For the past three years, whether attending conferences with colleagues or simply walking through an airport, Boise State President Bob Kustra knows to expect an inevitable conversation.
"Whether I'm wearing a Boise State jacket or it says Boise State on my name tag, the next thing they want to talk about is that Oklahoma game," said Kustra. "It's amazing to me that one game has so thoroughly defined us."
On Monday night, the sixth-ranked Broncos return to the scene of their unforgettable 2007 Fiesta Bowl upset, only this time they'll be joined by a fellow BCS outsider, No. 3 TCU. It will be a landmark moment in the 12-year history of the BCS, the first time that two undefeated teams have met in a non-championship bowl and the first time that two teams from outside of the six automatic-qualifying conferences have received BCS berths in the same year.
"You probably think we have been waiting three weeks to get here," Horned Frogs coach Gary Patterson said upon his team's arrival in the desert. "I've been waiting 12 years at TCU."
In opting for the unconventional matchup, Fiesta Bowl CEO John Junker knows that he's defying a whole bunch of longstanding notions that he and his colleagues have held toward the sport's so-called mid-majors -- that TV viewers won't tune in, that their small fan bases won't travel, or that such teams are less "deserving" than their major-conference counterparts of one of the coveted $17.8 million BCS berths.
Under BCS qualification rules, TCU earned an automatic bid by finishing in the top 12 and higher than any other non-AQ team. After the Sugar Bowl replaced national championship participant Alabama with Florida, the Fiesta chose the Horned Frogs over Big Ten candidates Iowa and Penn State (both 10-2) to replace No. 2 Texas. The Orange Bowl then nabbed the Hawkeyes with the first at-large pick. When the Fiesta chose again, it opted for Boise State (which was not guaranteed a berth) over another undefeated team, Big East champion Cincinnati.
"Any TV 101 [expert] is going to tell you you're better off with Notre Dame, Texas or USC than you are with Boise State and TCU," said Junker. "We just felt TCU was absolutely the best team available. We were convinced they'd bring enough people and support us well. After that, it's based on who's left. Boise has a track record in terms of travel to our game and support and enthusiasm. They did very well [in 2007]. We feel great about having matched [BCS] No. 4 and 6 together."
Both schools sold out their 17,500-ticket allotment as soon as they went on sale and requested more, and Fox executives have expressed confidence that the game will garner a strong television rating.
Asked whether he could have envisioned staging such a game five years ago, back when the Fiesta reluctantly became the first BCS bowl to host such a team [Utah], Junker replied candidly: "We never sat down and said 'We'll never do that,' but no, I would not have expected thinking this way then."
But the landscape has changed dramatically and rapidly for schools like Boise State and TCU. In the first six seasons of the BCS [1998-2003], no non-AQ team participated in one of the bowls. During the six seasons since, there have been six. For that, they owe a debt of gratitude to an unlikely martyr.
In 1998 Scott Cowen was in his first year as the president of Tulane when the Green Wave, led by star quarterback Shaun King, went 11-0 in the regular season. At the time, teams from outside the "Big Six" conferences needed to finish in the Top 6 to play in one of the then four BCS bowls. The two at-large berths went to No. 4 Ohio State and No. 8 Florida. Tulane, ranked 10th, went to the Liberty Bowl.
"I remember asking the question, why aren't we playing in one of the big bowls, and being told, 'It's a new system. They have certain rules,'" said Cowen. "I was pretty upset, but I didn't know enough about the BCS back then."
Four years later, he had become well versed on the subject. With Tulane's athletic department plagued by a $7 million annual deficit, the school's board of trustees considered the drastic step of dropping the program to Division III and/or cutting football. Following a year-long review, the board ultimately voted in June 2003 to remain a Division I-A program. During the process, however, it conducted a study of the national collegiate landscape that revealed a rapidly widening financial gap between BCS and non-BCS conference programs.
"That led me to believe enough is enough," said Cowen, who vowed at the time to "get rid of the Bowl Championship Series."
