After enduring years of deprecating national scorn about the Ruby Ridge shootout, the presence of the Aryan Nation's headquarters and oddball political statements about black UN helicopters hovering in Idaho skies, the almost overnight emergence of Boise State University football as a national sensation has created a far more glowing image of the state to rebuke its critics.
The national magazine Sports Illustrated hits newsstands everywhere this week with a cover story about the "Bronco Nation" and its future as a national gridiron powerhouse. (Forget the notorious SI "curse" of misfortune that follows anyone given the cover treatment.)
"Bronco Nation," however, means more to the state than claims of athletic triumphs and a towering new stature among the U.S. giants of collegiate football.
BSU's pigskin prowess creates unavoidable attention on the school and the state, as fame has done for other colleges whose athletics become national conversation subjects.
Publicity and the accompanying image of the Broncos invite serious attention of prospective new students. Alumni who have all but ignored their alma mater suddenly are candidates for major giving to BSU endowments and scholarships.
Savvy corporations that understand the magic of big-time football become interested in research grants, scholarships and sponsorship of academic chairs.
For the state as a whole, Idaho becomes known far and wide for more than just its potatoes.
Promotional videos on national TV coverage of BSU games provide the nation's viewers with startling images of mountains, forests, giant lakes and rivers, roaming wildlife—a vacationer's paradise to meet any taste. Book a flight, Martha!
BSU also has rare opportunities to act as a model in its athletics—emphasizing classroom scholarship as the requisite for its athletes, not only muscle power. Bronco coach Chris Petersen bolsters the character and quality image of the BSU team with his almost fanatic refusal to humiliate rivals by unnecessarily driving up scores.
As college presidents and their trustees know, universities that surge onto the national scene as sports mammoths have grown, too, as celebrated academic institutions. Consider California's big name campuses.
Some responsibility also rests with Idaho's state Legislature, where progressive thinking about higher education can be spotty and unpredictable. With BSU now making headlines and news coast-to-coast, Idaho higher education requires and deserves cosmopolitan, not provincial, thinking and treatment. With proper political decisions, BSU and its other universities can exploit new opportunities in recruiting faculty, attracting research and setting curricula standards to rival any institution east or west of the Mississippi.