come this far."

The Boise State story usually begins in the mid-1990s. It has been 14 years since the school with the blue field moved up from what was then NCAA's Division I-AA (now known as the Football Championship Subdivision) to I-A (Football Bowl Subdivision). Back then, the slogan that was more an inside joke was "Rose Bowl 2000." No one really expected it by 2000. Or really, ever.

But a few years later, the Broncos were playing in the Fiesta Bowl against college football titan Oklahoma, dominating most of the way, then winning late with a fantastic series of trick plays. The Broncos were cute, cuddly upstarts, a neat feel-good story. There was even the perfect subplot when running back Ian Johnson, just after scoring to win the game, dropped to a knee and proposed to his fiancée, a cheerleader.

"It was crazy," Boise State's junior tight end Kyle Efaw says.

Efaw grew up in town, with season tickets -- Section 121, high above "the blue" -- watching the program win hometown Humanitarian Bowls and thinking how cool it all was. But the Fiesta Bowl?

"I had never thought that would happen," he says.

Who did? And who would have believed, even then, that they'd be in position four years later to potentially win it all? Yeah, everything has changed in a hurry.

This might be college football's ultimate up-by-the-bootstraps story, which is appropriate, since Idaho is a place where they still know bootstraps. But where to begin? Four years ago? Fourteen?

Try 64.

That's when a 30-year-old coach from upstate Moscow, Idaho, arrived at Boise Junior College. The Methodist school's campus had 700 students and six buildings on the southern banks of the Boise River, right next to the town's airfield, which was best known as a stopover on the nation's first commercial airmail run a few years earlier. (These days, Bronco Stadium -- and Lyle Smith Field, and the famed blue carpet, and appropriately the place where the story has taken flight -- sits atop the old runway.)

The football field wasn't blue, but brown. The place was nothing but "a lot of sand and sagebrush," Smith recalls. The fledgling football program didn't have much of a presence in the capital city with a population of maybe 30,000.

The new assistant football coach's first trip to the barbershop, just across the river in downtown, revealed the program's lack of stature. When Smith explained why he'd moved to town, the barber wasn't familiar with the school, much less the football team.

"When the barber doesn't know what's going on, it isn't a very big deal," Smith says.

**********

These days you can't go anywhere in the Treasure Valley without spotting BSU blue and orange and hearing people talk Broncos football. It wasn't that way even 15, 20 years ago. Which is why we need to introduce Travis Hawkes. Born and raised here, a Boise State fan back when it wasn't cool, he remembers crying after each loss to cross-state rival Idaho. The 34-year-old entrepreneur has ridden the Broncos' wave to personal success.

Four years ago this summer, Hawkes opened the Blue and Orange Store in a second-floor vacancy at Boise Towne Square, the area's largest mall. He already owned a successful sports apparel shop, selling licensed team gear for college and pro teams, but a store devoted solely to Boise State merchandise was a leap into the unknown.

The timing, however, was good. That fall under first-year head coach Chris Petersen, who'd been promoted when Dan Hawkins moved on to Colorado, the Broncos rolled to an unbeaten season. When they received a BCS berth in the Fiesta Bowl opposite Oklahoma, Hawkes' sales exploded.

On the day in December when the first shipment of Fiesta Bowl gear was scheduled to arrive, hundreds of fans showed up, lines spilling out of the store and far into the mall. When the UPS delivery guy arrived and began carting in box after box of merchandise, he was cheered like a rock star.

"I caught lightning in a bottle," Hawkes says. He won't reveal specifics, but that first year the Blue and Orange Store's revenues were four times what he'd hoped and not much has changed since. ("It's blown through all the projections," he says.) Well, except for fans' expectations. Those are very different.

"Now it's like, 'Yeah, we've made it to two Fiesta Bowls and won,' " Hawkes says. " 'Let's get the bigger prize.' Every time you think the excitement can't get higher, it does."

**********

Petersen hears the noise, as much as he'd like not to, and he scoffs. Winning a national championship?

"I put very little stock in what could be," he says. "So much has to happen right."

But so much has, and mostly since Petersen was elevated to head coach. The fifth-year coach's record is 49-4, including milestone win after milestone win after milestone win. The Fiesta Bowl victory over Oklahoma. Last year's Fiesta Bowl win over TCU. Each time the Broncos have arrived at another challenge, they've overcome it.