Within a month of the board's decision, Cowen had launched the Presidential Coalition for Athletics Reform, asking his colleagues from the five conferences without an automatic BCS berth (the Mountain West, WAC, Conference USA, the MAC and Sun Belt) to join together in a fight to dismantle the system. His group launched a massive p.r. campaign, with Cowen writing a New York Times op-ed urging "my fellow university presidents to actively challenge the NCAA, the BCS and the current system of intercollegiate athletics in this country."
He would later testify that fall during both House and Senate committee hearings regarding potential BCS antitrust issues.
"[Cowen] took the ball and ran with it," said WAC commissioner Karl Benson. "He had a plan in place, he exercised some of his political connections. It was the Group of Five, for the first time, working together."
On July 22, 2003, 44 presidents from non-BCS schools around the country held a teleconference to begin their campaign. Publicly, Cowen pushed for an ever-elusive Division I-A playoff. Privately, he knew that to be unrealistic and focused primarily on one overriding goal.
"Access, access, access," said Cowen. "Distribution of revenue was important, but not as important as access. If we had the ability to demonstrate ourselves on field, sooner or later the revenue would come."
His timing could not have been better.
With the BCS' original eight-year contract with ABC set to expire in 18 months and criticism of the six-year-old system intensifying, presidents from the BCS' six founding conferences and Notre Dame had recently formed their own Presidential Oversight Committee, the first time university CEOs had played a formal role in the system's governance. The day before the Coalition presidents' first conference call, the BCS presidents agreed to the first of what would be three face-to-face meetings between the groups on Sept. 8 in Chicago. They did so reluctantly.
"It would be disingenuous if I didn't say we were facing some pressure," said Nebraska chancellor Harvey Perlman, now the chairman of the BCS' Presidential Oversight Committee. "There was a feeling that the members of the five non-BCS conferences were still our colleagues, still Division I members. There was some feeling that we ought to listen to them and see in good faith if there were ways we could improve postseason football while still operating under a certain set of principles we were not going to violate.
"But I think the six of us who were negotiating on behalf of the conferences and Notre Dame believed that if we could not find a way to open up some access, we were perfectly content to stay with the system we had."
The two sides met again on Nov. 16 in New Orleans in conjunction with the National Symposium on Athletic Reform. The late NCAA president Myles Brand, a keynote speaker at that event, wound up serving as a facilitator during the two sides' discussions. While the BCS operates independently from the NCAA, Brand's stature as well as his background as a former university president proved extremely important. "He tried to be a statesman and bridge the gap between us," said Cowen.
Brand served as the go-between at what would prove a contentious but climactic meeting of the two sides on Feb. 29, 2004, at the Fontainebleau Hilton Resort in Miami. According to multiple participants and witnesses, the two groups started the day at the same conference table but wound up retreating to separate rooms, with Brand walking up and down the hall delivering proposals and counterproposals. "I remember it to be a long day," said Perlman.
By evening, however, the parties had reached a sweeping agreement that caught the sport's media -- and even many athletic administrators -- by surprise. Starting with the 2006 season, there would be a fifth BCS game. The threshold for earning an automatic berth from one of the "non-AQ" (automatic qualifier) conferences dropped from Top 6 to Top 12 (or Top 16 if ranked higher than one of the AQ champions). And the revenue distributed to those leagues would double to about $9 million (plus an additional $9 million when one of its teams earned a berth).
Had the model been in place during the BCS' first six seasons, four non-AQ teams -- Tulane in 1998, Marshall in '99, TCU in 2000 and Miami of Ohio in 2003 -- would have qualified.
The new model was met with lukewarm reception by the bowls, which feared watered-down matchups, and television partner ABC, which, after making a reduced offer to retain rights to the bowls, eventually bowed out of all but the Rose Bowl. Fox stepped in to claim the other games, but at almost no increase from the BCS' original rights fees.
