Sonny Sixkiller remembers the night Chris Petersen’s Boise State football team shocked the world in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl. The Broncos not only stood up to heavily favored Oklahoma, they put a refreshing twist on the oldest of adages.
When the going gets tough, the tough get creative.
Facing a fourth-and-17 with seconds remaining, Boise State scored the tying touchdown on a hook-and-lateral play that covered 50 yards. In overtime, the Broncos’ victorious two-point attempt was converted off the “Statue of Liberty,” a sweep that found the running back taking the ball from the quarterback’s passing hand.
“It got me flying off my chair, like most other fans did,” Sixkiller recalled Monday. “Being creative like that, who would’ve thunk it? Especially that Statue-of-Liberty thing. I went, geez, that’s crazy.
“But the one thing about Chris Petersen, if you watch his teams, they play physical football, too,” continued the former Huskies quarterback and permanent UW legend. “It’s just not trick plays on offense or trick plays on special teams. It’s an overall brand of football.”
Petersen won the first of his two Paul “Bear” Bryant national coach of the year awards after that season, and signed a five-year contract extension that begat another contract extension. He was a coveted commodity in the coaching industry, and yet Boise — a modified version of Denver, without the smog and traffic snarls — agreed with his low-key lifestyle.
But last week, when Washington athletic director Scott Woodward contacted Petersen about replacing USC-bound Steve Sarkisian at Montlake, Boise State’s 49-year old coach realized there’s more to life than achieving absolute contentment before the age of 50.
“It was time for the next challenge,” Petersen told a media gathering at Husky Stadium, where he was formally introduced. “I was feeling like I need to take a step out of Boise to really grow and improve. This job, wherever you are, is so tremendously challenging. It wasn’t about that.
“But I was very comfortable over there, it was very easy to be over there, and at the end of the day, I didn’t think it was best to be over there in terms of becoming the person and coach I want to be.”
Sarkisian’s introduction five years ago was staged as a pep rally. Cheerleaders showed up, along with enough volunteers from the marching band to turn the “press conference” into something associated with a revival tent. There was no such fanfare Monday as Petersen, in the stately manner of an inauguration address, pointed out his objectives.
“We’re gonna play smart, fast, physical and unified football,” he vowed, “and we’ll talk about turning young men into real men.”
During his eight seasons at Boise State, Petersen was lauded for his ability to identify high-school athletes labeled a notch below the four and five-star blue chippers commanding national attention. Several of his “two-star” recruits went on to enjoy productive NFL careers.
Petersen didn’t specify if, or how, his recruiting philosophy will change at Washington. He noted that he’s still looking for “OKG’s.”
“Our Kind of Guys,” he said.
As for the gadget plays that seemed to be a staple at Boise State since he served as Broncos offensive coordinator under former head coach Dan Hawkins, Petersen is, at heart, a fundamentalist who’d rather the focus remain more on the players than the genius conning opposing defenses from the sideline.
“Trick plays are things you might use twice in one game, and then not at all the next,” he said. “Thing is, the kids like those plays, too. If they work, you don’t remember that we rushed for 200 yards.”
Petersen arrived Monday with a reputation as a no-nonsense type who doesn’t fancy himself as anything but a football coach. That reputation appears safe. His post-game remarks won’t sing with knee-slapping sound bites, and whenever he’s ready to confront his next challenge — way down the road — don’t expect him to occupy the TV studio seats now owned by the likes of Lee Corso and Lou Holtz.
But when he talks at a dais, it’s clear there’s a lot going on up there. Petersen earned a master’s degree in educational psychology from Cal-Davis, and has put it to use as a superior motivator. Spellbinding he’s not, yet Petersen leaves Boise State with a record that’s as impressive for his players’ classroom performance — virtually 100 percent are on track to graduate — as on the field.
“Here’s a guy that turned heads and created a buzz in the Pac-12: My God, Peterson actually left Boise State and he’s going to Washington? I think that’s a positive,” said Sixkiller. “I know he’s got innovation offensively, but he’s also got tough kids who play a tough brand of football. It’s gonna be good for the Huskies to be getting back to playing a tough brand of football.”
As Petersen was submitting to an hour or so of post-introduction media interviews Monday, he could be seen talking on the phone with a Seattle radio station. His eyes were fixed on the empty stadium in front of him. The video board on the other end of the field showed a photo of his smiling face, with the words:
“Welcome to the Petersen Era.”
Petersen put down the phone, and prepared for still another wave of interviews.
“I know this,” he said a few minutes later. “My job just got harder.”
Which, of course, was the plan. “Pete” had reached the pinnacle as a college football coach in Boise, and now he’s onto the great unknown, in a city he’s determined to call home.
Welcome to Washington, Pete. Seattle will offer you both unlimited advantages and profound challenges.
And if you’re ever tempted to reprise that Statue of Liberty play, go for it.
It sure was cool the last time.