Coach and Athletic Director
Blue Man Group
While they may play on the fabled blue turf and are perceived as offensive tricksters, Chris Petersen’s Boise State football program takes pride in its blue collar approach.
By Kevin Newell
Petersen has guided the Broncos
COACH: How did your interest in football and athletics develop growing up in Yuba City, CA?
PETERSEN: My dad, Ron, was a junior college football coach at Yuba College in Marysville, CA, so as young as I was, I remember my dad watching 16 mm films with the football staff. That’s probably where it all started. I went to Yuba City High School, where I played basketball and football.
But I have to tell you, as I got older, the one thing in life I knew I wasn’t going to be was a football coach. It’s funny, because when I got older I was so competitive and so into the games and watching the struggles that coaches go through, that I said to myself, “I’m not going to let these 18-year-olds control my happiness.” It wasn’t until I went to college and hooked up with some awesome coaches at the University of California-Davis that it really opened my eyes to what coaching was all about.
COACH: At UC-Davis you dominated Division II football as a quarterback, named the Northern California Athletic Conference (NCAC) Player of the Year as a senior and rated the top D-II passer in the nation. Are there any qualities in your athletic career that helped translate that success to your coaching career?
PETERSEN: I think the one thing is that I have just always been very, very competitive. As a kid I played tennis a lot. I played competitive tennis, played in a lot of tournaments, and as I look back at some of those days my behavior was very poor. I could almost not control myself out on the tennis court. Through my parents and some good coaches I kind of got myself harnessed and channeled to how a guy is supposed to compete and act. You can be a serious competitor but there’s still a correct way to act and behave.
It seems like there are a lot of coaches who are ex-quarterbacks. But I certainly don’t think it’s limited to just that position. There are a lot of former linemen who are head coaches – those guys who are always thinking.
COACH: You graduated with a BA in Psychology and immediately started your coaching career as UC-Davis’ freshman head coach. What made you decide that coaching was going to be your future vocation?
PETERSEN: The only reason I did that was because I was going to go to Canada and play in the Canadian Football League. I signed a contract with Montreal. I thought I was all set to go and about two days before I was supposed to leave, the organization folded. So I was kind of stuck with nothing to do and decided to go back to graduate school. In the meantime, we had a freshman team and I knew that was kind of a hard gig to get. Usually you had to coach with the staff at UC-Davis for a few years – be sort of an assistant/GA type of guy so they could see that you could coach.
Well, as it just so happened, they didn’t have a guy in the rotation that they wanted. So they asked me to do it. I knew, having just finished playing, that that was a good opportunity until I figured out what I really wanted to do. And it was a very much an eye opening experience for me in so many ways. I had just got done playing, thought I had all of the answers, and within two weeks of coaching I realized I had no answers.
Without question, I think that being that I was younger helped me relate to them. But in terms of how to coach guys, what coaching was all about, and how to teach, I had no idea. And you don’t know until you start doing it yourself. As a player you know how it’s supposed to be done. But to actually teach the game to somebody and how you are supposed to conduct yourself and all those types of things, it’s a completely different experience.
I was the freshman coach for one year and was then going to coach the varsity receivers at UC-Davis. But I felt I had to coach the freshman team again because I had learned so many things that I felt I needed to do it again. So I wound up coaching the freshman team for two seasons. Then I coached the varsity for three seasons. From there I went to the U. of Pittsburgh and worked under Paul Hackett. Technically I was the GA, but I was also the quarterbacks coach.
I was in grad school at UC-Davis and got my Master’s in Educational Psychology. I was going to be a school psychologist. But then I slowly began to feel that my passion was more into coaching than the psychology field. Then that opportunity opened up at Pittsburgh. Paul Hackett had been a UC-Davis guy. So I felt that was the right thing to do. I did that for a year and then I went to Portland State for two seasons.
COACH: When did you begin to develop your offensive-minded acumen?
PETERSEN: It started at UC-Davis because Jim Sochor, who was my offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, also coached Paul Hackett. He had been at Davis forever and is one of the winningest coaches in Division II history. That really got me started. And then getting with Paul Hackett was a tremendous experience. The guy is as good a teacher as I have ever been around. You listen to him talk about football and you know he could be a world-class biology teacher. That was beneficial to me – to be around a teacher and a football coach of that caliber for a year.
COACH: What does it take to maintain longevity as a coach?
PETERSEN: A coaching gig is so hard, and I’ve said this all along, that in order to stay in this field and certainly in college coaching, it has to be something you can’t not do. It has to be such a passion that you say to yourself, “I can’t do anything else.” There are so many time commitments. It’s so hard on your family. It’s so hard on you and your life. So at each stop I would figure it out, learn from each and every experience, to the point where I realized that this is something I can’t do without.
COACH: After serving as an assistant under Tim Walsh at Portland State, you worked for Mike Bellotti at Oregon where you helped turn the Ducks into an annual Pac-10 contender as well as a major force on the national level. How did learning under both Walsh and Bellotti influence your own coaching philosophies?
