Guiding the Reins of the Broncos

The two-year process of selecting the All-Time BroncoCountry football team is nearing an end with special teams polls this weekend. One thing left to do: choose the all-time coach. Read the article then vote for your choice as the coach of this team on the Blue Turf Board.

The coaches of Boise State have built a legacy of success. Like the bricks referred to in last year's slogan, "Brick By Brick", these coaches built the foundation for what is now known around the country as Boise State football. Of course, Lyle Smith was a master and elevated the program from its early days into a highly successful junior college team, taking his teams to an undefeated record 5 different years and winning the NJCAA National Championship in 1958.

Tony Knap picked up where Smith left off, being named Head Coach for the 1968 season when Smith was promoted to Athletic Director. Boise State had just been approved as a four-year school and in 1970, was admitted for membership in the Big Sky Conference, competing in Division II of the NCAA. Knap won 35 games his first four seasons and never looked back. Under Knap's expert direction, the Broncos built a reputation for having solid defenses and explosive offenses that could both run and pass. Boise State won four Big Sky Conference championships, including three in a row from 1973 to 1975.

The Broncos won 10 games 3 different times under the likable and approachable Knap. He remarked once to a gathering of BAA Boosters: "…This is a team of destiny. It is in a highly desirable location with an ever-growing fan base. Boise State is destined to be a national powerhouse, up there with the Alabama's, the Nebraska's and the Notre Dames." The stunned boosters sat there, not knowing if their beloved coach was off his rocker or just what to make of that statement. As it turns out, Knap's statement turned out to be true. 30 years before it happened, it is eerily prophetic.

With Knap as Head Coach, the Broncos won 71, lost 19 and tied 1 for an outstanding 78.6%. Led by quarterback Eric Guthrie, Boise State throttled Idaho in the first ever meeting between the two schools, 42-14. Boise State finished 1971 undefeated at home and qualified for what then was the equivalent of the Division II national championship, the Camelia Bowl, played in Sacramento against Chico State. Chico State was given a pep talk by California First Lady Nancy Reagan prior to the game to represent the state well. It did not work, as Guthrie led a furious Bronco comeback in the fourth quarter, rallying for 25 points in the final 15 minutes to defeat Chico State 32-28.

By 1973, the NCAA had established playoff games for Division II and the Broncos qualified for a first-round game. They promptly went out and destroyed South Dakota 53-10 to advance to the Semifinals and a match with Louisiana Tech. Boise State held on to a 34-31 lead until late in the game Tech's Roger Carr slipped into an open spot in the end zone and caught the winning touchdown that enabled the Bulldogs to win 38-34. In both 1974 and 1975, Knap's teams again made the national playoffs, losing to Central Michigan 20-6 in '74 and then falling to Northern Michigan 24-21 the following year.

To everyone's disappointment, Knap accepted the coaching position at UNLV, and Boise State hired Jim Criner. Although the Broncos went 5-5-1 in his first year, Criner and the team rebounded in his second year, winning the Big Sky in 1977. The Broncos played their first Division I opponent in their history, but were solidly whipped by Fresno State 42-7. The following week, Boise State played former coach Knap and the Rebels and scored a 45-14 win. The following year, Boise State knocked off two more Division I programs, Cal State-Fullerton and Long Beach State, but had problems in the Big Sky and finished with a 7-4 record. One of Criner's assistants was found at a Northern Arizona practice that year (1978) and admonished by both the Big Sky and the NCAA for scouting violations. The penalty was that the Broncos could not appear on television and that they would not be eligible for the postseason the following year.

Those were not proud times for the Broncos. Criner hung a sign going out of the Varsity Center that said, "Those who stay will be national champions." Some players left, but most stayed. The scouting violation severely hurt the Broncos, as they followed a 9-7 loss to Division I Long Beach State with 10 consecutive wins. Boise State outscored opponents 347-140 that year, or an average of 31-13. Boise State and the Big Sky had moved up to Division I-A with the restructuring of the NCAA when some Division I programs were sent down to that division and a few of the previous Division II schools like Boise State joined them in the new division. The Broncos easily would have qualified for the I-AA national playoffs had it not been for the violation.

The long year was over, and Boise State moved to put the violation past them. Their first game on the 1980 schedule was in Salt Lake City against Division I-A Utah of the Western Athletic Conference. Boise State was a tune-up game for the Utes, so imagine their shock when Joe Aliotti, Cedric Minter, David Hughes, Terry Zahner and company came in and defeated them 28-7. Problem was, the team stayed up on cloud nine and promptly lost the following week to Southeastern Louisiana. That loss was followed two weeks later by another defeat at the hands of Montana State 18-17. The Broncos were now 2-2 despite the huge win over Utah and, given their ineligibility the previous year could have easily folded. Instead they came together as a team to win 6 of their final 7 games to capture their sixth Big Sky championship.

