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BOISE — Boise State, which will play host today to a bowl game featuring two non-BCS teams enjoying impressive runs of success, is the inspiration for the little man in college football.
Count University of Toledo coach Matt Campbell among the admirers of a Broncos program that has overcome limitations attached to a team from a nonpower conference to average 11 wins over the last 14 seasons.
Heading into this season, his first as head coach, Campbell instituted a motto for the program — “To go from good to consistently great.”
To be consistently great is to be like Boise, which has used a model built on great coaching, cutting edge facilities, and a football crazed community to carve out a reputation as the little program that could.
Campbell believes Toledo, which is making its third straight postseason appearance with its game in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, is on the brink of something special, having continuously climbed the ladder toward national prominence in each of the last three seasons.
This year the Rockets managed to rip off eight straight wins, knock off nationally ranked Cincinnati, and secure a perch in the top 25 for the first time in more than a decade.
If the program continues this upward trend, it could some day be mentioned among the non-BCS powers, a group that at one point or another in the last decade included Utah and Texas Christian, which have moved on to the Pac 12 and Big 12, respectively, and Boise, which intends to leave the Mountain West next year to join the suddenly feeble Big East.
“I think you look at this place and you see what they’ve done consistently to build it,” said Campbell, whose Rockets will face another budding low-tier power in No. 18 Utah State.
“They’ve been able to retain the core of their staff, they found a pocket of the community that really cares about football, and I think we have that at the University of Toledo.”
How has Boise State become the benchmark of mid-major football?
“Three things,” Boise State University president Bob Kustra said.
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Several marquee programs have come calling for Boise State coach Chris Petersen over the years, and all have been told no thank you. Kustra called Petersen, who has posted a remarkable 83-8 run over seven seasons and has captured two Fiesta Bowl titles, “the finest coach in America.” Unlike previous Boise coaches Dan Hawkins (53-11 from 2001-05) and Dirk Koetter (26-10 from 1998-2000), who bolted for more visible jobs, Petersen, who made $1.7 million this season, seems content at Boise.
Toledo lost one coach to a higher profile job when Tim Beckman left for Illinois last year after three seasons and will likely face competition for Campbell, who earned $360,000 in 2012, if UT continues to succeed. Beckman is one of eight MAC coaches who resigned in the last five years to go elsewhere.
“Our ability to retain our staff and continue to progress is not easy to do,” Campbell said. “I think everybody knows in our conference if you have success, people are going to come after your assistant coaches and come after everything involved with it. The nice thing about having a young staff is we grew up together, we started a great foundation together, and I think the staff would like to see that through. It’s all situations you have to deal with each and every year and evaluate it. I think it’s really important to all of us to build something special here, and I feel like we’ve got the right pieces of the puzzle in place.”
Kustra, Boise State’s president since 2003, thanks former Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh for the 68,000-square-foot, two-story, $22 million office and training facility that is being constructed at the north end of Bronco Stadium.
After Harbaugh resigned following the 2010 season to go to the San Francisco 49ers, Stanford pursued Petersen. Kustra made a counter offer.
“He didn’t want to talk about salary, he wanted to talk about a football complex that would allow him to compete more favorably with Pac 12 coaches,” Kustra said. “That building you see going up, I guess you can thank Harbaugh and the 49ers for that.”
Toledo’s facilities will soon evolve. Athletic director Mike O’Brien said the university is in the “very initial planning phases” of renovating the Larimer Athletic Complex, an initiative aimed at improving the weight room, expanding coaches offices, and adding conference rooms and an academic area.
“I think the leadership, not only from the head coach, but the president and from the athletic director, has to have a core value of seeing their athletic programs be successful,” Campbell said.
Institutional support, Kustra said, does not end at facilities. A synergy exists at Boise State between athletic types, faculty members, and students.
“We are a university with a great football program attached to it, not a great football program with a university attached to it,” he said.
Kustra said Petersen uses a “niche” approach to recruiting, identifying prospects that for one reason or another were overlooked by Washington, Oregon State, or other Pac 12 programs that Boise battles against for prospects. The city’s stunning scenery and reputation as a safe place are among Petersen’s pitches.
“Coach Petersen over the years has been particularly adept at identifying young men who were a little shorter and not quite as heavy as a kid that would go off to a large conference team,” Kustra said. “They bulk him up, they train him well, and they teach him the system, which is a very complicated system, and they show up on the field as Kellen Moore.”
Moore, a 6-foot backup quarterback for the Detroit Lions, owns the record for wins among Football Bowl Subdivision starting quarterbacks with 50.
Recruiting has gone well at Toledo, with Campbell and his staff have emerged as a threat to BCS programs. The Rockets have signed the MAC’s top-ranked class in each of the last three years and are on pace to extend that streak to four.
All of the pieces are in place, Campbell believes, to turn this good program into a consistently great one.
“You have to win some championships in your conference, and you have to continue to take great strides to get your program at that level,” he said. “I feel like we’re at a great recruiting base where we can really make those things happen.”
Contact Ryan Autullo at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6160, or on Twitter @AutulloBlade.