The prime-time power conference main events are finished. The night in sports has moved past its climax, heading toward an ending. The broadcasts of their games feel sort of subdued, victory seeming like a mere formality as the clock strikes midnight in the east. They are outsiders, yet they are always to expected to win.
There is a comfort to their presence, whether it's Boise State football on a Friday or Saturday in the fall or Gonzaga basketball on a Thursday or Saturday in the winter. They live near-parallel lives, acting as consistent forces that upset the balance of power in major college athletics from their remote corners of the Northwest. They are outsiders to the big-money teams, but they are also outsiders to those on their level, sitting on the divide between powerful and powerless.
They're the party crashers who subvert expectations, winning consistently with overlooked recruits and unique quirks that give them clear identities.
One's a small-ish Jesuit school in Eastern Washington without a football team. The other is a former junior college 400 miles away in Idaho. They're mid-majors constantly throwing haymakers at the establishment with targets on their backs, whether it's as the proven commodity among the other mid-majors that are trying to catch up, or among the major teams trying to put them in their place. Mostly, they face yearly scrutiny from those who whine about schedule strength and No. 1 seeds or rankings, no matter how many times they beat the big boys.
What's most impressive isn't just that each team has had its moments; it's that they have parlayed those big moments into sustained success, which is a monumental feat at a place like Kentucky for basketball or Alabama for football, let alone at a place that doesn't draw blue-chip recruits and doesn't participate in conferences with enormous television contracts.
Boise State just won its third Fiesta Bowl; Gonzaga's midnight magic continues with a 24-1 record and a No. 3 ranking in the AP poll. Their success has lasted for 15 years now, which is a remarkable achievement. So who's had it better?
Tale of the Tape
Gonzaga was at least on the radar individually before breaking out as an Elite Eight Cinderella in 1999, reaching a point of national exposure long before its national team success because of one man: NBA assist king John Stockton. Prior to the 1998-99 season, the Bulldogs had reached the NCAA tournament only once, losing in the first round in 1995. They were perennially decent among the West Coast Conference (and previously the Big Sky) types, but they never made a national impact, beyond someone like Stockton emerging from obscurity to stardom. A first-round pick in the 1984 NBA draft, Stockton was Gonzaga's only first-rounder until 2002.
Meanwhile, it's been a long, long journey to the top for Boise State. Boise State was a junior college until 1968, at which point it began climbing the college sports ladder from NAIA to Division II to FCS in 1978 to FBS in 1996. The Broncos won an FCS national championship in 1980, but they were off the national radar until Houston Nutt took over for the transition to the Big West in the FBS. Their one big pro success story prior to this era can't match Stockton: The biggest name is Dan Wilcox, who went to Boise State when it was still a junior college, finished his college career at Oregon, then was drafted in the third round and went on to a Hall of Fame career with the 49ers. No other player made a Pro Bowl.
So, John Stockton or an FCS (then Division I-AA) championship?
Gonzaga has somehow managed to keep the same coach for nearly its entire run. Dan Monson spent only two years on the Zags' bench, leading them to the memorable run to the Elite Eight as a No. 10 seed, beating Minnesota, Stanford and Florida on their way to a 67-62 loss to top seed and eventual national champion UConn in the West Regional Final. Monson capitalized on the success and bolted for Minnesota and the Big Ten, handing the Gonzaga job to assistant Mark Few. He's been there ever since, compiling a 427-101 record with 15 straight NCAA tournament appearances and 11 West Coast Conference tournament championships, although Gonzaga has yet to get past the Sweet 16 again and make a serious run for the national title, even with six finishes in the AP top 10.
