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Cal Coaching Candidates: Chris Petersen

The dream candidate for Cal football would be Chris Petersen. It's probably just a dream, but it's a dream worth chasing.

Ethan Miller

This is the dream.

Chris Petersen would fit Cal right down to a tee. He's one of the most well-prepared gameday coaches in the business, and can make creative in-game decisions that occasionally swing games in favor of his team. He's faced almost every offense out there in the WAC/MWC and will probably be well-versed in all the various schemes he'll need to have the Bears prepared for week-in and week-out. He has great recruiting roots in the region. He's a Northern California guy and graduated from the UC system and is fairly dedicated to academics. And he's still relatively young (48 years old, and entering his college football prime).

It's probably a dream. But let's slip into our fantasies, shall we?


If you really want to know more about Petersen, this interview is way more illuminating than anything I have to say.

There are very interesting things I learned about Petersen here. Like how his player managed to figure out on the fly how TCU was playing the fake punt, and how Boise changed it up in-game. Or his method for analyzing a player's GPA and SAT scores before recruiting him, and what he does to check up on his players during the season. Or how he takes a deep look at character before deciding to bring on a player.

It's refreshing to see so much candor from a football head coach, and man....would it be a dream to see him represent Cal like that.


Petersen's Northern California roots are strong. His playing career ended and coaching career started at a UC. UC Davis that is. He hails from Yuba City just north of Sacramento, and he played for both Sacramento City College and UC Davis. He earned a bachelor's in psychology and a master's in education with the Aggies.

He immediately hit the coaching circuit after his playing career. He coached at UC Davis from 1987 to 1991, spending much of his time with the receivers. He spent a sting developing quarterbacks for both Pittsburgh in 1991 and then Portland State from 1992 to 1994. He then worked as wide receivers coach from 1995-2000 at Oregon, where Jeff Tedford was his offensive coordinator from 1998-2000. And then it was onto Boise, where his Broncos have thrived ever since.


Well, let's see. He's probably one of the few coaches who's gone up against a Chip Kelly offense twice and won both times (to be fair the last of the two games was a Ducks team still learning Kelly's madness, but 2-0 is 2-0). He's handled Mike Riley capably on the two occasions he's faced him, and I'd say Oregon State has comparable talent to Boise State. Considering Cal's 1-7 record against those two coaches the past four years, I'd consider that a big deal.

That isn't all! He's bested Mark Richt in Atlanta, and that Georgia team ended up in the SEC Championship Game. He out-Beamered Frank Beamer in D.C., and Virginia Tech went to the Orange Bowl that year. The two Oregon teams he beat finished 2nd and 1st in the Pac-10. He authored the most balls-out BCS performances in recent memory with a shocker of Oklahoma, and then didn't have a bad encore against undefeated TCU in the Fiesta Bowl.

Of course, not all's sunshine and roses. He did lose to Ty Willingham once. That was weird.

Xs and Os

Read this. Read the whole thing. Come back in a few hours.

Boise specializes in getting defenses out of position to make plays by utilizing the three major essentials in offensive football: numbers, leverage and grass. “Numbers” means outnumbering the defense at the point of attack — i.e. more blockers than defenders on the edge, more receivers than zone defenders, etc. “Leverage” refers to out-flanking a defense at the point of attack — i.e. you may not have numbers but the angles are on your side. “Grass” harkens to Willie Keeler’s baseball adage, “hit ‘em where they ain’t.” Run the ball where there are the fewest defenders. As it turned out, Choate was right: Boise spends more time on distracting you then developing themselves. But don’t get confused: the point is that although the Broncos have the talent to be one of the best teams in the country and could simply overrun certain opponents, their modus operandi is to be patient and to take what the defense gives them — a true reflection of Petersen, their coach. The quintessential underdog philosophy, they wear you down by picking at four and five yard gains until they pop a big one. Watching them on film, it’s never surprising they score, but to a football junkie, the methodology of how they score is a work of art. Basically, Boise uses three distinct ways to score: (1) pre-snap leverage by the use of formation, (2) post-snap misdirection and (3) calling the unexpected — the dagger after lulling you to sleep.

There's a lot to digest here, but anyone who's watched Boise knows that a lot of their offense comes from wearing the opposition down with methodical gains before knocking teams off balance with unconventional playcalling. Like Boise throwing multiple times when pinned back within their red zone. Or running an outside zone play on 3rd and 6 to set up the quarterback sneak on 4th and 1.

