The State of the Program Entering I-A
Before they became the most storied of modern mid-majors, the Boise State Broncos had established themselves as one of the preeminent I-AA powers at that level of college football. Only achieving four-year status in the late 1960s, Boise State joined the NCAA at the Division II level in 1970 and promptly won four Big Sky Conference championships in five seasons from 1973 to 1977 under head coaches Tony Knap and Jim Criner.
Criner would win another in 1980 in the Big Sky’s third season as a I-AA conference. Knocking off Grambling State 14-9 in the semifinals and Eastern Kentucky 31-29 in the championship game, the Broncos would earn their first national championship that season in front of 8,157 fans in Sacramento.
Returning to the playoffs in 1981, Boise State reached the semifinals before succumbing 23-17 to Eastern Kentucky in a championship rematch. It would inexplicably be the team’s last postseason appearance for nearly a decade, when they reached the 1990 national semifinals. Squaring off against Big Sky rival Nevada, the Broncos fell 59-52 in a three-overtime thriller.
In 1994, the Broncos would win their first Big Sky championship since 1980 with a 10-1 regular season record. After surviving tight contests in the first round against North Texas and the quarterfinals against Appalachian State, Boise faced 1992 national champion Marshall in the semifinals. Having played in the championship game each of the past three seasons against Youngstown State, few expected the Thundering Herd to lose the contest. But forced to play away from home, time ran out on Marshall as the Broncos won 28-24 to reach the final. There Youngstown State awaited yet again, and Jim Tressel’s crew would win their second straight championship 28-14.
Coming down from the high of the championship game, the Broncos finished just 7-4 in their final Big Sky season as league champs Montana romped to the national title. But right as they entered their first season at the I-A ranks, they were hit by something far worse than a loss on a football field.
The First Season
The Broncos graduated to I-A status in 1996, moving from the Big Sky to the Big West. They did it without their legendary head coach, Pokey Allen, at the helm. Allen, who had been diagnosed with the rare muscle cancer rhabdomyosarcoma days after the 1994 I-AA Championship Game, was forced tor take medical leave in August to deal with the spreading cancer. Taking over as interim coach was defensive coordinator Tom Mason.
Boise State would lose their inaugural game at the I-A level at home to Central Michigan. Rudely welcoming the Broncos to the top flight, the Chippewas showed little mercy for the newcomers in a 42-21 beatdown. Boise would win the following weekend, knocking off I-AA Portland State — the team that Allen had coached before taking over in Idaho’s capital — 33-22.
Mason would fail to guide the Broncos to another victory in his interim stint as head coach, including losses to I-AA opponents Eastern Washington and Northwestern State. In total Mason would serve in his role for ten games, handing over a 1-9 team to Allen when he returned to coach the final two games of the season.
In an emotional first game back, Allen would earn the honors of coaching Boise in its first road win and first conference victory at the I-A level. Taking on fellow Big West cellar dweller New Mexico State in Las Cruces, the two teams were vying to keep out of last place in the conference standings. The tense matchup ended in a 33-32 victory for Boise State, as the team eked out a victory in Allen’s return.
The good feelings would die down in the season finale, as state rival Idaho came south from Moscow and won the grudge match 64-19 on the weekend before Thanksgiving. Allen would resign after the loss due to his deteriorating health. Just 44 days after coaching in the only I-A win of his career, Allen would lose his fight with cancer in Missoula, passing away on December 30 at age 53.