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Why History Won’t Be on Chris Petersen’s Side at Washington

In December, following years of speculation regarding a possible move, Chris Petersen finally left Boise State. Given Petersen’s historic success with the Broncos and the turnaround Washington enjoyed last season, he seems destined for great success in the Pac-12. But history isn’t on his side.

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Chris Petersen enjoyed ridiculous success as Boise State’s head coach, winning 88 percent of his games while going 92-12 over eight years. While many of those wins came against weak league opponents, many others came against the big boys from the major conferences. Petersen led Boise State to two BCS bowl games, including a historic Fiesta Bowl win over Oklahoma following the 2006 season, and in general won with a panache rarely seen in big-time college football.

In December, following years of speculation regarding a possible move, Petersen left Boise State to replace Steve Sarkisian as Washington’s head coach. Given Petersen’s historic success at Boise State and the turnaround Sarkisian engineered while leading the Huskies to a 9-4 campaign last season, it seems like Petersen is destined for great success in the Pac-12. However, history isn’t on his side.

In order to evaluate Petersen’s odds of winning big in a major conference, let’s step back and examine how previous Boise State coaches fared when they left for bigger programs. To evaluate a coach’s performance at a given school, we’ll compare how his team performed during his tenure to how it fared in the periods before and after. In college football, teams tend to enjoy roughly the same resources over time thanks to history and tradition. Every now and then, a program like Miami will rise from the ranks of the also-rans to the ranks of the elite, but stagnation tends to be the norm; a program like Rice simply isn’t going to have the same resources as a program like Alabama, no matter how good its players are in a given year. Hence, when attempting to evaluate a coach’s success, it makes more sense to compare him to his predecessor and successor than to coaches at other programs.

In addition to considering wins and losses, I’ll also consider the computer rankings from my website, The Power Rank, which take margin of victory into account and adjust for strength of schedule.

The goal for any coach is to elevate a program to new heights. Consider, for example, what Jim Harbaugh did at Stanford. (In each visual you’ll see below, the top panel shows the school’s wins over the past 30 years, while the bottom panel displays the school’s year-end rating on The Power Rank. In both panels, the coach’s tenure is highlighted.)

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Conversely, a coach wants to avoid dropping his program to new lows, like Tyrone Willingham did at Washington.

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Now let’s consider some previous Boise State coaches. Dirk Koetter guided Boise State from 1998 through 2000, losing just five total games in his last two seasons before leaving for Arizona State. And at ASU?

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Compared to ASU’s usual standards, Koetter did a fine job as head coach from 2001 through 2006. However, he failed to elevate the program back to the height it had reached in 1996, when coach Bruce Snyder and quarterback Jake Plummer led the team to the Rose Bowl against Ohio State. Arizona State ultimately fired Koetter, at which point he left for the NFL; he currently serves as the offensive coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons.

Koetter, however, isn’t the man to whom Petersen most risks being compared. That’s Dan Hawkins, who compiled a 53-11 record in five years as Boise State’s head coach. After the 2005 season, Hawkins left to take over at Colorado.

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As this visual shows, Hawkins couldn’t reach the standards Bill McCartney had set from 1982 to 1994, or reverse the decline that ensued during Gary Barnett’s tenure from 1999 to 2005. Hawkins’s Buffaloes only managed one season as an above-average team during his tenure, and he ultimately became more well-known for rants about offseason conditioning programs than for winning football games.

He also became the poster boy for coaches who couldn’t make the leap from the small school to the big school. After an epic 28-point collapse against Kansas in 2010, Colorado fired Hawkins, and even in hindsight, the only way to defend his tenure is to say he didn’t sink the program quite to the depths that Jon Embree did in 2011 and 2012. After spending some time as a TV analyst, Hawkins took over as coach of the Montreal Alouettes in the CFL; he was fired after five games.

The lack of success that former Boise State coaches Koetter and Hawkins managed at their next stops by no means guarantees that Petersen will fail at Washington, especially considering that Petersen managed greater success at Boise State than either of his predecessors.

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However, those previous coaches’ failure to succeed elsewhere suggests that Boise State’s program has intangible factors that contribute to the Broncos’ success. Boise State has been winning football games since 1947, when Lyle Smith took over as coach of the then junior college, leading the Broncos to wins in 83 percent of their games and to a juco national title.

Since then, Boise State has transformed from a tiny junior college into a four-year university that competes at college football’s highest level as an FBS school. Part of that sustained excellence stems from each given coach’s ability, but a big part stems from the football program’s culture. When Petersen talked about recruiting players “possessing intangibles that were just as important as their talent,” it wasn’t merely coachspeak. That attitude is ingrained in Boise State’s blue turf.

At Washington, Petersen takes over a program with its own enviable tradition, and though the Huskies had slipped in recent years, Sarkisian left the team in good shape before departing at the end of last season. Petersen’s success will hinge on whether he can resurrect Washington’s tradition or bring some of Boise State’s with him. It’s certainly not impossible, but history says it’s far from guaranteed.

Ed Feng (@thepowerrank) has a PhD in chemical engineering from Stanford and runs ThePowerRank.com, a sports analytics website.