This time, they were eligible for the I-AA playoffs and were selected to host the Grambling Tigers. Legendary coach Eddie Robinson, one of the most successful head men in football history, led Grambling. Perennially, Grambling sent multiple players to the National Football League. Big, fast and athletic, the Tigers roared into Bronco Stadium, with some players even running out on the track and gesturing to the crowd with slashed throat motions. They didn't know Bronco fans and what was meant to intimidate the crowd backfired and instead energized the crowd of nearly 17,000.

Grambling was a big favorite in the game, thanks to their do-everything back, Trumaine Johnson and their big, tall defense nicknamed the "Trees of Terror". It was a cold, foggy day in Boise, a day typical of the inversions that are common in Treasure Valley winters. The temperature was about 17 degrees. This, combined with the hard-hitting Bronco defense, forced the sunny Louisiana boys to cough up the football numerous times, and even though Grambling was dominating the game between the 20's, they were tied at 7. The Bronco offense did very little against the Trees of Terror and punter Tom Spadafore was a busy man. Then, in the final quarter, Boise State's defense forced yet another turnover and the Bronco offense ran onto the field. Criner reached into his bag of tricks and called for a flea flicker with quarterback Aliotti handing the ball off, then having it pitched to him so he could look for an open receiver. Like magic, the play worked to perfection and Kipp Bedard streaked into the open. Aliotti hit him in stride and Bedard didn't stop running until he found the end zone for a 14-7 Bronco lead. Although athletically mismatched, the smaller Broncos somehow held on to win 14-9 and moved on to the national championship game in Sacramento against the defending national champion Eastern Kentucky Colonels.

The day in Sacramento was much as the Broncos had experienced the week before, foggy but at least warmer. They did not shy from the national spotlight and grabbed control of the game early. With a 24-22 lead late in the game, they appeared on the verge of a second national championship for the school. A long pass play by Eastern Kentucky all of a sudden gave EKU the 29-24 lead and the fortunes were reversed. Now, with just over a minute to play and the Broncos on their own 20, it was gut-check time. Playing like the great leader he was, Aliotti calmly led Boise State on "The Drive", a thing of perfection as Joe hit Bedard for three heart-stopping catches to move the team to the EKU 12. When three consecutive pass plays failed, Boise State was down to its final play of the year and still trailing. Aliotti dropped back and hoped there would be one more magic play in this magical season. The rush came, and Aliotti was forced to scramble to his right trying to hit Bedard. Then, he looked to his left and spotted a wide-open Duane Dlouhy in the opposite corner of the end zone. He heaved the ball across the field, Dlouhy clutched it with both hands, and the Bronco players and coaches went wild on the sideline. The Broncos had won the I-AA National Championship!

Criner and the Broncos nearly repeated that success the following year, taking a 9-2 record into the I-AA playoffs once again. They played Jackson State on the road and came away with a 19-7 win. Next came none other than Eastern Kentucky, and the Colonels were determined to exact revenge. Gone were all the members of the "Four Horsemen" that had led Boise State to its improbable national championship (Aliotti, Minter, Hughes, and Zahner). The Broncos put up a game fight that day in a contest very similar to the year before. This time, the magic wasn't there and when a late drive stalled on the EKU 20, the Colonels prevailed 24-17.

Criner left Boise State for Iowa State with a 59-21-1 Bronco record, a 73.5% winning percentage. In came Lyle Setencich, the Defensive Coordinator for Boise State. Setencich went 24-20 in four seasons and could not continue the Bronco momentum.

Setencich's replacement was Skip Hall, who had a penchant for imaginable play-calling and trick plays on offense. Hall's teams achieved wins over Division I Long Beach State twice as well as Pacific, and reached the I-AA playoffs in 1988. The following year, Oregon State of the PAC-10 came into Bronco Stadium for Boise State's first game against a school from that conference. In one of the most thrilling back and forth games ever played in Boise, the Beavers outlasted the determined Broncos 37-30.

In 1990, Hall assembled the best group of Broncos in his tenure here, including quarterback Mike Virden, running back Chris Thomas, receiver Winky White and the school's all-time leading tackler, Scott Russell. Boise State had a successful 8-3 regular season and was chosen for the I-AA playoffs yet again. They downed first Northern Iowa 20-3 then Middle Tennessee State 20-13 to advance to a semifinal playoff game for the fourth time in 18 years, a date in Reno against the Wolfpack of Nevada. The game was another classic, with the lead going back and forth until the two teams were tied at the end of regulation. First one overtime, then another, then another. White had grabbed 11 passes for a still-record 264 yards, but the Broncos fell to Nevada 59-52.