To those who know a lot about Cal's offense, there doesn't seem to be a lot different on the surface to what Petersen did outside the trick plays. But it does seem like Petersen and his coaching staff have much more of a feel for what to call in-game and how to adjust to every situation. That sort of ability to adjust in-game is crucial in a conference teeming with coaching talent.



Here is Petersen's coaching philosophy with regards to quarterbacks.

In our style of offense, our quarterback has to play at a high level. We’re all about making the quarterback successful around here. Anything we can do to get that done is what our focus is on offense. That starts with running the ball. I know when I came here, one of my first couple of games I think we threw 13 passes in a game. We’ve always believed in the running game to make our offense successful. But our quarterback has to be a great decision-maker, an accurate passer, and a guy that doesn’t put us in bad situations. That’s the thing we continually harp on.

We put a lot on that guy’s shoulders. And we want him to really simplify the game for us. He needs to be a smart guy because we game plan a lot. We tweak our game plans. We change them from week to week depending on his experience and intelligence level. Everything is based on what he can do.

When we are recruiting a kid there are some tangible things we look for on tape: His throwing mechanics and his accuracy. But really what is going to make him successful is all of the intangibles: How are his instincts for the game? How sharp he is, his leadership skills, and his drive to be the best. All of those things are truly hard to know until you get him into your program for a year or two. We try to do as much homework as we can on those issues and see if he fits our mold, then we go from there.


The argument against Petersen is always the same: Dirk Koetter, Dan Hawkins. Those are the two guys that coached at Boise before Petersen, both of whom compiled incredible records, left for big jobs at major conference schools, and basically flat-lined. Ergo, since Petersen hails from Boise, he shall never be successful at a major school.

Let's dispel this argument real quick, shall we?

Dirk Koetter went 26-10 and 12-4 in-conference at Boise. His record in OOC games against major conferences? 0-4.

1998: Lost to Washington State
1999: Blown out by UCLA
2000: Lost to Arkansas and Washington State

Dan Hawkins went 53-11 and 37-3 in-conference at Boise. His record in OOC games against major conferences or ranked teams? 2-7.

2001: Three score losses to South Carolina and Washington State
2002: Four score loss to Arkansas, beat Iowa State in bowl game
2003: Loss to Oregon State
2004: Beat Oregon State
2005: loss to Oregon State, blown out by Georgia, lost to Boston College

Petersen has gone 82-8 with a 50-4 record in the WAC/MWC. His record in OOC games against major conferences? 10-6.

2006: Pummelled Oregon State and won dramatic Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma
2007: Lost to Washington & WAC champs Hawaii
2008: Beat ranked Oregon in Autzen, lost to top 15 TCU squad
2009: Beat Oregon, beat undefeated TCU in Fiesta Bowl
2010: Beat Virginia Tech in practical road environment, beat Oregon State, lost to Nevada, beat Utah
2011: Beat Georgia in Atlanta, lost to TCU, throttled ASU
2012: Lost to Michigan State

You'll see three of those losses cluster around Boise's two rebuilding years. For the most part, there was domination.

When Boise had their best teams, they almost never slipped up. Their two losses during their peak years came via a bad kicker and Colin Kaepernick doing Kaepernick things, and a TCU team that is probably Boise's foil in terms of overall talent (Petersen went 1-2 against Gary Patterson, but every game coming down to the final seconds).

Yes, Petersen played in the WAC against inferior competition, but when he played said inferior competition, his team shut them almost always down. It wasn't like Boise was scrapping along to win game after game. Their margin of victory is measured in touchdowns, not mere single points.

Anyone who has watched major college football knows that Petersen teams have the capability to overwhelm lesser opponents. They also have the ability to adapt on the fly and manage in close quarters, and occasionally showcased comeback ability when needed. Tedford's teams were very good at the former and very sketchy at the latter, so this would be a welcome change.

How much would he cost?

Probably a bit. But it should be well within Cal's means to pay him. Here's the current information on Petersen's contract.

— The annual salary, which includes longevity incentives, deferred compensation and pension payments, will be $1,706,333 in 2012, $1,898,000 in 2013, $2,098,000 in 2014, $2,298,000 in 2015 and $2,498,000 in 2016. The salaries include longevity bonuses that are only paid if he is still employed on Feb. 15 of the following year. For the last three years of the contract, that amount is $200,000.

