Why Did Chris Petersen Finally Leave Boise State?

Kyle Kensing@kensing45Contributor IDecember 6, 2013

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Washington became the one college football program to make new head coach Chris Petersen an offer he couldn't refuse. Now, the longtime Boise State coach is headed to Seattle to be the Huskies' new dog father.

Petersen's success begged the question: What could he do with more resources and opportunities? However, the same has been asked of other successful, lower-tier conference coaches with mixed results, including his Boise State predecessors. The timing and the situation both had to be right for Petersen to avoid the fate of others like Dirk Koetter and Dan Hawkins.

His name was rumored in openings at Mississippi State, Oregon, UCLA and most recently USC. Of course, either they were always just rumors, or Petersen declined those schools' offers in order to stay with the program that was his football home since 2001.

It was always going to take special circumstances to lure Petersen away from Boise State, where, in eight seasons as head coach, he went 92-12. The stars perfectly aligned for a job Petersen's former colleague at Oregon, Mike Bellotti, told The Seattle Times "was one that had always intrigued him."

One selling point is Washington made an irresistible offer. Specifics are not known at this time, but Adam Jude of the Seattle Times reports Petersen's new contract makes him one of the Pac-12's highest-paid coaches. His predecessor, new USC head coach Steve Sarkisian, was earning roughly $2.6 million a year, per USA Today.

But then, Stanford head coach David Shaw—soon to be a Petersen rival—said on Tuesday's coaches teleconference that money rarely influences such decisions. Petersen’s Boise State deal was restructured in 2012 to pay him in the neighborhood of $2.2 million, as detailed in The Idaho Statesman, a sum on par with the top half of Pac-12 compensations.

"I feel honored and blessed that I will continue to lead this football team," Petersen said after signing the contract, per BroncoSports.com. "I appreciate the support of the administration and Bronco Nation, and I'm excited about the continued growth of this program." 

There's no reason to doubt the sincerity of Petersen's sentiment, particularly after balking at an offer from UCLA a month earlier. UCLA reportedly offered him $3 million a year over five years, per ESPN Los Angeles, but he returned to the Smurf Turf. 

Nov 23, 2013; San Diego, CA, USA; Boise State Broncos head coach Chris Petersen during the first half against the San Diego State Aztecs at Qualcomm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODA

If Petersen was merely chasing paychecks, he likely would have left Boise State for a vacancy like UCLA's long ago. He’s not making a move not as a businessperson, but as a competitor.

Washington is the right situation at the right time for Petersen, and Petersen's the right leader to take the Huskies to the next level.

Both can thank Sarkisian for making this marriage possible.

First and most obvious is that there was an opening, which Sarkisian's departure for USC created.

Sarkisian also stepped away from a program on the brink of greatness. Though he had his detractors in five years leading the Huskies, Sarkisian "rebuilt [a] firm foundation" at a previously downtrodden program, as USA Today reporter George Schroeder described it.

Washington is primed for contention in the Pac-12 North immediately. This year’s eight-win team—the most victories for the program in 12 years—returns numerous key contributors on both sides of the ball. The Huskies defense is particularly intriguing, welcoming back a host of starters.

Overseeing that unit the past two seasons is former Petersen assistant Justin Wilcox. Sarkisian hired Wilcox after his one-year stint at Tennessee, and he immediately transformed Washington’s defense from one of the nation's worst into one of the Pac-12's best.

Of course, Petersen needs no rundown of Wilcox's credentials. He oversaw the nation's No. 14-ranked scoring defense in 2009, arguably the best season in Petersen's time at Boise State, which included holding the Chip Kelly-coached Oregon offense to six points.

Wilcox contributed to the Broncos' defining era in another key way, as former Philadelphia Eagles scout John Middlekauff described on Twitter:

Defenses dominate in the offense-friendly Pac-12, a reality made quite clear in Saturday's conference championship game featuring Arizona State and Stanford. Should Wilcox remain on staff, the Huskies will have the defense to contend. With Petersen's offensive chops and big-game track record, he provides the leadership necessary to build Washington's solid foundation into the stratosphere.

He did it at Boise State, inheriting a program that went undefeated in the 2004 regular season under Hawkins and taking the next step to BCS contention.

But for all the success Boise State enjoyed in Petersen's illustrious tenure, there was always a limit.

Boise State was always butting its head against the glass ceiling of college football's elite. It didn't matter how many regular seasons the Broncos went through undefeated—three under Petersen. It didn't matter how many power-conference opponents Boise State beat, like Oregon in 2009, Virginia Tech in 2010 or Georgia in 2011, all of which contended for their power conference titles.

The attrition of overachievement has started to show at Boise State. The Broncos are 8-4, their worst record under Petersen, and will not play for the Mountain West Conference championship. Boise State could certainly return to MWC contention next year, but that's likely the highest goal for which the program can strive, because the College Football Playoff promises to further expand the gap between the elite and the non-automatic qualifiers.

Washington faces no such limitations. Pac-12 football is gaining in national clout and promises to have a place at the playoff table. The conference is challenging the big, bad SEC for college football supremacy, thanks in large part to the economic boom Greg Bishop tackled in last week's New York Times.

The signs of Pac-12 wealth are no more evident than in Washington, which opened a renovated Husky Stadium in August. Petersen was there for the christening, a season-opening loss for his Broncos that demonstrated the growing disparity between the power and non-power conferences.

No longer will observers have to wonder what Petersen could accomplish with similar resources or recruiting clout, and as a result, he'll have the opportunity to coach for championships. Washington truly made an offer he couldn't refuse.


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