At Boise State, Football Helps Tell Other Success Stories

Posted on Jan 16, 2017 in Selected Articles | 0 comments

(This article was originally published on Boise State University’s website and in the Dec. 7, 2004, edition of Update, BSU’s faculty/staff newsletter. It was reprinted in several Idaho newspapers.)

By Bob Evancho

Bet you didn’t know Boise State University is home to a large geophysical research program focused exclusively on environmental and engineering problems.

Now you do, thanks to our football team.

And did you know that our debate and speech team is a veritable powerhouse, with a decade of success that includes seven conference championships, four regional team titles and four consecutive top-five finishes at the national forensics tournament? Or that since 1993, eight of our faculty members have been named the Carnegie Foundation’s Idaho Professor of the Year? Or that Boise State boasts Idaho’s largest enrollment (18,456) as well as the most stringent enrollment standards among the state’s public institutions?

Now you do, thanks to our football team — our undefeated, 10th-ranked, Liberty Bowl-bound football team.

Also, did you know a recent report stated that Boise State — by generating jobs, providing earnings, stimulating sales and educating citizens — had an annual economic impact of almost $330 million for the state of Idaho during the last fiscal year? Or that a DNA expert in our Department of Biology used his expertise to help exonerate an inmate who was wrongfully imprisoned for 17 years and serving a life sentence for rape? Or that BSU was recently part of the largest single research grant in Idaho history? Or that earlier this year one of our graduates won an Alfred I. DuPont Award, the top honor in broadcast journalism? Or that … well, you get the idea.
(For the record, the geophysical research program comprises the Department of Geosciences and CGISS [pronounced SEE-JIS], which stands for the Center for Geophysical Investigation of the Shallow Subsurface; the DNA expert is professor Greg Hampikian; the $16.1 million grant is from the National Institutes of Health for biomedical research; and the DuPont-winning alumnus is Boise TV reporter Jon Hanian.)

The point is, as the Bronco football team continues to play on the national stage, the spotlight continues to shine on the rest of Boise State, which allows the university to trumpet programs like CGISS and the debate team and people like Hampikian and Hanian to an audience that extends far beyond Idaho and the Pacific Northwest.
The price tag for this unprecedented national exposure?

“I could not afford to assemble a public relations and advertising budget for this year that would give us the coverage the football team has given us,” said Boise State President Bob Kustra. “If I assembled that budget, the university would go broke trying to pay for it. The football program, and the athletic program in general, is a window through which we can invite people from around the country to look at our academic programs and learn more about us. That’s absolutely invaluable.”
A winning football program is nothing new at Boise State; the school was a junior college juggernaut from 1947 through 1967 and a perennial contender at the NCAA Division II and I-AA levels until it joined the Division I ranks in 1996. But the accomplishments of coach Dan Hawkins and his team — the nation’s current longest winning streak (22 games) and home winning streak (25), as well as a Western Athletic Conference-record 26-game winning streak, three straight WAC titles, and just two losses in the last three seasons — have delivered extraordinary visibility to BSU.

ESPN’s mid-major darling

For example, when ESPN came to Boise in September to broadcast the Broncos’ game against BYU, part of the game-day package was a segment on engineering professor Michelle Sabick’s biomechanical research that recorded the throwing motions of BSU’s quarterbacks. With a computer system that created three-dimensional skeletal images of the QBs, Sabick’s work provided visuals and a football angle that were tailor-made for ESPN, which ate it up. The day before the game, ESPN reporter Heather Cox and her camera crew visited Sabick in BSU’s Biomechanics Research Lab and shot their footage. The next night, during ESPN’s live coverage of the BYU-BSU game, the network ran its segment on Sabick, and Cox, standing on the sidelines, regaled millions of viewers nationwide with the story of the computer-animated skeletons throwing a football.