— Petersen also will receive a $250,000 annual payment for the life of the contract as a licensing fee so that the university can use his “name, image, voice, signature, etc.” for marketing, promotion and merchandise. The licensing agreement is with Chris Petersen Enterprises, LLC. The agreement gives Petersen the right to veto any use of his likeness. It is an exclusive license.

Under his previous deal, Petersen would have been paid $1.625 million in 2012 and $9.125 million over five years. His pay in 2012 under the new contract is $1,956,333.

Read more here:

The issue with Petersen will probably not be money though. UCLA and Stanford have already offered Petersen a lot more when their seats were vacated, and he's turned it down both times. What Cal will have to offer will need to go beyond money.

Developing pros

Petersen's group has found some gems. Bucs running back Doug Martin, who wrecked the Raiders a few weeks back, hails right from Stockton. St. Louis Rams wide receiver Austin Pettis went to school in the O.C.. Detroit Lions wide receiver Titus Young comes from L.A. Orlando Scandrick was a wide receiver coming out of Los Alamitos; Boise converted him into one of the team's most impressive cornerbacks and he's now a regular starter for the Dallas Cowboys. Plenty of other NFL talents emerged from Boise in the Petersen era, like Kellen Moore, Nate Potter, Jeron Johnson, George Iloka, Kyle Wilson, Shea McClellin, and Billy Winn, and almost all of them were very low-profile players coming out of high school.


Petersen already knows the California recruiting scene so well. For years, he's scoured the landscape of California (and Texas) to find the players the Pac-12 didn't want, and brought them up to Boise to post a 90% winning percentage. And now he would get the keys to a program and a new stadium hungry for winning football.

Could you imagine Petersen at Cal trying to recruit players to the Bears? California has fallen on rough times recruiting-wise, but if Petersen can put together a few solid coaching years, land some diamonds in the rough, and win with the guys he has, that might be enough to bring in the blue-chippers that are can't-misses.

What I do find interesting Petersen is committed to finding the best players in Idaho, and he has done his best to defend his home turf. Considering how bare Idaho football recruiting is, it's good to see Petersen always picking up a player or two each year from his region.

'll be interesting how much Petersen commits to taking back the Northern California region, which has been encroached too often by the Northwest schools in recent years (let's ignore USC, since they always get first dibs regardless). Keeping top prospects in the Bay Area/Central Valley region will be important.

Cal is not going to be a hard place to recruit now that the facilities and the SAHPC are in place. It's just a matter of finding the right coaching staff that will bring out their best talents and prove to recruits that the Bears are committed to winning.

Academics and culture

This isn't a big issue at all. Petersen is a UC guy, and everything from his interviews indicates a clear passion for academics. Boise State finished in a tie for 2nd in APR last year. No not in the Mountain West, THE NATION. Their graduation rates continue to steadily climb from 55 to 81 percent.

Now you might say, "This is Boise! Things won't work the same way at Cal!" Counter: Cal's programs are tough, but it wasn't like players were flunking out almost immediately. The biggest issues stem from players not finishing one or two classes necessary to graduate. Basically, Tedford tugged on the leash but never could get a firm grip on getting his players to complete their necessary academic requirements.

It's clear Petersen has a track record of valuing graduation rates.

Is Petersen interested in the job?

Bruce Feldman had the most positive indicator so far (and pretty much the only concrete piece of evidence that would indicate that Petersen would want to take the Cal job) of Petersen interest before this even took place.

I stare at this Tweet almost every night. I think I re-experience puberty every night when I see this Tweet.

Of course, there is this disclaimer.

The source, though, added that since Petersen and Tedford are close, the thought of replacing his friend might steer him away from an opportunity to coach the Bears.

All I can hope here is that Tedford is somehow convincing his friend behind the scenes that it's okay to replace him.

There is conflicting noise on this story. Some say that Petersen is waiting for the Oregon job to open up if Chip Kelly were to leave for NFL, but all indications are Oregon has a succession plan in place that would have a replacement coming from within the program.

Razorbacks fans think he's going to Arkansas. Razorback fans think Bill Parcells would go to Arkansas. He's not going to Arkansas.

