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Chris Petersen was always on time

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The Washington and Boise State coach left college football the same way he lived in it: efficiently.

Chris Petersen Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports. Banner Society illustration.

Chris Petersen had a plan, and he stayed on schedule. On the field, his offenses ticked like clockwork and stayed ahead of the chains. Off the field, he ran his programs with a calm but exact precision. Petersen might have been joking when he said that USC wasn’t the job for him because it took two hours to get anywhere in LA. Then again, considering his meticulous and total approach to football and how he turned down the Trojans job twice, maybe he wasn’t.

Even his departures – and there are exactly two in his career as a head coach, a low number for anyone in the profession – were tidy, no-fuss awards. When he did finally leave Boise State for Washington, it happened quickly, quietly, and efficiently. Some coaching negotiations take place in secret locations. Petersen’s Washington deal was hammered out in a night at a Hampton Inn in Boise.

His exit from Washington was similar. Petersen resigned after the 2019 Apple Cup, handing over duties to his defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake. Petersen quoted Confucius in his farewell presser, saying “Man has two lives to live, and the second one begins when he realizes he only has one.” He then turned the press conference over to his successor and quietly left the building

Petersen could demand some exit music if he wanted some. Maybe he should demand some, actually, since Petersen has a strong case for being the best football coach of his generation. At Washington, his teams did what no Huskies team had done in two decades, winning their first Pac-12 title in 2016, and then again in 2018. They flipped the script on Oregon’s long winning streak against them and absolutely dominated in-state rival Wazzu.

The Huskies’ success wasn’t just local, either. In 2016, Washington re-entered the national championship picture in earnest for the first time since the 1990s by securing a Playoff spot. They played Alabama and lost – but most people lose to Bama, and the larger facts remain unchanged here. After two decades of wild inconsistency, the Huskies under Petersen again became a real conference power and respectable national presence.

That job was hard, and it wore Petersen down. It was nothing, though, in terms of difficulty relative to his previous work at Boise State – a job he got, he says, not because he was qualified or wanted to do anything but call plays, but because Petersen didn’t want to move to Colorado. That’s a typically underplayed bit of autobiographicalizing there by Petersen, putting himself as just another in a line of successful Boise State coaches. The reality is different: Although Boise enjoyed success under Petersen’s predecessors Dirk Koetter and Dan Hawkins, Petersen’s era at the school became the high water mark for achievements in beautifully crafted, meticulously engineered, and exuberantly brave giant-killing football.

No other team would come closer to pulling off college football’s most dangerous and difficult caper: escaping the confines of non-power FBS football and competing toe-to-toe with the big boys from the SEC, ACC, Big 12, Pac-12, and Big Ten. The Broncos’ 2007 Fiesta Bowl win may be the single most dramatic upset in the history of bowl season, and a thrilling testament to the power of a team playing way, way over their head through the power of teamwork and a few well-executed but absolutely insane trick plays.

The 2007 Fiesta Bowl was also not a fluke. In six ferocious seasons from 2006 to 2011, the Boise State Broncos – a former community college who somehow played second fiddle to Idaho until well into the 1990s – won 73 games, went undefeated twice, and beat teams from the Pac-12, Big 12, ACC, and SEC. They rose to a high of #2 in the AP poll, and at one point were #3 in the BCS, rushing further into territory normally occupied by traditional powers than any team since the BYU teams of the 1980s. Boise State under Chris Petersen transcended giant-killing. For a good five years or so, they became giants themselves.

Boise’s rampaging success was an outlier off the field, too. Petersen never yelled at his players, and emphasized a team togetherness bordering on the hokey. He instituted a system encouraging players to bond off the field, almost universally referred to by players encountering it for the first time as “corny.” That’s the word, “corny,” a dad word indicating an almost pathological sincerity and simplicity at the same time. Petersen did all of the things dads really think they should do: banned phones during team dinners so players would talk to each other, took them on trips to play paintball, and made them quiz each other on personal details about their high schools, their hometowns. His concerns about players extended well past the football field. He didn’t chasten players for being obsessed with social media, or blame them for being millennials. He seemed genuinely worried about it, and about his players’ engagement with the world and issues far away from the football field. At a Washington team meeting, Petersen once asked his players how many of them knew what the Keystone XL pipeline was. (For the record: about half.)

Petersen’s corniness was deep, and like a lot of awkwardly sincere things repeated over time, it worked brilliantly. So did his talent as an offensive and organizational brain, especially at resource-challenged Boise State. The Broncos’ talent scouting and development worked better than any in the country because it had to, but also because of Petersen’s all-seeing eye for finding underrated talent and developing it to max potential. The 2007 class alone featured two two-star recruits taken in the first round of the NFL Draft: defensive end Shea McClellin and running back Doug Martin. His coaching tree followed suit, with Boise’s coaching staff producing future head coaches like current Boise coach Bryan Harsin and Cal’s Justin Wilcox. Once that talent got on the field, it found a team that ran enough shifts, motions, and formations to dizzy an NFL coordinator’s brain – and did it all with less talent, longer distances to travel, and fewer resources than many of the teams Boise State ended up beating.

Petersen was astonishingly great coaching football – great to an extent that I don’t think people really even appreciate after his resignation, which made everyone at least start to think about the sum of his work. I mean, he was absolutely freaking great at this. Petersen helped take Boise as far as Boise could possibly go: Within four points in two years of making cases for BCS title shots. In 2010, his #4 Boise State team lost a snakebitten game to Nevada in overtime, 34-31. In 2011, the Broncos missed national title contention by an even slimmer margin, dropping a 36-35 matchup to TCU. It’s been a long time since anyone has busted the cartel of 10 or so teams eligible for modern college football titles, but outside of Oregon, Petersen’s Boise came the closest. It’s tempting to think that if he couldn’t do it, then it simply can’t be done.

Both of those cursed games keeping Boise from crashing the Power 5’s party involved missing key field goals. These had to be a maddening failure for someone as obsessed with the small things as Petersen was, but then again, the details in Petersen’s case were also behind his greatest triumphs. The high point of his tenure at Boise State involved a team pulling off not one, not two, but three trick plays in the final minute of a game to beat Oklahoma. There is luck in that, but only a team as precise, composed, and utterly trusting in itself could have done one step of that immortal sequence, much less all three. Then they won, and the starting running back proposed to his cheerleader girlfriend on national TV. She said yes. It was all very improbable and very corny in theory, but if you saw it? It worked like nothing else in the sport before or since. It made you, more than anything else, feel something.

Petersen said he started thinking about leaving when he couldn’t feel it anymore. When he finished 2018 with the Huskies losing to Ohio State in the Rose Bowl, it came after a week of preparation he says he didn’t really appreciate the way he should have. The Rose Bowl is the high temple of college football. If he didn’t feel the power there, then he wasn’t going to feel it anywhere.

In 2013 when he was still at Boise, the then-48-year-old Petersen said he couldn’t see being a football coach at 58. Petersen, now no longer a football coach, turned 55 the season he retired. Ahead of schedule, as usual.