A collegiate athletic director being named "Local Hero?" You can bet there was some debate among the BW editorial staffers on this one. But then we started to think about how much our local former junior college-and by extension, our former sleepy college town-has changed in the quarter century since Gene Bleymaier took over the reins of Bronco athletics. It's downright scary.
First and foremost, there's the issue of exposure. Tune in to ESPN on Labor Day for the Bronco football team's primetime duel with the University of Georgia Bulldogs, and you'll probably see at least two sleek, professional commercials advertising Boise State academics, athletics, campus life and the City of Boise to the entire nation. Think that's absurd? What's even crazier is how much it's working.
According to a report put out by the university this June, sales of items bearing the Boise State logo have increased by $1.8 million since 2001. Recently, the Broncos even passed Georgetown University in logo sales-which, as anyone who grew up during the dark hat-and-parka revolution of the early 1990s will tell you, is simply unthinkable. In a news release just before last year's nationally televised Liberty Bowl, Boise State President Bob Kustra said the university would go broke if it tried to create a marketing department as effective as its football team. Bleymaier phrases the success a little more tenderly.
"People from all over the country have kind of adopted us," he says. "We're the novelty, in a lot of respects."
Be that as it may, we're hard pressed to think of any other novelty that could help generate a $500,000 donation to the university's academic scholarship endowment fund, like sales of Bronco gear recently did. It's also hard to ignore how the college at large has blossomed during the decade-long acceleration of the athletic program. A report released by the university last December estimated that it contributed-by way of jobs, sales and employee earnings-almost $330 million to the state economy during the previous fiscal year.
And second: In case you haven't noticed, the version of Boise that has a world-class sports team-or four, if you count the stellar gymnastics, wrestling, and track teams-feels slightly more unified and proud than the previous version. Sure, it's easy to pooh-pooh spectator sports from our alternative ivory tower, but it's hard to ignore how all of a sudden Boise feels like a much larger city, only without the excessive crime, trash and that big city smell (but talk to us again 10 years from now).
So where does an athletic director fit into all of this? Most visibly, it was Bleymaier who took a risk two decades ago in installing an absurdly colored plastic carpet that has since become our town's singular calling card. He was also the driving force behind the university's shift in 1996 from smalltime 1-AA athletics to the Valhalla of 1-A, which brought Boise State's top programs the chance to succeed with the world watching. And despite his nearly unparalleled job stability (beginning his 25th year as AD, a remarkable feat in college athletics), Bleymaier continues to think of new ways to reach out to potential student athletes-and we're not just talking about the dudes.
In the coming years, Bleymaier says, the university is looking to add to their selection of NCAA women's sports, with softball and bowling (yes, bowling) both being potential candidates. He also says that a swimming team could be a possibility-albeit an expensive one. Then again, at Boise State right now, it can seem like anything is possible.
"Success rubs off on the other student athletes," he says. "They're saying, 'If the football team, or the gymnastics team, or the wrestling team or the track team can do this, why not us?'"
But here's the part that really warmed the cockles of our nerdy little hearts: Maybe you've heard of the new 80,000-square-foot indoor practice facility that the university recently broke ground on, and for which Bleymaier spearheaded over $9 million in fundraising. Everybody's favorite team of no-neck beefcakes will only use it, in Bleymaier's words, "a couple hours a day in the winter." The building's day-to-day use will instead be dominated by intramural and recreational sports programs put on by both Boise State and the City of Boise. Now that's a bronco of a different color.