Petersen, Boise a good match
It’s the middle of August and Chris Petersen is in his own world.
The Boise State coach is so focused on his family and his team’s preseason practices that he’s unaware that Bob Dylan is about to play a much-anticipated outdoor concert here.
An appearance by a music legend here in the Treasure Valley is a huge cultural event. But Petersen’s obliviousness isn’t surprising to those who view him as bland and serious.
But there’s another Chris Petersen, his friends say. A fun-loving, prank-playing alter ego. Regarded by some as a control freak and even paranoid, he’s so private that he doesn’t let that side of him be seen in public.
Yet here in this college football utopia, where Saturday night, his third-ranked Broncos (2-0) host No. 24 Oregon State (1-1), in another pivotal game to have a shot a becoming the first non-BCS team to make the BCS title game, the coach doesn’t have to know what’s going on outside of his family and the Broncos.
“Football and coaching are very important to him, but his family’s lifestyle is gigantic to him,” says Oregon assistant coach Tom Osborne, one of Petersen’s closest friends.
During his five seasons at Boise State, “Coach Pete,” as he is lovingly called by Broncos fans, has turned down numerous job opportunities and hasn’t come close to leaving. More important to him are what he believes are the best interests of his wife, Barbara, and sons, Jack and Sam.
And Petersen savors a lifestyle that includes living minutes from his office, being able to go home for lunch, and working out by running along the Boise River.
Petersen, 45, has achieved remarkable success for a man who initially didn’t want to go into coaching, almost turned down his first chance to become a head coach and subsequently almost left the profession. In his four-plus seasons at Boise State, Petersen has gone 53-4 (the highest winning percentage among active coaches) with two undefeated seasons and two Fiesta Bowl wins.
“I know we’ve got a good situation here,” says Petersen, who in January signed a new five-year contract worth just over $8 million. “And I don’t take that for granted at all.”
Petersen isn’t motivated by money. He fondly recalls his first coaching job, making $2,500 a year as freshman coach at the University of California, Davis, where his teams played in front of 50 people.
“So simple it seemed,” he says. “So much more pure in so many ways. There’s still a lot about this job that I do like, but it’s much different than how I started with the things that I liked.”
Petersen was a standout at Yuba City (Calif.) High School. As a ball-hawking, hard-hitting safety, he was his league’s defensive player of the year as a junior, then won the offensive award the next year as a dual-threat quarterback in a veer attack. (It was from his high school coach, George Talkins, that Petersen learned the hook-and-lateral and Statue of Liberty plays that he used in Boise State’s stunning upset of Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl.)
"I really do believe he could have played in the NFL as a defensive back," Talkins says.
Rejecting scholarship offers to play defensive back, Petersen, who had 4.5 speed in the 40, enrolled at a junior college, Sacramento City College, to play quarterback. After two years, he transferred to non-scholarship UC-Davis.
“He was very heady,” recalls Dirk Koetter, a Petersen friend who was an assistant coach at San Francisco State in 1985 when his team was blown out by the Petersen-quarterbacked Aggies.
“He was a really great field general. He had a great on-field presence.”
As a senior, Petersen was named Northern California Athletic Conference Player of the Year and a second-team All-American and set the NCAA Division II record for career completion percentage (69.6 percent).
But having seen the toll coaching at Yuba College took on his father, Ron, Petersen wasn’t interested in coaching. So he enrolled in a master’s degree program in psychology until then-UC-Davis coach Jim Sochor finally persuaded him to give coaching a try.
“Gradually, he changed his mind because he did love the game,” Sochor says.
After a few years at UC-Davis, Petersen had stints at Pittsburgh and Portland State before being hired in 1995 by Mike Bellotti as wide receivers coach at Oregon. There, he had a reputation for drawing up trick offensive plays during coaching meetings.
“He was always the mad scientist,” Bellotti says. “Some of it was really good. Some of it was way out there.”
In 1999, Petersen got bad news concerning his son Sam, then 1. The boy had been playing with Osborne’s children in the stands at a scrimmage when he fell and hit his head.
The next day, Osborne received a call and at first just heard a whimper, before realizing it was Petersen.
