In its 50 years of football life, the Western Athletic Conference was home to legends and Hall of Famers like Fisher DeBerry and Frank Kush; Ty Detmer and Brian Urlacher. Friday’s Pac-12 Championship Game summons the names of WAC greatness, indirectly pouring one out on the Levi’s Stadium turf.
Title game head coaches Chris Petersen and Mike MacIntyre first squared off as opponents in the WAC six years ago. The Pac-12 Championship Game featuring two WAC alumni isn’t exactly outlandish, given four of the conference’s head coaches were there from 2010 to the WAC’s end in 2012. MacIntyre and Petersen join a group that also includes Cal’s Sonny Dykes (Louisiana Tech) and Oregon State’s Gary Andersen (Utah State).
However, after Petersen’s Boise State team dismantled MacIntyre’s San Jose State side in their October 2010 meeting, 48-0, the idea of those two meeting in a national championship-implicated conference title tilt would have understandably elicited confused replies. However, MacIntyre came to San Jose State with lofty ambitions that weren’t to be denied.
“I always hoped wherever I was, we’d be able to play for championships,” MacIntyre said. “[The time since beginning at San Jose State] has been a bit of a whirlwind… I’m very, very fortunate, and very, very blessed to be playing in the Pac-12 Championship.”
It’s not just good fortune that landed MacIntyre in Santa Clara this week. Before overseeing one of the greatest program turnarounds in the history of the Pac, MacIntyre wrote his name among the greats of the WAC. His abbreviated-yet-remarkable tenure at San Jose State stands among the most impressive program turnarounds in college football, say nothing of a single conference, and functioned as a blueprint for his success now at Colorado.
“It prepared me well. There’s a lot of great people at San Jose State, there’s a lot of great young men I coached that gave everything they had,” MacIntyre said. “When I went to San Jose State… there were 121 Division I teams. We were No. 121.”
That’s no hyperbole. The Spartans finished 2-10 in 2009, then catered at 1-12 in MacIntyre’s debut season.
“All of that completely changed in three years,” MacIntyre said.
“We went from one of the worst APR to the best APR in the [WAC]. We went from the worst team in the history of the school, to the best team in the history of the school. It just proved that if you care about young people, you get young people [who] are committed, you get coaches [and] people around your program in the academics and the strength program and the training room and all that, going in the same direction, you set high goals, and you keep caring and keep working and keep pushing, great things can be accomplished.”
San Jose State — a program that previously finished above .500 just twice since moving to the WAC in 2006 — sent the conference out in style. Quarterback David Fales became a star and NFL prospect in the WAC’s final season, powering an offense reminiscent of the high-flying LaVell Edwards BYU teams of the 1980s and 1990s.
Colorado’s turnaround borrows elements from San Jose State’s. Sefo Liufau has grown into a top-flight playmaker, much as Fales was for San Jose State. The offense is explosive, showcasing numerous talented wide receivers — a staple of MacIntyre’s last Spartan team — and the defense is surprisingly hard-nosed.
Another reflection seen in Colorado from that San Jose State program? MacIntyre’s motto: “If you can believe it, you can achieve it.”
The nation has taken notice of #TheRise, including MacIntyre’s next opponent, Petersen.
“I have tremendous respect for how he does it, and how he treats people, and the results that he gets,” Petersen said of MacIntyre.
He should — Petersen’s own success in the WAC days plays a part in MacIntyre’s flourishing at Colorado.
Former Boise State offensive lineman and Petersen graduate assistant Klayton Adams figures prominently into the Buffalo coaching staff as offensive line coach.
“There’s not enough guys out there like Klayton [who] make life fun and keep it all in perspective,” Petersen said. “Then you couple that with the job he does, and he’s turning into a heckuva coach.”
Adams was a heckuva player for the Broncos, too, earning All-WAC honors in 2004 on an offense Petersen coordinated.
A MacIntyre assistant since the San Jose State days, Adams knew quite well the ability of the CU staff to engineer a wholly unexpected season. Well enough that according to Petersen, Adams was willing to call his shot on the Buffs.
Adams sent Petersen a text message over the summer that read: See you in Santa Clara in a couple months.
“I remember chuckling and thinking, ‘OK. That’d be good,'” Petersen said. “I don’t know if it’s going to happen, that we’re both there. But sure enough, here we are.”
Colorado’s spot in Santa Clara is unexpected; Washington’s, less so. In fact, the Huskies were one of college football’s most en vogue teams of the preseason. They succeeded where few others do and matched — if not exceeded — heavy hype.
Washington did so in a manner reminiscent of Petersen’s Boise State teams. He inherited a program with favorable national buzz, the result of conference championships — five won in the WAC — over seven of the eight seasons preceding Petersen’s promotion to head coach.
Washington hasn’t been quite as successful. Just eight years ago, the Huskies limped through a season even worse than MacIntyre’s debut at San Jose State, going 0-12 in the 2008 campaign.
However, the Huskies’ dominance in the decades prior showed the lofty potential at the right coach’s disposal. In his first year with the Dawgs, Petersen inherited a lineup with four first-round draft picks on the defensive side.
But talent alone doesn’t define Petersen-coached teams; it never has. Even as Boise State gained recognition and scored some recruiting coups, Petersen brought out the same intensity, the same chip-on-the-shoulder play that fueled Boise State at the turn of the millennium. That’s when the Broncos used a more highly touted Fresno State program as a stepping stone into the limelight.
Likewise, mega-talented players like quarterback Jake Browning and safety Budda Baker play like they’re out to disprove naysayers. Credit the culture Petersen has cultivated over his three seasons as head coach, which cornerback Kevin King best described over the summer.
Boise State gained a reputation for thriving with trick plays as a result of that win over Oklahoma a decade ago, and Petersen still shows a penchant for getting creative offensively. Just last week in the Pac-12 North-deciding Apple Cup, wide receiver Dante Pettis took a ball from Browning and unloaded a pass to tight end Darrell Daniels.
Petersen capped an undefeated record in his first year and won a Fiesta Bowl on a trick Statue of Liberty play, which remains today one of the most iconic moments in the sport. Yet, it was tenacious defense and dominant line play that truly set Boise State apart in the Petersen era.
The Broncos won another three WAC championships and another Fiesta Bowl in the years that followed, before Boise State exited for the Mountain West in 2011.
Boise State’s departure signified the unofficial beginning of the end for Western Athletic Conference football. Unlike when Arizona and Arizona State left the WAC in the late 1970s, the conference’s remaining infrastructure could not withstand the exodus, which began with the split of Utah and BYU to form the Mountain West in the late 1990s and continued into the realignment of this decade.
Through the success of coaches like MacIntyre and Petersen, however, the spirit of the WAC lives on, gone but not forgotten.