Boise State iden­tity is rooted in its turf

The team has be­come a pow­er­house, but it’s most fa­mous for its blue field.

Los Angeles Times - - Front Page - 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 ma­jor­col­lege 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 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 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.

“I’m the only one in the sta­dium,” he re­calls, “It’s 95 de­grees, it’s in the af­ter­noon, they’re there on the side­line ready to roll out the first five yards and I’m just go­ing, ‘Please, dear God, please let this be the right color of blue.’ They un­rolled the first five yards and I went, ‘Wheeeew!’ ”

Newly in­stalled, the turf lacked any white line mark­ers, prompt­ing some to call it “Lake Bley­maier.” The sto­ries about birds crash­ing into it started around then — a hoax by a lo­cal ra­dio sta­tion.

Bley­maier was jog­ging early one morn­ing on the sta­dium track when he saw a tele­vi­sion cam­era­man set­ting up his gi­ant tri­pod. He re­calls the ex­change go­ing some­thing like this:

Bley­maier: “Can I help you?”

Cam­era­man: “I’m here to film the geese crash­ing on the field.”

Bley­maier: “Oh, re­ally? Well, you might be here a while.”

Once the games be­gan, the field quickly be­came known as “Smurf Turf.” Chris Berman of ESPN, in the deep­est of bari­tones, melo­dra­mat­i­cally dubbed it the “blue plas­tic tun­dra.”

Colum­nist Jim Poore of the Idaho States­man wrote from Boise State’s 74-0 vic­tory over Hum­boldt State on open­ing night: “The crea­ture from the blue la­goon did not pop out of the As­tro­Turf and gob­ble up both teams, the cheer­lead­ers and Buster Bronco, prov­ing once and for all that Lake Bley­maier is noth­ing more than a good pro­mo­tional idea.”

It proved to be that and more. Given all of the ex­tra at­ten­tion, the foot­ball coaches quickly warmed to the new color af­ter re­al­iz­ing it set Boise apart with play­ers they were re­cruit­ing: The Bron­cos were the team with the funky blue field.

“That’s one of the cool things about col­lege foot­ball. There’s a blue field,” says Bron­cos Coach Chris Petersen, whose teams have won all 26 home games since he took over the foot­ball pro­gram in 2006. “It’s kind of who we are.”

As­tro­Turf pro­vided the first three blue fields, but af­ter the orig­i­nal com­pany went bank­rupt, Field­Turf was hired in 2008 to in­stall blue field No. 4 at a cost of $817,000.

Af­ter two years, though, Boise State re­quested that the turf be re­placed be­cause of com­plaints by tele­vi­sion an­nounc­ers that too much light was re­flect­ing off the field. Boise State coaches also noted it was dif­fi­cult to re­view their games on video.

Field­Turf re­placed the field this sum­mer, at no ad­di­tional cost, with mul­ti­fil­a­ment blades that Bley­maier says should di­min­ish the glare.

In Au­gust, Boise State play­ers prac­ticed on the new turf for the first time and said it felt mushy. Bley­maier says it takes weeks for the field to set­tle — it re­quires wa­ter­ing to so­lid­ify the turf’s base of rub­ber pel­lets — but will be ready to go for Satur­day’s game.

Ore­gon State is get­ting ready too — the school bought 440 gal­lons of paint to color one of its prac­tice fields blue. “It looks amaz­ing, so just to be on it, in some lit­tle way, is pre­par­ing you for the en­vi­ron­ment you’re go­ing to be in,” said Ri­ley, the Beavers’ coach.

At least four high schools in re­cent years have gone to blue fields, as has the Uni­ver­sity of New Haven. Boise State re­sponded by se­cur­ing a fed­eral trade­mark, Reg. No. 3,707,623, for its blue turf. The uni­ver­sity reached a li­cens­ing agree­ment with New Haven and gave its con­sent to the high school teams.

“We con­sider the blue turf to be part of our iden­tity, and we place great value on that unique­ness,” says Rachael Bick­er­ton, Boise State’s di­rec­tor of trade­mark, li­cens­ing and en­force­ment.

In a jar­ring vari­a­tion, East­ern Washington on Sept. 18 un­veiled its new red turf foot­ball field along with a slo­gan: “Red is the New Green.”

“Boise prob­a­bly paved the way,” says Bill Chaves, East­ern Washington’s ath­letic di­rec­tor. “The amount of buzz that field has gen­er­ated has been tremen­dous.”

At Boise, even af­ter 24 years, fas­ci­na­tion with its blue turf re­mains. Vis­i­tors of­ten by­pass more tra­di­tional land­marks in town and make a bee­line to Bronco Sta­dium.

“Peo­ple knock on my door all the time,” Bley­maier says. “ ‘Do you mind? We’re from Min­nesota, we’re from Ok­la­homa. . . . I’ve got to show my kids the turf!’ ”

Matt Cilley

BLUE ON BLUE: For­mer Boise State player Ian John­son on the Bronco Sta­dium field in 2008.

Shawn Raecke

TRADE­MARK: Field­Turf in­stalled a new blue field at Bronco Sta­dium this sum­mer. An idea that started as a gim­mick is now a ma­jor part of Boise State’s im­age.

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