"I don't think any of us thought we were gaining money by allowing the other five conferences the access we ultimately gave them," said Perlman. "I'm not going to say we weren't concerned about our own financial interests, but in the end we did not pursue courses of action that would have maximized those interests."
Shortly after Fox announced its deal in November 2004, Urban Meyer's undefeated Utah team became the first to earn an automatic BCS berth under the existing Top 6 standard. The Utes' Jan. 1 Fiesta Bowl game against 8-3 Pittsburgh garnered what was then the lowest TV rating in BCS history (7.4), confirming many parties' worst fears. Junker, however, was pleasantly surprised by Utah's huge fan turnout (an estimated 50,000 attendees) and its on-field performance (a 35-7 rout).
He had also begun turning his attention to another potential party crasher, Boise State, which itself had gone undefeated during the '04 regular season (losing to Louisville in the Liberty Bowl) behind then-sophomore quarterback Jared Zabransky.
"We literally told our people two years ahead of time we were going to have Boise State in our game," said Junker. "We saw that one coming."
In 2006, the first season of the BCS' new "double-hosting" model (four bowl games plus a stand-alone championship game in one of the same four cities), first-year coach Chris Petersen led the Broncos to their second undefeated regular season in three years -- only now, under the new criteria pushed through by Cowen's group, their No. 8 ranking was good enough to garner an automatic berth.
As Junker had predicted, Boise slipped to the Fiesta Bowl, which had last pick of at-large teams that year. We all know what happened next. The Broncos -- just over a decade removed from I-AA -- stunned 11-2 Oklahoma in an overtime classic marked by trick plays, wild comebacks and a postgame marriage proposal.
"The fifth game allowed Boise to get in," said WAC commissioner Benson. "I'm proud of the fact the Boise-Oklahoma game is considered part of college football history."
The game drew an 8.4 Nielsen rating, which seemed modest at the time but has since proven the third highest of any non-championship or Rose Bowl since the BCS went to five games. While Boise rose from ninth to fifth in the final AP poll, it still finished behind two BCS-conference teams (LSU and USC) with two losses. And any respect that the Broncos may have generated for the WAC was squashed the following year when Hawaii -- which went 12-0 against the nation's weakest schedule -- got trounced 41-10 by 10-2 Georgia in the Sugar Bowl.
That same setting, however, would provide the backdrop a year later when Utah -- 12-0 and ranked sixth in the final BCS standings -- stunned 12-1 Alabama 31-17. Unlike previous BCS busters with admittedly flimsy résumés, the Utes had previously distinguished themselves with wins over three teams that would finish the season ranked in the Top 25. Their bowl opponent had spent five weeks at No. 1 prior to their SEC Championship Game loss to Florida.
Utah finished No. 2 in the final AP poll behind only BCS champion Florida, the highest ranking for a Mountain West or WAC team since BYU's 1984 national title, and the non-AQ teams improved their record in BCS games to 3-1. (The ACC, by comparison, is 2-9.)
When the preseason polls came out for 2009, one could see the cumulative effect of Utah and Boise State's wins, plus the respect earned by the Mountain West last season, when it went 6-1 against the Pac-10. Boise State started 14th and TCU 17th, a sign of newfound respect from the same voters who had 2006 Boise State and 2008 Utah unranked to start the year.
Within five weeks, the Broncos -- buoyed by a season-opening rout of Oregon -- shot up to No. 5. The Horned Frogs, which won at Clemson on Sept. 26, took longer to crack the Top 10 but eventually surpassed Boise thanks to blowout wins over ranked BYU and Utah teams.
Heading into the final weeks of the regular season, discussion turned to two previously unthinkable possibilities -- whether two non-AQ teams could garner at-large berths in the same season and, remarkably, whether TCU could sneak into the national championship game.