PETERSEN: The reason that I’ve gotten to this position and have some success as a coach is because I have been so fortunate. Every coach that has been placed in my path has shaped me into the coach I am today. Tim Walsh was great to work for. And I learned so many different things from Mike as far as how to conduct yourself and how to organize. Plus he’s a good football mind. The other thing that I had at Oregon, that was so beneficial, was that I was with three of the best football guys in the country in my opinion.
I was the wide receivers coach and the offensive coordinators were Al Borges, who is now at Auburn; then Dirk Koetter, who is now with the Jacksonville Jaguars; and then Jeff Tedford, who is at Cal. Those are my buddies and the guys from whom I learned how to do so many things. They all had very different styles and methods of doing things, and all very successful in their own way. I was able to glean a little from each of them.
COACH: What brought you to Boise State? There seems to be some interesting lineage between yourself and the two previous Broncos coaches.
PETERSEN: Dirk Koetter became the head coach here while I was at Oregon. And my wife and I thought about coming here, too. But we just really liked Oregon a lot and decided to stay put for some time. It was three years later that Dan Hawkins got the job. Dirk took him with him from Oregon. And Dan Hawkins and I go back to our UC-Davis days together. Dan probably just pushed me harder than Dirk did to get me to come here. I already knew most of the staff that was in place. I think I was one of the last guys to get hired. It was a chance to be an offensive coordinator, although that wasn’t a huge motivation to tell you the truth.
COACH: As the new OC, what was your mindset? Were you beg, borrowing, and stealing from the great offensive minds you had learned from or did you develop your own philosophy?
PETERSEN: There is so much football there with all of those people that I had to kind of hone it down to what I was going to be all about. That was a big challenge right away. But the thing that was such a perfect fit for me to come over here was that we were running the same style of offense we had run at Oregon. So I was very familiar with it. As we have gone through the years we have sort of added a different spin and added things here and there. Now it looks quite a bit different but that’s because of all of the other great assistants that we have had here that have all had input into what we are doing.
COACH: At Boise State you have had two excellent quarterbacks in which to build your offense around, in Ryan Dinwiddie and Jared Zabransky. As both a former college QB and QB coach, what are some of the fundamentals that you preach for that position?
PETERSEN: That’s the whole thing. In our style of offense, our quarterback has to play at a high level. We’re all about making the quarterback successful around here. Anything we can do to get that done is what our focus is on offense. That starts with running the ball. I know when I came here, one of my first couple of games I think we threw 13 passes in a game. We’ve always believed in the running game to make our offense successful. But our quarterback has to be a great decision-maker, an accurate passer, and a guy that doesn’t put us in bad situations. That’s the thing we continually harp on.
We put a lot on that guy’s shoulders. And we want him to really simplify the game for us. He needs to be a smart guy because we game plan a lot. We tweak our game plans. We change them from week to week depending on his experience and intelligence level. Everything is based on what he can do.
When we are recruiting a kid there are some tangible things we look for on tape: His throwing mechanics and his accuracy. But really what is going to make him successful is all of the intangibles: How are his instincts for the game? How sharp he is, his leadership skills, and his drive to be the best. All of those things are truly hard to know until you get him into your program for a year or two. We try to do as much homework as we can on those issues and see if he fits our mold, then we go from there.
COACH: After five years working as an assistant to Dan Hawkins, who is now at Colorado, you were elevated to the top job. How did you handle the transition from overseeing the offense to directing the entire team?
PETERSEN: First of all, I was able to keep and then recruit some awesome assistant coaches, guys I had tremendous confidence in. Our offensive coordinator, Bryan Harsin, had been with us for a long time and is my right hand man. I was still going to be involved in the offense but as the head coach you certainly can’t do it all. Bryan did a tremendous job last season in his first season as OC. Then I was able to get Justin Wilcox, our defensive coordinator, who played at Oregon when I was there. He was the linebackers coach at Cal before I hired him. Both of those guys were 29-years-old at the time. I didn’t think twice about it until everybody started to make a big deal about how these were the two youngest coordinators in the country. But they are fabulous people and excellent coaches and I knew those were the guys that we had to have and we were able to get them.
COACH: A head coach is only as good as his staff. What do you look for in assistant coaches?
PETERSEN: It starts with the type of person that they are. It really does. We need to have a person of high character, low ego, and high output. Then, I look for a guy who is on a continual quest for improvement; a person who is always trying to find a better way to do things. I want someone who has a passion for this game and wants to do better each and every day. And then someone who is a knowledgeable football coach/teacher. Those are the things that we are always looking for around here.
COACH: Throughout your entire career, you have had tremendous success coaching offense. What offensive keys do you stress to your players?