Boise State hasn't quite been able to keep coaches around like Gonzaga, although Chris Petersen had a fairly long run for someone having unprecedented success at a mid-major program. Houston Nutt's one year at Boise State led to him taking the Arkansas job, paving the way for three years of Dirk Koetter, including back-to-back 10-win seasons, before he went to Arizona State. Dan Hawkins then lasted five seasons, including a three-year span in the middle in which he went 36-3 with three top-16 finishes. He left for a failed tenure at Colorado, leaving Petersen to take the reins and finish off Boise State's rise to national prominence, with the 13-0 Fiesta Bowl season in 2006, another undefeated Fiesta Bowl season in 2009, four top-10 finishes and five conference championships (four WAC, one Mountain West). After going 84-8 in seven years, Petersen slipped to 8-5 in 2013 and finally jumped, taking the Washington job. Of course, that wasn't the end of the Broncos' prominence: Former offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin took over and immediately led the Broncos to a Mountain West title and their third Fiesta Bowl win in January.
Gonzaga gets points for holding on to Few for so long, but Petersen's reputation reached a higher peak -- one that he did sustain for most of a decade.
Edge: Boise State
Taking into account college success only since their rises in 1999, it's easy to see Gonzaga having a clear advantage. Adam Morrison and Kelly Olynyk were both top national player of the year candidates, and Dan Dickau was a first-team All-American too. Blake Stepp was also a second-team AP All-American in 2004. All four won WCC player of the year honors (Dickau did twice), while Ronny Turiaf, Derek Raivio, Jeremy Pargo and Matt Bouldin have too. The presence of Morrison (28.1 points per game to lead the nation) and Olynyk (17.8 points, 7.3 rebounds per game) is enough to make Gonzaga stand out here.
Boise State's defining player of the era is probably Kellen Moore, the 6-foot, 197-pound quarterback who finished his career with a 50-3 record as a four-year starting quarterback, finishing his senior year in 2010 as a Heisman Trophy finalist (fourth) and winning two WAC player of the year awards. Jay Ajayi, Titus Young and Ian Johnson have also received AP All-American honors.
Both Morrison and Boise State QB Jared Zabransky even earned covers of EA Sports' college sports video games.
Stockton -- who doesn't count for this exercise because he played long before the recent glory years -- is the only Bulldog to average more than 10 points per game in the NBA for his career. Current Celtics center Kelly Olynyk is averaging 11.1 points per game in his second year after being drafted with the 13th overall pick in 2013, but beyond that there's not much to like: Morrison was a bust as third overall pick, and Ronny Turiaf and first-rounders Dan Dickau (2002) and Austin Daye (2009) have had journeymen careers, with Daye still playing as a backup for the Spurs and Turiaf in Minnesota.
Boise State has hardly been a big producer pro talent either, but it has produced a legitimate NFL star in Broncos left tackle Ryan Clady, who was the 12th overall pick in 2008 and has been a four-time Pro Bowler and a two-time All-Pro selection. Beyond Clady, guard Daryn Colledge has been a full-time starter for three teams in nine years, and players like Quintin Mikell, Doug Martin, George Iloka, Orlando Scandrick and Gerald Alexander have been steady pro contributors. First-round picks Shea McClellin (Bears) and Kyle Wilson (Jets) have both struggled to live up to their draft status.
The obvious caveat here is that a football team simply has many more players than a basketball team and thus is going to send more players to the pros, but the Broncos still get the advantage since Stockton didn't play during the recent glory years.
Edge: Boise State
It quickly became one of the defining endings in college football history. In the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, Boise State capped an undefeated season by taking down No. 7 Oklahoma in unorthodox fashion. It's not that No. 9 over No. 7 was some monumental upset, but it's the way the Broncos unseated a national power: They blew an 18-point lead, then improbably came back late, thanks to a fourth-and-18 hook and ladder for a touchdown with a few seconds left, followed by a Statue of Liberty handoff to Ian Johnson for two points and the win. Johnson, of course, finished off the moment by proposing in the end zone to his girlfriend, a Boise State cheerleader. Sports perfection.
Gonzaga first made a mark with its one and only run to the Elite Eight. The Bulldogs easily beat seventh-seed Minnesota in the first round, then upset second-seed Stanford 82-74 to get to the Sweet 16 in Phoenix. Down by one in the closing seconds, Gonzaga missed a runner, but Casey Calvary tipped it in, also providing a launching pad for Gus Johnson's rise to prominence -- most famously with the "slipper still fits" punctuation . Gonzaga lost two days later in a close game against UConn, but its 73-72 win over Florida stands as an all-time classic March Madness moment.
