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College football's spotlight shines on Boise State and its unique stage

The Broncos have long been known for playing their home games on blue artificial turf, and what started as little more than a gimmick has become a key part of the university's identity.

September 22, 2010|Chris Dufresne

Reporting from Boise, Idaho — At Boise State University, where the color of the football turf mirrors that of a deep-blue pond, the curious seek to confirm tales of water-seeking birds diving to feathery deaths on the stadium surface — yarns just plausible enough to keep a myth alive.

"I can neither confirm nor deny," says university Athletic Director Gene Bleymaier, tongue planted firmly in cheek.

What can be verified is that the blue artificial turf at Bronco Stadium has achieved no small level of fame, spawning copycats and prompting the school to seek federal trademark protection.

"It was a shock when I first saw it," says Geraldo Hiwat, a freshman receiver from Holland who knew little about Boise State — except for the turf — when he came to the United States for his senior year of high school. "I made a picture and sent it back to Holland. I couldn't wait to … tell everyone I played on the blue field."

Opponents are not so enthusiastic. Some complain that the field camouflages the home team's uniforms, creating a competitive edge.

"It is an advantage for sure," says Coach Mike Riley, whose Oregon State team plays at Boise State on Saturday. "Even starting out watching them on film, looking at the numbers, it all blends together when you're trying to scout them."

But what might look like a splotch of blue on a scouting video is an integral part of a brand that has set what used to be an Idaho junior college apart from the rest of the nation's 120 major-college teams. Introduced in 1986, the blue turf was famous long before the school's football program — ranked No. 3 in the nation in this week's media and coaches' polls — started winning on college football's biggest stages.

"It's our swoosh," Bleymaier says of the field. "What the swoosh is to Nike, the blue field is to Boise State."

Like Norma Desmond in "Sunset Boulevard," the turf is ready for its close-up. Saturday's game between the Broncos and 24th-ranked Oregon State will be nationally televised in prime time — 5 p.m. on Channel 7 in Los Angeles.

Boise State needs a victory to keep its hopes of becoming the first school from outside college football's six major conferences to play for a Bowl Championship Series national title. Just as important in Boise, it's also the night for rolling out a brand new blue carpet.

As for the old stuff, swatches of it have been cut up and sold on Craigslist. Some alumni have used pieces of the turf to frame their diplomas.

Any talk of returning to the traditional green is considered blasphemous.

"Blue is what got us started, and why should we get rid of it?" says Scott Huff, a student at Boise State in his sophomore year. "Imagine if we lost our first game on green grass."

Bleymaier, the godfather of Boise's blue grass, grew up in San Pedro, played football at UCLA in the early 1970s and was an assistant athletic director for the Bruins before arriving at Boise State in 1981. A few years later, during a long airplane flight, he hatched what he acknowledged was a cockamamie plan to replace the field's green artificial surface.

For $750,000, the school was "going to take out a green field and put in another green field," Bleymaier recalls thinking. "And nobody is going to notice or care.

"That bothered me. If I paint my house, I paint it a different color so the neighbor knows I painted my house."

Boise State's school colors were orange and blue. He knew orange wouldn't fly, but what about blue?

He took the idea to John Keiser, who was then president of the university.

"I got this idea," Bleymaier recalls telling Kaiser, "You're going to think I'm crazy."

Keiser asked for a few days to consider it and returned with the answer: "Let's do it."

No one was told — not even the football coach.

When Boise State held a news conference to announce the green field was going blue, the general consensus was: These guys are crazy.

Bleymaier then called AstroTurf, which had produced Boise's fake grass since 1970, and put in his order for blue. The company balked. But AstroTurf changed its tune and embraced the color after Bleymaier suggested he might take his business elsewhere.

Getting the color right, though, was another challenge. Substituting blue dye for green wasn't technically difficult. The problem was, they had about 200 shades of blue to consider.

"Pretty close" does not work with school colors. Texas' teams do not wear orange, but burnt orange, and Alabama's red is crimson.

"It can't be Navy blue, it can't be dark blue," Bleymaier says. "It can't be aqua blue, it can't be powder blue like UCLA." Boise's is called reflex blue, which is close to Navy's blue but not quite as dark.

AstroTurf said it would try its best.

Bleymaier scheduled the installation for the heart of summer, when the campus would be mostly empty.

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