PETERSEN: First and foremost are turnovers. You can make stats work for you anyway you want. But if you look at turnovers every year, the teams that have winning records, for the most part, are always good in the turnover department. The second thing is, in our philosophy, running the ball. It’s first being able to run the ball and then stop the run. So our keys to success don’t usually change from game to game. We also like to shift in motion. We get into multiple, multiple formations. We feel our offense is balanced enough that we can acclimate ourselves to any situation.
COACH: Your dramatic win over Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl featured some trick plays in high-pressure situations, particularly the hook and ladder (hook and lateral) to tie the game and send it to overtime and the Statue of Liberty play on the two-point conversion. How much practice time do you devote to these special plays? How often do you incorporate them into your game plan?
PETERSEN: That’s a little bit of a rub, the situation at the Fiesta Bowl, for people who don’t know about Boise State. We really view ourselves as a hard-nosed, blue collar outfit. There’s probably one percent, if that, of our game plan that’s, quote, trick plays. We are very much a wide open style of offense that will take chances and do whatever we need to do to win a game. If that means throwing a halfback pass on fourth down, and we think that is our best odds, we’ll do it. We won’t blink an eye. Very little of what we do is trick plays. We run the ball very well. Our quarterback is always among the leaders in quarterback efficiency rating. We like to think that we play sound, fundamental football. We also like to be exciting and wide open. It just so happened that we needed all three of those plays at the end of the game.
That Statue of Liberty play and the halfback pass, we were trying to get to those earlier in the game, we were just in the wrong situation, down and distance, field position, whatever. So it didn’t get called. So then we had them at the end of the game and we used them when we needed to.
COACH: While offense is your forte, what kind of defensive philosophies do you employ at Boise State?
PETERSEN: I’ve said this even when I was the offensive coordinator: Our defense has been tremendously, tremendously underrated. You don’t win five WAC Championships in a row without playing big time defense. And there’s no doubt that our defense was unbelievable in the Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma. Our philosophy is kind of the reverse of our offense. On defense we first and foremost need to stop the run. We want to make the opposing offense one dimensional. We want to confuse the quarterback. And we want to eliminate explosive plays as much as possible and be very good tacklers. Those are the things we have done here very well. I think it’s just the old cliché that the offense sells tickets and gets people excited and the defense wins championships. I think that’s been pretty applicable to the situation here.
COACH: A lot has been said about whether the NCAA should organize a Division I playoff system. Now there is talk of a Plus-1 format. With Boise State being the only team that went undefeated during the 2006 season (11-0), do you feel that your team deserved a playoff and a shot at a national championship?
PETERSEN: It’s funny because I don’t have a strong opinion on that. I grew up with the Bowl System, I like the Bowl System. They keep changing and tweaking the system to try to make it as good as they can. For us it worked out. It worked for Utah a couple of years before. We just always believed that if we take care of our business and do what we’re supposed to do, we will be playing someone that’s a great program and we will be very happy about that bowl game. Whether they change it to a playoff system, that’s really out of my control and our control. We have great people in college football that are making those decision and they are trying to do right. It will be interesting to see this thing evolve.
COACH: As your program continues to grow more successful, heightened media coverage can help inflate players’ egos. What steps have you and your staff taken to maintain emphasis on the team instead of the individual?
PETERSEN: One of the things that has been the profile of the kind of student-athlete we have recruited here has been a little bit of that underdog mentality. It kind of feels like people overlooked him. We really like that edge and that mentality. One of the first things we did after we won the Fiesta Bowl is we didn’t allow any Fiesta Bowl champion gear in our weight room. Our strength coach said, “We’re not going to wear any Fiesta Bowl shirts here. That’s over and done with. We’re back to square one and it’s time to get our blue collar focus going. We have to earn everything we get. Nothing is going to be given to us.” That has to come from the coaches and we preach that a lot.
COACH: How much of a home-field advantage is Boise State’s one-of-a-kind blue synthetic turf field, which some have dubbed “Smurf Turf,” that was installed in 1986? As a follow-up, is it true that you saw a dead duck lying in the middle of the field, apparently mistaking it for a lake or pond as it dove from the sky?
PETERSEN: When I first came here there was a poll taken in the local paper asking if we should go back to green turf or keep the blue turf. My thinking was, having only spent one year in the system, maybe we’ll go back to green. Well, the poll was like 98 percent in favor of keeping the blue turf— don’t even consider changing it. And that’s really how I feel and our players feel now. We love the blue turf. It may or may not be an advantage to us playing at home but it’s certainly part of our identity and we love it.
As far as the ducks landing on it and stuff, that’s kind of myth that’s been going on for many years. But I do have to say, when we were showing some people the turf— and we were all kind of chuckling saying we had never seen a dead duck— sure enough as we turned around, if there isn’t a dead duck lying on the turf. It looked like it possibly could have been attacked by an animal or something, but there was one. So they could be landing on it. I don’t know (laughter).
About the Author
Kevin Newell is the former editor of Coach and Athletic Director magazine.