Boise State’s booster meetings weren’t going well, and it wasn’t hard to see why.
In 2001, Dan Hawkins’ first season as head coach, the Broncos had hit some stumbling blocks early. They started 0-2 and fell to 2-3 after a 45-14 shellacking by Rice. The community, which had long rallied around the team, wondered if Hawkins was the right guy for the job.
“I said we could be a consistent top-15 team, and people kind of laughed at me a little bit,” Hawkins says.
Boise State football jumped into the national consciousness with its 2006 Fiesta Bowl upset of Oklahoma, capping a 13-0 season. It was the culmination of years of building. That 2006 season marked the fourth time in five years that the Broncos won at least 10 games, a stretch that grew to 15 in 18 years until 2020. Over two decades, Boise State became the gold standard for non-power conference teams.
But it might not have happened if not for one night in 2001, when a 3-3 Boise State team traveled to face No. 8 Fresno State with future No. 1 NFL Draft pick David Carr at quarterback. Twenty years later, Boise State’s upset win and the fallout still resonate, not just with both programs, but going so far as to reshape the power dynamics of college football’s postseason and the concept of fairness in the sport.
“That was the most impactful game of my tenure,” says former Fresno State head coach Pat Hill.
Says Gene Bleymaier, Boise State’s athletic director from 1982 to 2011, “You can point to that game as the real turning point.”
Don’t get it confused. Long before the 2006 season, the Boise State fan base had grown accustomed to winning. The Broncos won 10 games in 1999 and 2000 under Dirk Koetter, just a few years removed from a jump up to the Football Bowl Subdivision in 1996. They won the Football Championship Subdivision national title in 1980, reached the semifinals in 1981 and 1990 and lost in the championship game in 1994.
Houston Nutt left for Arkansas after one season in 1997, and Koetter left for Arizona State after 2000. Bleymaier promoted Hawkins, the offensive coordinator, to the head job. He liked that Hawkins had spent three years with Koetter and had previously gone 40-11-1 as head coach at NAIA Willamette.