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BOWL ELIGIBLE?: Broncos' road to FBS was not smooth
BOISE, Idaho - Boise State’s move to big-time college football had more twists and turns than Idaho Highway 12.
From the unexpected firing of president John Kaiser to the bold action by his successor that paved the way for the 1996 jump, there were many bumps in the road. The fact that a pair of in-state rivals had a vested interest didn’t help expedite matters either.
“It was dicey because of the University of Idaho and Idaho State,” Boise State athletic director Gene Bleymaier recalled.
According to Bleymaier, talk of Boise State moving up was prevalent even when he arrived in town in the early 1980s. For a university based in a thriving valley, it seemed like a logical move.
Still, it wasn’t until the early 1990s when talk turned serious. Kaiser made it known publicly he believed a jump to NCAA Division I-A would benefit the university and the community.
His ideas ruffled some feathers outside of Boise.
“There was a lot of political pressure from the University of Idaho to keep the two schools together for fear that if one school took off and the other didn’t, it would cause a great imbalance,” said Lori Hays, former BSU sports information assistant and current associate athletic director for operations. “The state board fired Kaiser without giving a real good reason. They didn’t trust him.”
Idaho’s State Board of Education did an 18-month search for Kaiser’s replacement. Folks expected Charles Ruch to toe the line, but he surprised many by following Kaiser’s lead in 1994.
“To end the in-fighting between the universities and the state board and put it to bed, they put together a committee to study the issue,” Hays said. “The study was supportive of (moving to FBS) football. The old boosters could support it, and now they have this public study from the guy they hand-picked.”
There were several other variables that made the move seem sensible. The Big West (FBS) Conference was starting to expand and the old Big Sky football conference was falling apart. Meanwhile, BSU coach Pokey Allen, who served as an assistant at Montana in the 1970s, was leading the 1994 Broncos to a berth in the FCS (then I-AA) finals.
Sports fans in Boise also made some noteworthy noise in 1994. Even before the football team caught fire, they helped set an all-session attendance record at the NCAA Track and Field Championships (24,100) at Bronco Stadium.
Still, Boise State (and Idaho) may never have gone big-time in 1996 if their timing was different.
“You can do all this planning, but until you get invited, until there’s an opportunity, it’s really out of your control,” Bleymaier said. “When the opportunity presented itself with the Big West, we were in a position to take advantage of it.”
Unlike many FCS schools pondering a move, Boise State had enough men’s and women’s sports to meet FBS requirements. The Broncos simply increased their stadium seating to 30,000 and added assistant coaches and 22 football scholarships.
“It was a bit of a (budget) strain, but not significant,” Bleymaier recalled. “There’s been years since where there’s been just as much strain put on the budget (through) medical costs or salary increases.
“Fortunately we were sound financially and could afford to add those scholarships in 1996.”
Since then the Broncos have moved to the Western Athletic Conference (in 2001) and added two women’s sports - swimming and soccer. By 2013 Bleymaier is hoping to expand seating to 38,000 at Bronco Stadium.
But continued growth in a sluggish economy will be a challenge. Even though the university has the healthiest operating budget in the WAC, there’s no room for waste.
“It’s a challenge that every athletic department and every school in the country is facing,” Bleymaier told the Idaho Statesman. “We need to be alert and creative and figure out where we can generate funds. Hopefully, there will be some new ones in the next three to five years.”
Expansion in the nine-team WAC would certainly help. Bleymaier believes the conference would be interested in adding a team like Montana once the NCAA moratorium on FCS schools is lifted in 2012.
“They’ve had great programs,” he said of the Griz. “You look at the schools that have moved up, and Montana certainly could have been one of them.”
By BILL SPELTZ of the Missoulian