When you combine the entertainment value of Boise State’s high-scoring, risk-taking football team with Bronco Stadium’s unconventional blue turf and unique stories like Sabick’s research and starting quarterback Jared Zabransky’s potato-farming background, which ESPN also featured earlier this year, it isn’t too hard to understand why BSU has become the cable network’s mid-major darling. Conversely, with six appearances this year (the Liberty Bowl will make it seven) and a 15-0 overall record on ESPN or ESPN2, Boise State’s relationship with the network has provided the university with priceless nationwide exposure.
Another financial benefit to the football team’s success, adds Kustra, is a heightened awareness of other parts of the university. “Our donors have been reawakened to a new future at Boise State,” he said. “I hear over and over again [from donors and potential donors who say], ‘I’d like to sit down and talk to you about what you’re doing here.’ And it’s not just about football. Football has recaptured their attention and recaptured their imagination about the future of this institution; many people have asked questions about our academic side.”

“Beyond the Blue”

All this attention is not lost on those charged with promoting and raising funds for the university. Riding this wave of Bronco popularity, the university has embarked on a publicity campaign that includes a series of promotions titled “Beyond the Blue,” a takeoff on the blue turf that highlights academics, the arts, guest speakers, faculty awards and other points of pride at Boise State. The campaign, says Kustra, is already beginning to pay dividends.
“Highlighting the work of some of our most accomplished faculty has clearly caught the attention and imagination of donors; they’re now saying things like, ‘Well, I’ve given to athletics over the year, I think it may be time for me to pony up even more to give to academics as well.’ That’s awfully encouraging for a president to hear.”
While the publicity generated by ESPN coverage and articles in Sports Illustrated, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, The New York Times and USA Today — to name just a few of the publications that have covered the Broncos in recent weeks — is hard to quantify in dollars, the financial figures from Boise State’s bookstore do reflect a major infusion of funding into the university’s coffers.

According to Kim Thomas, bookstore director, sales of Bronco apparel and merchandise have skyrocketed this year — a 76 percent increase in apparel purchased and a 200 percent increase in online sales — compared to last year’s record-setting sales figures. Last year the bookstore contributed $752,000, or 7.5 percent of its sales — including $200,000 to the academic scholarship endowment fund — to the university. Based on sales figures so far, Thomas expects the overall number for this year to be more than $1 million.

Name recognition

To be sure, BSU’s recent gridiron glory has led to more TV exposure, the potential for a larger and more generous pool of donors, and more T-shirt sales. And there’s yet another major benefit to all these positive results, says Jason MacDonald, a BSU marketing professor who believes a college’s name recognition — whether or not it stems all or in part from the success of its sports teams — should not be underestimated.

“From a recruiting standpoint, there are two ways to raise awareness: academics and athletics,” he said. “Academics is a long road that literally takes decades, whereas athletics are more effective and efficient. When I would go to conferences I used to have to explain where Idaho is. Now people say, ‘Wow, you’re from Boise State? What a great place that looks like.’ I think the success of the football team tends to transfer to the university overall, which helps us attract better students. I mean, a biology student doesn’t come here just for a biology degree. The college experience and the atmosphere are all part of an education, and for a lot of students, football is part of that atmosphere. It plays a role.

“In fact, I tell my students all the time, if nobody has heard of where you got your degree it pretty much has zero value. If they’ve never heard of BSU, one great way to get our name out there is the football team. There are tons of small colleges with great academics, but nobody has ever heard of them.”
MacDonald acknowledges that much has been said and written about how college athletics have gotten out of hand and too much emphasis is placed on football, but he doesn’t place Boise State among the college football behemoths that dominate the polls and the headlines. At Boise State “it’s not a zero-sum game,” he said. “One area is not taking away from the other.”

When he compares Boise State to most of the other ranked teams in the nation, it’s clear to MacDonald that Hawkins runs a lean program that has done more with less. “I read a report where it said we are 97th in the country in football expenditures,” MacDonald said. “We’re not Michigan or USC, both of which spent more than $10 million on football; we spent about $2.25 or $2.5 million.”

It’s all part of what makes the Boise State football team one of the best feel-good stories going. And why the rest of the university is glad to ride its coattails.

Bob Evancho is Boise State’s associate director of communications.

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