Gorcey has recently tweeted that Cal will interview Petersen this week, which I'm not inclined to believe unless Petersen is conducting the interview by phone or is taking a trip down from Reno this Saturday night after the conclusion of the season (at which point I'd start doing backflips; just getting Petersen out of Boise would be an accomplishment).

Right now, Petersen seems unconvinced.

When asked Monday about his name being mentioned in the search for the bevy of new coaching vacancies, Petersen simply looked at his watch, noted the time and chided reporters for taking so long to once again bring up the subject.

''Twenty-two minutes, that's better than I thought,'' Petersen said. ''It's just rumors. That's all I really want to say about this, and I say it every year.''

And it makes you think otherwise. You never really know. If it happens, it'll happen.

Why would he want to leave Boise?

Considering he turned down UCLA last year and Stanford the year before, there's really nothing I can see off the top that would attract Petersen off the top compared to those jobs.

If I had to come up with a factor, it would be that Petersen really treasures the Cal job, would welcome a chance to finish off his career in the low-stress environment of Berkeley, and provide a great place for his family to live and retire near his Northern California roots.

(For those who counter with Stanford, well... maybe he's a UC guy and really hates Stanford. WHICH WOULD MAKE IT EVEN BETTER TO LAND HIM.)

Additionally, there could be a ceiling on what Petersen can accomplish in Boise, and how much time he'd have to expend reaching those goals.

The MWC was no different from the WAC in terms of actual travel time, and in many ways was a pretty condensed conference filled with the mid-major western football schools. Not next year. Boise State is moving to the Big East, which will look something like this next year.

For the purposes of football, the conference will be divided into a western division of Boise State, Houston, Memphis, San Diego State, SMU and Temple, and an eastern division of Central Florida, Cincinnati, UConn, Louisville, Rutgers and South Florida.

Okay. Seriously. Look at that Western division. Memphis? TEMPLE??? Even the trips to Texas and San Diego aren't going to be any picnic. And we haven't even gotten to the occasional Eastern division trips to Florida, New Jersey, etc. I know the WAC had some spread out teams, but there were SOME teams that stayed clustered close together. This schedule looks like a logistical nightmare. It doesn't get any better when Navy and a 14th team join in a few years.

Basically, Boise State's average road travel in the Big East will take longer than almost all of Cal's road trips, and that doesn't even count the usual high-profile matchup Boise likes to schedule out-of-conference. If Petersen is tired of travelling, I imagine the geographical proximity of the Pac-12 will be a big selling point.

But outside the travel aspect, the Big East looks pretty putrid. It'll be the best of a big pond of mid-major conferences, but which teams are going to elevate Boise in-conference? Louisville? SDSU? Cincinnati? This is basically the WAC with longer airplane rides.

Moreover, it'll still be really hard to ever get Boise State into a four-team playoff. Despite his amazing record, despite his multitude of undefeated seasons, not once did Petersen finish the regular season with a top four ranking, and only once (the 2010 season that was ruined by the Pistol) would his team have been in position to pounce on a potential four-team playoff system.

All that being said, Petersen would probably still end up with the Broncos. But there's still a sliver of hope for Cal. That's all I need to get hooked in.


Chris Petersen should and has to be the number one target for Cal football. If we get him, suddenly the pain of the last three months (and for some, the last few years) magically fades away.

Sandy Barbour knows that Petersen is the home run hire. She has a huge recruiting pitch to make to try and get him here.

She knows that she'll have to sell the family environment of Cal. She'll have to emphasize the academic tradition and how important it is to maintain a culture of excellence in the classroom, knowing full well Petersen shares his core values. She'll need to underscore the commitment to excellence the Bears have made with their stadium renovation and new athletic center, and how ready Cal is to win at football. She'll have to find a way to ensure Petersen's family would be willing to make such a move to the Bay Area from Boise after spending years entrenched in Idaho.

Most importantly, she'll have to sell Petersen on how much one simple Rose Bowl will mean to California, and how beloved he'd immediately become if he could achieve that one goal. He'd be a folklore hero almost overnight, right up there with Pappy and Andy and Jeff.

And it's not like Petersen would be asked to reboot a program. In fact, Petersen's job at Cal would be pretty much the same as the one he was laid out at Boise when Hawkins left: Take the talent Cal currently has and win with it. Previous coaches have already laid the framework for success; it'd be up for Petersen to coach up all the talent on this team and lead them to victory.

It seems like a dream. But isn't it time dreams became reality in Strawberry Canyon?