It was Bronco Stadium, and it wasn’t.
A friend and I had taken a wrong turn after buying tickets there and ended up in the band room. Emerging from a long, dark hallway into the bright morning light, we were looking at the stadium from just outside the north end zone. In the foreground, workers were building the foundation for the new football complex. Beyond them were the sweep of the field, the new seats in the other end zone and looming above it all the Stueckle Sky Box. From that angle, the stadium looked wider, taller, more imposing than I once could have imagined. It was a jaw-dropping view, one that reflected BSU’s astonishing growth.
I’m not a sportswriter and don’t usually write about sports. But with apologies to the Statesman’s fine sports staff, I’m venturing into their territory for one Sunday, not to do a sports column but to write one from the perspective of a fan who has witnessed the Broncos’ evolution from the stands for over half a century. You could call it a sports history column.
My first exposure to Bronco Stadium was with my sister, then a Boise Junior College student. She was ten years older and took me to games when our parents had saddled her with babysitting. It wasn’t really a stadium in those days, just a grass field with some wooden bleachers. Crowds were measured in hundreds, not thousands. Today, a lot of high schools have better facilities.
The wooden bleachers eventually were torn down to make way for a small version of the current stadium. A grass field with concrete bleachers on either side. Capacity, a little over 14,000.
The first game I attended in it was the following year, the first game the Broncos ever played against the University of Idaho. Boise State College was the newest member of the Big Sky Conference, and the heavily favored Vandals had festooned the stadium with placards reading “Welcome to the Big Time.” The Broncos won, 42-14.
The team’s wide-open style was addictive, and when a friend bought season tickets and offered to sell two to my wife and me, we couldn’t say yes fast enough. For the better part of the next three decades, we rarely missed a home game.
For much of that time, it was strictly small-college football — Idaho College, California State East Bay, Northern Michigan, Southeastern Louisiana … And of course the perennial Big Sky rivals — the U of I and Idaho State, the Montana universities, Weber State, etc.
Small time, but great memories. Then as now, the Broncos won more than they lost. Big Sky conference championships and Division I-AA playoffs were, if not annual events, not far from it. And no fan who was here then will forget 1980, the year BSU won the 1-AA national championship.
To reach the championship game, they had to get past Grambling State and its legendary coach, Eddie Robinson, in what at the time was arguably the most memorable game ever played there.
Robinson retired in 1997 as the most winning coach in college football history. When his Tigers lined up on the field at Bronco Stadium, they dwarfed the Broncos. But BSU had an unexpected ally that day.
Grambling is in steamy Louisiana. The temperature in Boise at game time was close to being in the single digits, and the stadium was covered with rime ice, formed when fog freezes. The crystals were over an inch long, giving the stadium a surrealistic, Arctic look not seen since.
The shivering, numb-struck Grambling players certainly had never seen anything like it, and thanks in no part to the weather BSU won a squeaker and went on to win the national championship. When the Broncos threw the winning pass with seconds left in the championship game, my wife, temporarily rebounding from pneumonia, leaped from a couch in front of the television and knocked a clock off of a wall.
There were a lot of “if-onlys” in those days.
If only BSU could get a game against Washington State. (WSU regularly played Idaho, after all; why not BSU?)
If only the Broncos could Play Oregon State.
If only they could play any Division I opponent.
“We just wanted to get in the game with the big boys,” Skip Hall, BSU’s coach from 1987 to 1992, recalled.
Eventually they did, with losses to Pac-10 schools giving true believers a sobering dose of reality. When BSU left the Big Sky Conference and moved up to Division IA in 1996, some fans — this one included — mourned the loss of traditional rivalries and the post-season playoffs. Was this really the way to go? Could the Broncos really play with the big boys?
Obviously, they could. To the surprise of nearly everyone, the small-town Broncos have become contenders on the national stage, winning more than they lose against the big dogs of college football.
“I find the whole thing almost unbelievable,” Hall said. “Although we should never say never, our dream 25 years ago — the president, the athletic director and me as the head coach — was that we would become a Division I program. But to take it to the heights that it has reached now never crossed my mind as a solid possibility. In my mind, the rise of the Broncos is one of the great stories in college football.”
It used to be that when Boiseans traveling in other parts of the country were asked where they were from, the automatic response was, “Oh, potatoes.” Now, it’s “Oh, the blue turf.” Or, “That’s quite a football team you have out there.” It’s happened to me in Arizona, Missouri, Tennessee, Louisiana, even Mexico, where two burly young men in Kansas jerseys surprised me by saying the fans there were rooting for BSU to join their Big 12 Conference.
“Everybody at Kansas wanted BSU,” one of them told me. “We still don’t understand why you went right over us to the Big East.”
This summer, we spent a few days in Memphis, where a sports junkie In a restaurant knew almost as much about BSU as we did.
“You’re from Boise?” he asked. “I don’t know what are you guys are putting in the water up there, but whatever it is it’s working.”
“You’re not going to make a potato joke, are you?”
“Forget potatoes,” he said. “I’m talking about Chris Peterson. He pulls rabbits out of the hat every year. I’m from Texas, and if the Broncos ever play the Longhorns I’ll be sweating.”
Will the magic continue? Will the Broncos keep pulling rabbits out of hats?
History says they will. They’ve been doing it for decades. And they aren’t doing it small-time anymore. One look at the ever-growing stadium tells you that.
Forget the Northern Michigans and Southeastern Louisianas and even the Gramblings. Fans who used to wonder if our guys could play with the big boys now find themselves in what once would have been an unthinkable position. Our guys are flirting with being the big boys.