 

Hall finished with a 42-28 record for a 60% winning percentage. Portland State coach Pokey Allen had built that school into a highly successful Division 2 program who, perhaps not coincidentally had embarrassed Hall and the Broncos the year before, 51-26. Allen was the new man at Boise State and in 1994, only a heartbreaking 32-31 defeat at the hands of Idaho State was the lone blemish as the Broncos went into the annual Idaho game with a 9-1 record. Led by quarterback Tony Hilde, receiver Ryan Ikebe and sensational running back K.C. Adams, the Broncos had blown away their competition up until their final game. This record was highlighted by a masterful performance against the #1 team in the nation, the Montana Grizzlies, who were headed by All-American and future NFL quarterback Dave Dickinson. Dickinson had the press, but the Broncos' spirited defense was in his face time after time, sacking the star quarterback for what I believe was 12 sacks—too many to remember anyway! The Vandals had reeled off 12 straight victories over Boise State, and a business I owned started a campaign called, "#13 says "No!" to #13". #13 on the Broncos was, of course, K.C. Adams, and Adams & company did not let Bronco fans down, holding off the Vandals for a 27-24 win. As Offensive Coordinator Al Borges and rapid fans clung upside down to the North goal post in an attempt in vain to bring it down, Bronco fans celebrated as Boise State was 10-1 and headed to the I-AA playoffs for the 5th time in 15 years.

First up was North Texas, and the Mean Green was a rugged opponent and held the lead for a good part of the game. But Hilde and the Broncos wound up on top with a 24-20 victory. Next up, #3 team in the country, Appalachian State. Again, the Broncos found themselves behind in a defensive struggle. But again, Boise State pulled out a narrow 17-14 upset. The incredible season continued. Their next opponent was highly regarded Marshall, the #2 team in I-AA, which was readying for a jump to division I-A the following season. Marshall grabbed a quick 17-0 lead and some wondered if this was simply a mismatch. Amazingly though, Hilde rallied his troops and the Broncos staged one of the most impressive comebacks in their history, not stopping until they had sent Marshall home with a 28-24 defeat. The Broncos had made it to their third national championship game, only this time the result was not as positive as the previous two. Boise State lost to Youngstown State on that day, 28-14 and had to settle for runners-up.

The popular Pokey Allen coached one season after that when he was diagnosed with cancer. He spent the first ten games attempting to recover from the killer disease while assistant Tom Mason guided the team in its first year of Division I-A football in the Big West Conference. Determined, Pokey fought hard and even coached the final two games of the 1996 season, though he was forced to watch in disappointment as the Vandals poured it on in handing Coach Allen a 64-19 defeat in what would be his last game. Pokey died just months later.

Former Arkansas quarterback Houston Nutt was selected to lead the Broncos back. Although his record was 5-6, he recruited high quality players that would take the program to new heights, including quarterback Bart Hendricks. Before he could see how his players would do, though, Nutt bolted for his alma mater of Arkansas.

Dirk Koetter came from a coaching family with deep roots in Idaho, and it was hoped he would not leave the program as quickly as he came, as Nutt had done. In his first season, Koetter's Broncos knocked off Utah 31-28 in Salt Lake City. The following year, Boise State enjoyed its best season since the 1994 team. The Broncos lost to UCLA 38-7 opening day, but put together a 10-3 record and won the Big West championship. By winning the league, Boise State automatically qualified for the initial Humanitarian Bowl, and defeated Louisville and future NFL quarterback Chris Redman 34-31. The passing of junior quarterback Hendricks and the coming out party of freshman Brock Forsey propelled the Broncos to victory, along with a key interception return for a touchdown by Shaunard Harts.

In 2000, Boise State repeated as Big West champions, even taking SEC power Arkansas to the final seconds before losing 38-31 when a Bronco drive stalled at the 2-yard line. Boise State finished the season at 10-2, with a second straight Humanitarian Bowl victory, a 38-23 pasting of UTEP. Hendricks' passing, running (he sprinted up the middle for one 77-yard score, and catching (a gadget play to a leaping Hendricks in the end zone for the game's final touchdown) led Boise State.

Alas, Koetter eyed Arizona State of the PAC-10 and left for "greener pastures", much like Nutt had done. Wanting continuity and a coach the returning players respected, Boise State turned to assistant Dan Hawkins to take the reins. Boise State would be entering the WAC Conference in the fall of 2001, and Hawkins turned to sophomore quarterback Ryan Dinwiddie. Dinwiddie got baptism under fire losing to South Carolina 32-13, then came home for a game with nationally-ranked Washington State and with a 41-20 loss, the Broncos found themselves 2-2. Hawkins lit a fire under them, because they went 8-2 from that point on, including a 35-30 upset over 8th ranked Fresno State. Despite the tough schedule and the furious finish, the Broncos were left out of the bowl picture.

