In five seasons as the head of the Boise State Broncos, Chris Petersen has guided his teams to three undefeated regular seasons, four Western Athletic Conference championships (sharing the title in 2010), as well as national acclaim for what many consider to be a lesser-known school playing “up” with the big boys of college football. Petersen has been named the Paul "Bear" Bryant National Coach of the Year twice, and also boasts a winning percentage north of 90 with a record of 61-5. Along the way, Petersen has developed a name as an underdog coach who embraces being different as a means of besting his more mainstream and oftentimes better-equipped rivals.
And yet Petersen’s salary is middle of the pack when compared to the rest of the 120 Football Bowl Subdivision coaches, and his team operates with a budget that is dwarfed by the competition. So how does a school operating with such a significant handicap manage to contend in the major league of college football while writing one of the most fascinating little-guy stories in recent memory? “A lot of times people will associate bigger being better, “ Petersen says, “but sometimes that will slow you down and doesn’t help you make the best decisions.”
His answer to what does help is something of an anomaly in football: He’s as equally fascinated with management principles as he is with offensive sets. “I’ve always been into principles of success and successful people,” Petersen says. Here are four insights that give us a peek inside the leadership philosophy he’s crafting.
The coffee table in his office has issues of Harvard Business Review.
That’s the kind of detail that strikes colleague Nancy Napier, who is the director of Boise State’s Centre for Creativity and Innovation and the author of Insight—and not much of a sports fan. What makes him so intriguing to her? “He learns from, and quotes business books,” Napier says. And in addition to reading business journals like Harvard Business Review, he studies up on organizational dynamics by talking with local CEOS—translating lessons from the business world onto the football field. “The world we live in as coaches is an extreme version of what’s happening in business. It’s so public, so fast. This leadership thing is so critically important. But the more you get into it, the more it comes back to the John Wooden principle of being a man of integrity.”
Experience is on the low end of his priority list.
“With our players and coaches, one of our things around here is the development concept,” Petersen says. And by development concept, he means attracting and taking chances with lesser-known talents. When hiring assistants, Petersen puts integrity, passion and a thirst for recruiting at the top of his list—experience lingers toward the bottom. Guys with hunger are more valued than guys who have already proven themselves. You don’t have to know it all to join the Boise State team, but the commitment to getting better and learning more is a non-negotiable. It’s about the only way you’ll get an invite.
Same goes for Petersen’s players. He doesn’t recruit the super stars that larger conferences go after. Instead he welcomes humble kids looking for a chance, and not out of a sense of charity. His philosophy for what makes a great football player is a willingness to work, practice and execute, birthing his motto for the team: “High Integrity, High Productivity, Low Ego.” The culture he’s set on creating is one where mistakes are accepted, effort is rewarded and belief in the possible is paramount.
A leadership role is not, in his words, “a badge of honor.”
“True leadership doesn’t come from the top,” Petersen says, “it comes from the middle.”Players don’t simply develop skills, they are asked to assume leadership roles and responsibilities throughout their careers on Petersen’s team, and the expectation is somewhat surprising. Leadership on the squad is about, “How do we help other guys?” Peterson requires his players to step up and support one another, and identifies the team’s best leaders as the ones who are the most helpful to and connected with their peers.
He plays on blue turf.
It’s fitting that Petersen coaches on the Boise State Broncos’ famous cobalt turf, installed 25 years ago as the first non-green football field, since his own leadership style is to brush aside industry standards in the name of competition. “Everything we do,” he says, “we ask if there is a better way to do this, is there a more creative way.” He invites feedback from players and assistants, and focuses on keeping his team excited and interested with the advancements the program is making. There is a genuine effort not to simply be different, but to improve on what is seen as standard and mainstream. The result is an innovative brand of football that has propelled a once little-known program to the upper echelons of the NCAA.