A mysterious thing happened at last year's Sheraton Hawaii Bowl, one of those brief made-for-Deadspin incidents that dropped out of the headlines as quickly as it wedged its way in. The bottom line is this: Someone associated with the Boise State football team urinated off a hotel balcony, and it may or may not have been quarterback Joe Southwick. The truth is out there, and Southwick, for one, was so convinced of his innocence that he actually submitted to a polygraph test after being sent back home to Idaho before the game.
I'd forgotten this happened until I looked it up, in large part because it was the Hawaii Bowl, and because Boise State, for the first time in many years, simply wasn't very good. At this point, the identity of the micturator doesn't really matter to many people other than Southwick himself. What matters is whether this was the symbolic moment when Boise State became just another FBS football program.
By nature of the events themselves -- a group of college students essentially shipped off on an extended Christmas vacation -- surprising storylines often crop up during college football's bowl season. Sometimes these stories are iconic, and sometimes they are ignominious, but very often, these stories give us hints about the direction in which a particular program is headed. So here are two opposing moments in Boise State's football postseason history: In 2007, the Broncos defeated Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl, utilizing a triptych of gimmicks (including a game-winning Statue of Liberty) to complete one of the greatest upsets of the 21st century, punctuating a decade in which they put together the best winning percentage of any team in college football; and in 2013, Boise State lost by two touchdowns to Oregon State in a bowl sponsored by a mid-tier hotel chain, after losing its highly respected head coach to a Pac-12 school and its starting quarterback to a scandal that devolved into a CSI episode, if that CSI episode happened to be scripted by Tucker Max.
I think it's fair to say now that the Broncos' eight-year run of success under Chris Petersen -- they won 92 of 104 games during that span -- -was one of the great underdog stories in the history of college sports. I loved watching them; it felt like those teams had a lot to do with the way college football emerged from its shell, the way smaller programs began to embrace the kind of creative thinking that eventually trickled upward into the Big 12 and SEC. But something happened at Boise after that series of near-misses from 2008-11, after the Broncos nearly wedged their way into the national championship picture but fell short by a couple of missed field goals. In 2012, the Broncos went 11-2 during what was essentially a rebuilding year; and then last season, in their opening game -- traditionally a contest against a major-conference team, games that the Broncos win more often than they lose -- they were throttled by Washington, 38-6. And they lost three more games before falling to Oregon State, and those five losses equaled the number of games Boise had dropped in the previous five seasons combined.
Maybe we could have seen it coming: In July, 2013, Petersen gave a retroactively telling interview to CBS Sports' Bruce Feldman, in which he seemed to confess to his own burnout:
Q: Is coaching as much fun now as --?
Petersen: No. Not even. There's so many times where I'm like, "How in the hell did I get myself into this situation?"
Given this, it seems somewhat less surprising that Petersen decided to leave for Washington after years of being courted by nearly every major college program; he'd maxed out his own possibilities at Boise. Now, in the wake of Petersen's departure, the Broncos are now at a fascinating crossroads, in which the identity of the program as one of college football's great alchemical laboratories hangs in the balance.
The challenge for Boise is that, as good as it has been been, it always feels (often unfairly) as if it's clinging to national relevance, shunned by the automatic-qualifying conferences, laughed off as a goofy blue-turfed novelty by the majority of the nation. The challenge for Boise is that it is always on the verge of disappearing, and its ability to remain relevant depends largely on its ability to continually capture our imagination.
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If this is true, then the Boise administration did the best thing it could possibly do: It went after the one guy (other than Petersen) who had been behind much of that imaginative play-calling in the first place. Bryan Harsin was born in Boise, and he was a high-school quarterback in Boise, and he was a walk-on quarterback at Boise State, and he was hired as a graduate assistant at Boise State in 2001 before ascending to the position of offensive coordinator under Petersen. His first season as coordinator, at age 29, was the year Boise beat Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl; his inventiveness dated back to high school, when he convinced his coaches to run a hook-and-ladder (as Boise did in the Fiesta Bowl, to thrilling effect) and devised a skip-pass to a wide receiver that was designed to look like an incompletion and resulted in a big play.
Harsin moved to Mack Brown's staff at Texas for a couple of seasons, and then he became the head coach at Arkansas State last season, and when the Boise job opened, he was the organic choice to replace the guy who had promoted him in the first place.
In Petersen's final season, he switched to a pistol formation, zone-read offense. The defense, a perpetually underrated unit, gave up nearly 10 more points per game than it had the year before. And so Harsin is faced with a peculiar assignment: He must subtly and continually re-invent a program whose identity he helped create in the first place, a program whose identity, as Harsin's offensive coordinator Mike Sanford put it, is based on "being on the cutting edge of creativity," and on "the cutting edge of how to use your personnel." Which is why it felt like kind of a crucial development when Harsin announced, during his first spring practice press conference, that the Broncos would run a no-huddle, tempo-heavy offense. Even though nearly everyone's doing it now, it always felt like Boise did it better and in more interesting ways; when it comes to offensive innovation, the Broncos are kind of the Velvet Underground of college football.
"The DNA won't change," Harsin said. "We're not going to run (the Statue of Liberty) as a base play each and every game … but there will be times for getting a little bit of funk in there."
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Last week, at this same press conference, someone asked Harsin his thoughts on the tabled 10-second rule prosposal, which seems explicitly designed to tamp down the kind of offensive progressivism that built Boise's program throughout the 2000s. Harsin said nothing. He looked down at his watch, held up a finger as if to say Hang on, counted out 10 seconds, then looked up and said, "It's not a lot of fun, is it, to sit there for that long."
I don't know, at this point, if Boise will be able to work its way out of the Mountain West and into a first-tier FBS conference. In this entire infuriating and nonsensical realignment dance, nobody lost out as much as Boise did, joining the Big East at its impending moment of collapse and then retreating back to the conference it left behind in the first place (though, based on past success, it at least negotiated a favorable relationship with ESPN). And so the only way forward for the Broncos now is to continually prove that they do belong in the first tier. The only way forward is to bring more funk, and more edginess, and more fun, and to prove that, while the remainder of the college football world may have embraced Boise State's ideas, they still haven't caught up to them.