The bowl slight in 2001 led to a three-word motto that signified Bronco players' feelings—Leave No Doubt. It was a phrase they would take to heart. After suffering a loss to Arkansas 41-14 in the team's second game in which Dinwiddie would suffer an injury that kept him out for five weeks, backup B.J. Rhode took the helm and calmly led the Broncos to consecutive wins over Wyoming, Utah State, Hawai'i and Tulsa. Then came a rematch with Fresno State on ESPN and the word that Dinwiddie might play. He did come in after about a quarter to a thunderous applause and when he left the field that night, Dinwiddie had sliced and diced the defense for an incredible 19-22, 406-yard, 5-touchdown effort as Boise State played about as good as it could play in a 67-21 win. It proved the be the catalyst for their confidence as they followed with a 45-8 win over San Jose State, a 58-3 pounding of UTEP, a 49-3 shellacking of Rice, a 36-10 win over Louisiana Tech and a 44-7 whitewashing of Nevada.

For the first time in history, Boise State was ranked in the top 25 of Division I-A. They had won the WAC and now also had a chance to put away an old demon…they had never beaten a "BCS school", or a team from one of the six conferences which dominate college football. Iowa State of the Big 12 was on the docket for the Humanitarian Bowl and featured a talented quarterback by the name of Seneca Wallace. The Bronco defense rose to the occasion and severely limited Wallace's ability to do what he did best—scramble, run the football and throw short passes. Boise State did in fact put away that demon by a surprisingly easy score of 34-16. The Broncos finished the year 12-1 and ranked #12 in the Coaches' Poll and #15 in the Associated Press.

Could the Broncos do it again? Despite a narrow loss to Oregon State 26-24, Boise State got through the rest of its schedule without a blemish, winning their 2nd straight WAC Championship and their 18th straight league game. The Broncos had played in 3 Humanitarian Bowls in 4 years, but had never received an invitation from another bowl to play a tougher opponent. That changed beginning in 2003 as the Broncos drew TCU in the Fort Worth Bowl. It was an outstanding game, but the Broncos won 34-31 for their 4th bowl win in 5 years. They again finished in the top 15 of the Coaches' Poll.

Many of the stars of those historic years (Forsey, Dinwiddie, Fanucchi, Swillie, Hill, Quintin Mikell, Harts and others) were gone. Boise State would enter the 2004 season with the 2nd youngest team in the nation. Was the previous success just a fluke or was it because of the great talent that now had graduated? Answer: neither. It was because of an outstanding young coach who hired equally talented assistant coaches who believe in a system, a way of doing things and set high standards for themselves and for their players. It was because of an uncanny knack for finding talent even when the "BCS schools" didn't see it. It was because the players understood the system and their role in it and performed week after week at peak level.

So then it was no surprise (at least to Bronco fans) when Boise State avenged the Oregon State loss 53-34 and met challenge after challenge despite starting mostly sophomores and freshmen. There was the scare against BYU, when the Cougars stormed back and had a chance to win when Matt Payne missed a short field goal to the left. There was the game at Tulsa when the Golden Hurricane took the Broncos to the limit, when All-American kicker Tyler Jones calmly hit a 46-yard field goal to give Boise State a 45-42 win. For the first time ever, Boise State had worked its way into the Top 15 of the Bowl Championship Series Standings, and had gotten inside the top 10. A ranking of #6 would automatically qualify Boise State for one of the four major bowls: the Rose, the Fiesta, the Sugar or the Orange. San Jose State played its hearts out and took the Broncos to double overtime before losing 56-49. Still, the Broncos continued to win and move up in the polls. They got as high as #7 in the BCS, one away from the magic number. They defeated Louisiana Tech and 2nd round NFL draft pick Ryan Moats, but instead of being rewarded for their 10th win of the season, their 25th consecutive WAC win and their 25th straight home win, voters instead dropped them to #8. Up next was rival Nevada and the Broncos responded with an impressive performance, knocking off Chris Ault's team 58-21. But again, voters dropped them in the BCS Standings, this time to #9.

Nonetheless, respect was bestowed upon the Broncos by one of the longest-running and well known bowls in history, the Liberty Bowl, when they selected Boise State to take on #8 Louisville. Outside of the BCS Bowls, it was the only bowl game that matched up two top ten teams. It was as evenly matched as the team's rankings, and the Cardinals won in a seesaw battle 44-40. Boise State finished the season in the Top 15 for the third consecutive year, one of only eight schools to accomplish that feat, and a record of 11-1.

That makes the Dan Hawkins record 44-7, an astounding 86.3% winning percentage. In all of the BroncoCountry polls, we have stuck to our rules of not allowing current players to be judged until after their careers were over. Although there is no doubt that the Zen Master would win an all-time coaches' poll, we must do the same in this one as well and exempt Hawkrates because he is the current coach.

And we hope that we do not get to vote for him for 15-20 more years for that very same reason.

 

 


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