BOISE – It’s the close of a long, sweaty practice and Boise State’s Dan Hawkins decides to instill some discipline on a dozen players who showed up late for study hall the night before.
The No. 18 Broncos open the season at No. 13 Georgia on Saturday, but even during game week Hawkins is willing to shuck his trademark feel-good, self-empowerment coaching style.
“I didn’t hire on here to treat you like a dog,” the head coach yells while the players fulfill their punishment: crawling on hands and knees the width of the football field and back. “We are not about excuses!”
With a 44-7 record since he was hired four years ago, the Broncos and Hawkins haven’t had much for which to apologize. The school has the nation’s longest home winning streak (25), the longest winning streak in Western Athletic Conference history (26), and the second-best record in Division I-A since 2001.
Hawkins has been the architect of the success, using an unconventional coaching style that relies on principles of situational leadership and the teachings of the late psychologist Abraham Maslow, one of the leaders of the so-called humanist movement that emphasized self-actualization, a new-age concept of realizing one’s fullest potential.
“I give my players a lot of ownership, a slice of the pie, all those things Maslow taught us in psychology, they work and I believe in them,” he said. “I don’t like negative reinforcement, because I’m more about pulling than I am pushing.”
What about the bear-crawl-for-tardy-study-hall drill?
“That’s not my normal modus operandi, and I don’t like doing it,” he said. “But sometimes, you have to be whatever the situation warrants.”
It’s a credo that Hawkins has tried to impart to his team as they face Georgia in a nationally televised opener in a stadium that could hold half the population of Idaho’s capital city.
The game is a major step up in competition for the Broncos. Georgia finished 10-2 last year and beat Wisconsin 24-21 in the Outback Bowl.
“It’s a big game for us, I can promise you,” said Georgia coach Mark Richt, whose tenure in Athens has produced a 42-10 record. “They have done a wonderful job of stopping the running game and that’s our strength going into this season.”
Senior tackle Alex Guerrero leads a Boise State defense that last year finished 10th in the country containing the run. On offense, junior quarterback Jared Zabransky returns to a team that finished second in the nation in total offense, averaging 48.9 points per game.
Zabransky directs an offense that augments a fundamental running game with a vertical passing attack, spiced with trick plays, fake punts and multiple motion from constantly shifting lineups.
It will be the first meeting between the two teams, and only one non-SEC team has beaten the Bulldogs since Richt took over in 2001. Boise State is 0-3 in trips to play SEC teams, the most recent a 41-14 drubbing by Arkansas in 2002.
While Boise State has become one of the nation’s most potent college football programs, it still must strive for recognition as a Bowl Championship Series contender. It dominates the WAC, but the conference is made up of many schools similar to Boise State’s lineage: former Division I-AA programs that are new to I-A.
“If we beat Georgia Saturday, trust me, the headline Sunday is: ‘Can you beat two BCS teams back to back?’ ” said Hawkins, whose team plays at Oregon State on Sept. 10. “No matter what happens, two minutes after Georgia, I’m going to say, ‘Guys, we got Oregon State. You better flush it.’ “
Last year’s 11-0 regular-season record stirred BCS breakthrough chatter, but besides a 53-34 win over Oregon State, the rest of the Broncos schedule didn’t measure up to the other midmajor Cinderella story, Utah.
The Utes ended up in the Fiesta Bowl, and the 10th-ranked Broncos went to the Liberty Bowl, where Louisville snapped Boise State’s 22-game win streak with a 44-40 victory.
This year, Boise State’s biggest opponent is again strength of schedule. The Broncos’ first two games at Georgia and Oregon State will be the only BCS conference opponents on the schedule, but they’ll play three other 2004 bowl winners this season: Bowling Green, Hawaii and Fresno State.
“There are always outside pressures trying to convince you that today is the most important day in the history of the planet, but that’s not always the case,” said Hawkins.
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