“It’s Sam,” a devastated Petersen said. “He’s got cancer.”
Bellotti told Petersen to tend to his family. But when Petersen walked out of the office, Bellotti wondered whether his assistant would ever return to coaching.
Doctors removed Sam’s tumor, but further tests showed that the cancer had spread to his spine. For months, Petersen balanced coaching with spending time with his son at the hospital.
“When you experience something like that, it changes you forever,” Osborne says.
Sam is now healthy, but Petersen hasn’t forgotten the perspective his son’s illness provided him.
“It’s had a pretty big effect on some decisions we’ve made,” Petersen says.
After the 2000 season, when Koetter left for Arizona State and Boise State hired Dan Hawkins, Petersen signed on as offensive coordinator, agreeing only after doctors told him Sam would be fine in Boise.
When Hawkins left to become coach at Colorado in December 2005, Talkins recalls Petersen, then Boise State’s offensive coordinator, telling him that he didn’t want to be a head coach.
He only wanted to continue coaching offense, but knew that might not be possible if another coach was hired.
“That’s one of the main reasons he took the job,” Talkins says.
With Boise State’s stunning success in a non-BCS conference, Petersen’s name always comes up when coaching jobs open. He says there’s not another coaching job that he’s eyeing. He says he’s never considered leaving Boise State and doesn’t even know what it would take for him to make a move.
“I like it here,” he says. “The program’s growing. The facilities are changing. We get good coaches. I think we get really good players. As long as you feel like you can grow and you’re getting better and you’ve got support you need, I think you feel good about things.”
Koetter, now offensive coordinator for the Jacksonville Jaguars, understands why Petersen hasn’t left. After leaving Boise State, Koetter was fired after six seasons at Arizona State.
“It’s a great job,” Koetter says of Boise State. “There’s probably not five jobs in the country better than Boise, because you’re always going to win there and it’s a great place for your family. The community’s behind you and you’re the only show in town.”
“All the jobs they’re talking about are not as good as the one he has,” Koetter says.
Petersen says he doesn’t even know if he’ll still be coaching a decade from now. He says he often thinks about a motto Oregon State coach Mike Riley shared with him: “If you’re happy, stay happy.”
Bellotti, who left coaching last year for a short stint as Oregon’s athletic director, says Petersen has asked him several times about life after coaching.
“I don’t think status or salary or any of those things were ever motivating factors for me or him to go into football or stay in football,” Bellotti says.
Although Petersen rarely shows it, he insists he’s an emotional person who has to work hard to remain poised. He admires the fiery, emotional style of Arizona coach Mike Stoops.
“I can’t be my true self, because that’s just not how it is,” Petersen said. “But I think I can be myself with who matters — our team, our staff. I think they know how I am. I think they know the passion. I think they know the fire.”
Petersen is often seen as robotic for his frequent use of coachspeak, but those who know him best insist he’s a prankster at heart.
“He’s a good instigator,” Koetter says. “He’s great at knowing what pushes one guy’s buttons against another guy and getting in the middle of stuff all in good fun. He’s good at stirring up the mix just to keep things lively.”
Specific examples are almost impossible to come by, and Koetter ackowledges that most "aren’t fit for print."
Bellotti reluctantly discloses one anecdote.
“I’ve seen Chris be in a position where they’re tossing shot after shot of drinks,” Bellotti says. “Chris isn’t drinking them. He’s just tossing them over his shoulder on the back wall, but other people are drinking them and eventually going down for the count.”
When he’s not working, Petersen can often be found boating with his family and Koetter on Payette Lake in McCall, Idaho. He’s also an avid reader, especially of books by and about coaches. Osborne recalls him being engrossed by Pat Riley’s “The Winner Within: A Life Plan for Team Players.”
“He’s like my Oprah,” Koetter says. “Whatever he gives me, I know it’s going to be good.”
Before a visitor leaves Petersen’s office, the coach asks about Dylan. Turns out he at least knows who the musician is. He wants to know more about the show. ‘I’ll have to check into that,” he says.
Maybe there really is another side to Chris Petersen.