The time had come for Chris Petersen to leave Boise State

Friday December 6th, 2013

In eight seasons as Boise State's head coach, Chris Petersen went 92-12 and won two BCS bowl games.
David Bergman/SI

It was time.

The day has finally arrived. After a tremendous eight-year run as the head coach at Boise State, Chris Petersen is heading to a power-conference school. After he had turned down many opportunities over the years -- including from seemingly half the schools in the Pac-12 -- some fans are surely wondering, why Washington? Why was an average program able to lure away the guy with the absurd 92-12 career record and two BCS bowl wins when Arkansas, Stanford, UCLA and so many others could not?

Because it was time.

Petersen, 49, had been loyal to the Broncos for so long -- bucking the standard that a successful coach in a perceived mid-major conference bolts for the first big name that comes along -- that it was fair to wonder whether he'd ever leave. Well, only a couple of years ago, he really had no reason to.

ELLIS: Washington hires Chris Petersen as Huskies' next coach

Besides the fact that he obviously loved the community at Boise State, Petersen had elevated the Broncos to a place where they consistently competed for BCS bowls and had an outside shot at the national title. Thanks to a transcendent quarterback in Kellen Moore and a bunch of former two-star recruits turned NFL talents -- including running back Doug Martin -- Boise had become the rare non-AQ program with BCS-conference respect. The Broncos validated that reputation in large part by beating highly-ranked power-conference opponents (Oklahoma, Oregon, Virginia Tech, Georgia). In October 2010, Boise State reached No. 2 in the AP Poll (the Broncos lost to Nevada on Nov. 26 and ended the season ranked ninth). Even after Moore left, Boise still began each of the past two seasons in the Top 25. That's saying something. By contrast, Northern Illinois, despite a 12-2 record and an Orange Bowl appearance last year, didn't return to the polls this season until Oct. 6.

But the climate surrounding Petersen's program has changed considerably. For one thing, the Broncos have learned that sustained dominance is not guaranteed. Rebuilding Boise State slipped to 8-4 this year, its lowest win total since Petersen took over in 2006. That's not to say the team was imploding, but Petersen definitely faced challenges, most notably near-constant turnover on his coaching staff. In the last four years, defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox and offensive coordinators Bryan Harsin and Brent Pease all left for similar jobs at bigger-name programs. (Harsin is now the head coach at Arkansas State.)

More troubling for Petersen, however, was that the massive conference realignment of the past several years had left Boise State more isolated than ever before. While fellow BCS busters TCU (Big 12) and Utah (Pac-12) were called up to the big leagues, the Broncos, saddled with their small stadium, their tiny TV market and their modest athletic department, were only able to jump up from the now-defunct WAC to the Mountain West. In 2010, when Boise agreed to that move, the conference still included the Horned Frogs, the Utes and BYU; it was making a serious push for BCS AQ status. The Broncos briefly appeared headed to the Big East until that conference ultimately crumbled.

Then all hell broke loose, not only with conference membership but with the entire college football system. Next year the sport will move from the BCS to a four-team playoff to decide its national championship, with a playoff selection committee that will put special emphasis on a team's strength of schedule. Playing in a depleted conference that is now basically a facsimile of the WAC circa 2010 -- where this season 10-1 Fresno State is the lone team with fewer than four losses -- it's unrealistic to think Boise could ever qualify for one of the four playoff spots. The Broncos actually had a better shot at a national title in the old system, as strange as that may seem.

So Petersen found himself at a career crossroads. He could become a Boise State lifer and keep going to Las Vegas Bowls every year, or he could go to a school with the resources and the clout to become a national player. But whatever school he chose still had to be the right fit. Petersen does not have a big-city personality. He's introverted and closed-off. He ran the Broncos under a cloak of secrecy that always seemed a bit over-the-top considering how far removed they were from the major media markets. It was never realistic that he would leave for a pressure-cooker school in the SEC or elsewhere.

Still, it's telling that Petersen actually interviewed for the vacant USC job before the Trojans hired former Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian. That Petersen would seriously consider going to one of the most heavily scrutinized programs in the country -- which the L.A. media covers like it would a pro team -- shows that he really was looking to leave. Officially, he "withdrew from consideration" for the USC job, but that doesn't mean the same thing as "turned down." Both sides realized it wasn't a good fit.

MANDEL: USC makes questionable move by tapping Steve Sarkisian

Washington, on the other hand, is pretty much a dream situation for both the coach and the school. Petersen, a former Oregon assistant, returns to the Pacific Northwest, where he'll be able to recruit primarily from the same region (mostly California) he did at Boise State. The Huskies haven't been to a BCS bowl in 13 years, but they have made heavy investments in football recently, most notably with the two-year renovation of Husky Stadium and the sparkling new football facility affixed to it. Petersen will reportedly be one of the highest-paid coaches in the Pac-12, and there's little doubt that he will be given the resources to hire his choice of assistants (as Sarkisian was when he hired Wilcox and ace recruiter Tosh Lupoi). Petersen also inherits a talented, veteran roster that slightly underachieved in each of the past two seasons.

Still, winning won't be easy. Washington's division includes current national powers Oregon and Stanford, as well as high-profile coaches David Shaw and Mike Leach. And there will be no New Mexicos or UNLVs on the Huskies' schedule. But Petersen's record speaks for itself. He's one of the most renowned coaches in the country. There's no reason to think his future career will follow the same declining arc of former Boise coaches Dirk Koetter and Dan Hawkins. Petersen's Broncos rose to a much higher level than Boise State ever achieved under his predecessors. Broncos fans should appreciate all he accomplished over the past eight years.

But it was time to go.

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