Wait, Boise State Football is Chasing its Third National Championship?
A look back at the history of Boise State football at its highest levels.
Did you know that Boise State has two football national titles?
The first time the Broncos won a national championship in football, they got the job done in front of their home crowd, on Thanksgiving Day. There was no blue turf involved. The game time temperature for the title tilt was 32 degrees. Wind gusts of 15 mph made passing difficult. The conditions turned the simple act of sitting and watching, for the 10,000 fans in Bronco Stadium, into a litmus test on northwestern toughness. The visiting team from balmy Tyler, Texas never had a chance.
The year was 1958.
“The Boise club won the game in the first minute of play,” the Idaho State Journal concluded. The Tyler College Apaches took the opening kickoff deep in its own territory. Then things fell apart.
On the first play from scrimmage, Tyler fumbled the ball. A scramble ensued. In the fracas the Apache’s star quarterback, Dick Staton suffered a game-ending injury. By the time Tyler running back Leon Fuller pounced on the ball, it had tumbled into the Boise endzone. A safety—two points for Boise. They wouldn’t need any more. The game would end up 22-0 in favor of the men from Boise.
OK, so the championship here was not at the NCAA division I level. Not FBS or FCS. Nor was it a NCAA Division II or III title. Rather the Boise Junior College (BJC) Broncos won the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) title in 1958.
The championship came at the tail end of a dominant decade under the leadership of head coach Lyle Smith. From 1947-1958, the Broncos racked up 96 wins, against only 6 loses and two ties. The 1958 season was an exercise in perfection and record shattering offensive production. The team opened the season with a 51-0 victory; the Broncos finished their regular season with a 75-6 shellacking of Dixie College.
The only smudge on the ’58 season came after the NJCAA championship had been won. “A strong scent of roses filled the air,” the Journal reported on championship day. College fans will get the reference. Boise was hoping for an invitation to the Little Rose Bowl—“The Grandbaby of Them All,” held in Pasadena each January. Alas, the invitation never came. Instead Santa Monica College took on Northeastern Oklahoma A&M in the traditional capper to the Junior College season in 1958.
Movin’ On Up
In 1965, Idaho Governor Robert E. Smylie signed off on an order transforming BJC into Boise State College—a four year, baccalaureate degree granting institution. The school competed in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics during the transition period. In 1969, Boise State gained admittance to the NCAA Division II and joined the Big Sky Conference. Then in 1973, Boise State College, by this time a growing research institution, gave way to Boise State University (BSU).
In 1978, BSU and its counterparts in the Big Sky Conference moved up to NCAA Division I-AA. Today, just to keep us on our toes, the NCAA calls this classification NCAA Division I FCS.
When the dust settled, one thing hadn’t changed: Boise State still knew how to win football games. There were a few bumps along the way as Jim Criner took over the program, but Big Sky Conference titles in 1977 and 1979 (the latter negated by a spying infraction) righted the ship. Then everything came together in 1980.
The 1980 team was led by a dominant backfield with an unfortunate nickname. At least that nickname—The Four Horsemen—was unfortunate for those of us the value creativity. A little football school called Notre Dame had, of course, claimed the Four Horsemen moniker in 1924. Horses aside, backfield mates Joe Aliotti, David Hughs, Cedric Minter, and Terry Zahner powered BSU offense that got stronger as the season progressed.
The group was a resilient one. After starting the season 2-2, then dropping a late season contest to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, the Broncos secured a spot in the I-AA playoffs with a closely fought victory over rival Idaho State. A 14-9 semi-final win over Grambling University and legendary coach Eddie Robinson advanced the BSU football team to the championship game. Eastern Kentucky University awaited.
Unlike in 1958, Boise could not fight for this championship on its own turf. Instead, the NCAA had selected Hughes Field, on the campus of Sacramento City College to host the game. The weather was comfortable, but the field turf was shredded from a staggering slate of high school and junior college games held at the facility during the 1980 season.
Only 8,000 fans attended the game, making the championship the least attended contest in which Boise played during the 1980 season. In the end, the BSU-EKU contest came down to the final minute. Trailing 29-24 with 55 seconds remaining, BSU started its last drive of the season at its own 20 yard line.
Three straight completions from Aliotti moved the Broncos into position. But then three incompletions followed. At the EKU 14 yard line, BSU faced 4th and 10. 20 seconds remained on the clock. At this critical juncture, Aliotti, for one last time in a glorious career, came through.
He delivered a looping pass to the back of the endzone, caught by Duane Dloughy, for the championship winner. BSU had captured its second national championship in football. Boise had become, according to a rival beat writer, the “fire that brightened the conference as a whole.”
The Boise Effect
While higher education experts and economists have noted the Flutie Factor (Doug Flutie, Boston College, 1985) and the George Mason bounce (Men’s Basketball Final Four, 2006) in terms of increased enrollment and financial gifts as a result of athletic success, the Boise State University paradigm might well be the most alluring model out there.
BSU gives form to the dreams of university leaders: We’re going to grow up, and move up, and have spectacular success at each step along the way. We’re going to become a signature brand! It’s the dream Liberty University and Coastal Carolina University are currently chasing. It’s the one that the University of Idaho, in stepping down from FBS to FCS, is having to rethink.
And what if Boise State University actually goes on to win an FBS Championship? What if BSU (whose season took a hit with its triple-OT loss to Washington State) makes it to the absolute pinnacle of intercollegiate sports? We might just have to call the program the most successful grassroots football fairytale out there. After all, Boise State would then be the proud holder of three gridiron national championships.