Gonzaga's moment was spectacular, but we've seen upsets and Cinderella runs in March Madness. We've never seen what Boise State pulled off in the final minute against Oklahoma.
Edge: Boise State
Gonzaga gets more opportunities, simply by having a much bigger schedule with nearly three times as many games per year as Boise State, who gets only four nonconference games each regular season. Still, the Broncos have somehow kept pace as a giant killer. In addition to beating Oklahoma, Arizona and then-mid-major TCU in the Fiesta Bowl, plus then-undefeated No. 8 Fresno State in 2001, Boise State has taken down Oregon State twice, Oregon twice (No. 17 and No. 16 at the time), No. 13 Virginia Tech, No. 19 Georgia, Arizona State and Washington, making the most of its limited opportunities.
Outside the NCAA tournament, Gonzaga has defeated No. 9 Baylor in 2010-11, No. 2 North Carolina in 2006-07, No. 12 Michigan State in 2005-06, No. 3 Georgia Tech and No. 3 Oklahoma State in 2004-05 and No. 11 UCLA in 1999-00 among other major opponents, clearly proving itself capable of beating major conference foes outside of March.
Gonzaga has had more opportunities and thus has racked up more wins against top competition, but then again since 1999 it hasn't had many big tournament wins. Boise State is a perfect 3-0 in major bowl games.
Outsiders need to find ways to dig their way into the national consciousness, a way to become purposefully unique.
For one, Gonzaga has its name itself, a distinct name for a university that comes from Aloysius Gonzaga, a 16th-century Italian saint. People just like saying the name Gonzaga, and it comes with a ready-made alternative nickname in the Zags. The actual nickname is the Bulldogs, which has led to its basketball arenas being referred to as The Kennel, from the Martin Centre to the current 6,000-seat McCarthey Athletic Center. It's tiny by national power standards, but Gonzaga makes sure to promote it as the nation's winningest arena, and for good reason: The Zags currently own a 37-game home winning streak.
Boise State has found a similar home advantage thanks to its famed blue turf, which was installed at Albertsons Stadium in 1986. Boise State is 92-4 since the start of the 2002, and while Gonzaga gets points for playing in something referred to as The Kennel instead of something recently renamed after a supermarket chain, nobody has made their playing surface a greater part of their identity than Boise State's Smurf Turf, which remains the original and only acceptable non-green playing surface.
Edge: Boise State
The Verdict: Boise State
While both teams began their rises to prominence around the same time, Gonzaga struck the biggest first blow with its Elite Eight run in 1999. It took some time for Boise State to gain that national respect when it finally broke through in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl.
Obviously, the two are hard to compare across sports in some respects, with Gonzaga getting a national championship shot every year by making the NCAA tournament in 16 straight seasons. Boise State, meanwhile, has gone undefeated twice without getting a chance to win the national title during the BCS era. Even going undefeated now is hardly a guarantee of a shot in the four-team playoff, although Boise State has at least built up credibility over time.
Perhaps the biggest difference that gives Boise State a slight edge is how it's finished, with those two undefeated seasons, one of the most memorable finishes in the history of sports in the Fiesta Bowl and three major bowl wins. It's gone out on top, as much as a team from the WAC/Mountain West can go out on top, while over the last decade Gonzaga's seasons have ended in disappointment.
Gonzaga can change this, of course. It sits at No. 3 in the AP poll and No. 4 Ken Pomeroy's ratings, with its only 2014-15 loss coming on the road in overtime to No. 7 Arizona. If the Bulldogs win out, they'll likely earn a No. 1 seed for the second time, with their sights set on a first-ever Final Four appearance. Get there, and perhaps the conversation changes.
Either way, one Cinderella season is hard enough to pull off. For both Boise State and Gonzaga to continue to be top-10 caliber programs as outsiders after 15 years is an incredible story no matter what happens next.