Since 2000, they're 122-20. In the last four years, they're 31-1 in the WAC. They've regularly beaten BCS-league opponents, and won those two Fiesta Bowls, which is why they're in position now for what even Petersen concedes would be a fabulous thing: "great for the university, and good for college football to have a team like us discussed, because it's just so different." Kind of like everything at Boise State these days.

Since Petersen's arrival, the football budget has increased from $3.4 million to $6.6 million -- much of that is in salaries for his assistant coaches. The athletic department's budget has increased dramatically, as well, from $18 million in 2006 to $28 million now. The football and overall budgets trail behind schools in the BCS leagues, but they're catching up.

Last month the school announced plans to expand the stadium by 20,000 seats, to 53,000, at a cost of more than $100 million. The project would include new football facilities, and doesn't have any funding yet, but school officials say it's essential for the continued growth of Boise State football.

They're moving up, too. Earlier this summer, Boise State was admitted to the Mountain West. At the time, it seemed like another huge step upward, though more recent events -- BYU's bolt for independence -- have changed the picture somewhat. Regardless, Boise State's ascent continues.

Along with it have come some disconcerting developments. When Boise State moved this summer to the Mountain West Conference, school president Robert Kustra publicly announced that he saw no reason to continue playing rival Idaho.

There has always been a natural tension between the state's older, more established university and the upstart in the capital city. Boise State had long ago surpassed Idaho as a football program, and maybe playing an annual nonconference game against a lesser opponent doesn't make sense in the bigger picture. But it was also ironic. Here was Boise State in an unfamiliar role, reacting just the way college football's established powers often have to the Broncos.

There's no benefit to playing Idaho? What good does it do Ohio State or Alabama to play Boise State?

But longtime Boise State athletic director Gene Bleymaier -- he's the guy who, back in 1986, decided to install the blue turf as a marketing gimmick -- says the overarching goal is to maintain status as a perennial top-20 program.

"Then you're in position to have a magical year," he says, "and to win championships."

And that's the interesting thing, because the definition of "magical year" has changed.

"The bar has been raised, unrealistically," Bleymaier says. "I'm not sure everybody here in Boise really understands just how rare this is and how hard it is to do, because the success came so quickly."

How quickly depends upon your perspective, of course. And Bleymaier admits: "We have a unique opportunity this season."

**********

After a year as an assistant, Smith took over as head coach in 1947. The Broncos won their first 33 games, and in 1949, they played in the Kern County Shrine Potato Bowl (aptly named, huh, considering Idaho's famous spuds) in Bakersfield, Calif. The Broncos upset favored Taft Junior College. When they returned to Boise, they were greeted by 500 well-wishers.

"After that," Smith remembers, "we began to get a little notice in the community."

In 20 years under Smith -- he was called away for awhile by the Korean conflict -- the Broncos won 82 percent of the time, including a junior college national championship in 1958. Boise Junior College became a four-year school, and a state institution. The football program kept moving to higher levels, and kept winning, achieving unprecedented new heights: Junior Rose Bowls, Camellia Bowls, I-AA national championships -- and more recently, Humanitarian Bowls and Fort Worth Bowls.

Smith coached, and then served as athletic director, and now he watches, still amazed by each step upward, and the success that has followed. The Broncos have gone from competing against Tyler and Taft and Linfield to beating Oregon and Oklahoma, and Smith shakes his head when he considers the radical change.

As Paul Schneider (the team's former radio broadcaster) used to put it, people around here have long reveled in the idea that they were "pretty small potatoes." The concept of Boise State as one of college football's big boys?

"I have a hard time realizing whether we are," Smith says. "I've been around it enough to know the dang ball bounces funny sometimes."

Smith, who attended both Fiesta Bowls, still drives himself around town. He's a fixture at Boise State events, and a frequent visitor to the football offices. Tonight, as the Broncos try to take another large step upward, Smith will watch from home, "so proud of these guys." Yeah, he's having a hard time wrapping his mind around the unprecedented opportunity.

"Let's put it this way," Smith says. "I didn't think I would be here to see it."

Did anyone?

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