Texas' last-second win over Nebraska in the Big 12 title game ended the latter dream but virtually guaranteed the former. (A Huskers upset would have given the Big 12 two BCS berths, likely bumping Boise State.) The Horned Frogs' No. 3 ranking in both the final regular-season AP and coaches polls and No. 4 (behind Cincinnati) in the BCS standings were the highest for a non-AQ team since the BCS' inception.
"We always believed if [the non-AQs] could demonstrate ourselves competitively on the field that it would make a very strong statement in the future," said Cowen. "It's progressing at a faster rate than we thought it would."
While TCU has been consistently successful for much of the decade, it assuredly benefited from the newfound respect for its conference.
"It's been more a process than anything else," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. "Getting to the BCS twice has been big for us, but the most important thing for the Mountain West is we've been playing consistently well against the AQ schools. I don't think there's been any one event or defining moment."
That could come on Monday.
When the Fiesta's surprising matchup was announced on Dec. 6, the overwhelming reaction was... fury.
It's not that fans and media didn't want TCU and Boise to play; they didn't want to see them play each other. Some felt that the teams were deprived of an opportunity to prove themselves against BCS-conference foes. Others went so far as to suggest a conspiracy on the part of BCS organizers to protect the major-conference teams. (In reality, each bowl chooses its teams individually.)
"Maybe I'm the most naive person in history of the world," said Junker, "but I was shocked [by the reaction] -- candidly, for reasons I didn't expect.
"If the non-AQs don't want to play each other, that's not very helpful to their cause. If you're not good enough to play each other, why should you be good enough to play Texas and Oklahoma? Let's judge by the product on the field."
Fiesta officials consulted both Fox's brass and a prominent former sports television executive, all of whom affirmed that the matchup -- which should benefit from taking the traditional Monday Night Football time slot -- should garner decent ratings (provided it's a close game).
From his office in New Orleans, Cowen initially had his own skeptical reaction about the matchup -- until "I really sat down and thought about it," he said. "I think the plusses outweigh the negatives. The overwhelming plus is we have two [non-AQ] teams in. Secondly, I think this is going to be a very popular game on TV. In the past, people could say the reason a game was so popular was because Alabama was in the game. If this game is popular, they can't say that anymore.
"Most importantly, there's going to be at least two undefeated teams [after the bowls], and one of those will be from a non-AQ. It will ultimately stoke the question of whether there should have been another game or two."
Six years since he began his fight for the sport's disaffected, Cowen remains a playoff proponent -- though he has a strange way of showing it. As Conference USA's representative on the BCS Presidential Oversight Committee (which recently added seats for all five of the non-AQ leagues), Cowen is "100 percent supportive of the agreement we have. I've always believed that the current agreement is a step in a journey. My ultimate vision, whether it happens in four years, eight years or 12 years, is a playoff."
Cowen was notably quiet when the Mountain West -- fueled by Utah's Sugar Bowl victory and accompanying political backlash -- posited its own playoff proposal last spring after the other non-AQ leagues had already signed off on a new four-year contract with ESPN (it begins next year). WAC commissioner Benson was peeved.
"The Group of Five was trying to do some strategic planning in terms of how to tweak the system in the future, possibly calling for a provision that would guarantee a second automatic berth for [a non-AQ with] a top 8 ranking," said Benson. "That got lost in the shuffle after the Mountain West came out with its reform package."
As in 2003, any further changes will likely result from the "Group of Five" working together. Once again, it will have to come from the presidential level.
"What we agreed to in 2003 and '04 is playing out the way we envisioned it would," said Cowen. "Until we proved our credibility on the playing field, questions always arose as to how competitive we were. Those questions don't come up as much anymore."
"We've come a long ways, and to have these two teams pitted against each other is a game people around the country are going to watch," said Benson. "The next hurdle for a WAC team or Mountain West team is to truly be in contention to play for a national championship."
As recently as last summer, that seemed like a pipe dream -- but so, too, did a TCU-Boise State Fiesta Bowl. Monday night's winner will be poised to start next season in the Top 10, if not the top five. Their next watershed moment could come sooner than anyone imagined.