Boise State’s most prized possession: How The Blue got its start

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In 1986, Gene Bleymaier, Boise State’s athletic director from 1982 to 2011, was on an airplane, gazing across the rolling landscape of green patterns, contemplating the university’s upcoming routine task of replacing the turf on the football field. It would be a pricey task; $600,000 to swap a worn green for a new green, an investment that fans weren’t likely to notice. 

Bleymaier was constantly thinking of ways to put the Broncos on the map. Perhaps the most innovative athletic director Boise had ever seen, Bleymaier’s primary initiative has turned into an irreplaceable symbol of Boise State pride: the blue turf.  

Now, with the recent installation of a brand new, extended turf fresh in every Bronco fan’s mind, nostalgia returns with a desire to recall where it all began.

Boise State Football Team, 1986

Photo courtesy of Boise State Photographic Services, Boise State Special Collections and Archives.

“I thought, there’s no reason this has to be green. It’s not real grass and people know it’s not real grass. So why not do it in our school colors?” Bleymaier said. “That was the thought pattern. I knew that it was a crazy idea.”

Serious about this project, Bleymaier presented it to the university president, Dr. John Keiser. They discussed total commitment; if they opened it to the public for discussion, Bleymaier knew that the concept would be criticized and shut down. So, they would have to fully embrace it — no turning back.

“(Keiser) said he wanted to think about it for a week. Then we got back together and he said, ‘Let’s do it,’” Bleymaier said. “So really, Dr. Keiser is the one that should get the credit.”

AstroTurf, the company that eventually agreed to take on the task, had never done anything like The Blue before. They could not guarantee the exact shade of blue that it would be, and Bleymaier was adamant that it had to be the royal, Bronco blue.

“When I started looking at shades of blue at a paint store, I realized there’s about 200 shades of blue, and about 175 of them are pretty ugly,” Bleymaier said. “So I was concerned and nervous about the actual color of the turf and really didn’t know what that color was until they rolled out the first roll of it on the field. And once I saw it, I took a huge sigh of relief.” 

Long-time sports information director Max Corbet, who worked for the Broncos from 1986 to 2017, was hired in October of Boise State’s first season with the “smurf turf.”

“I remember walking out the back door of the varsity center to that and thought ‘Oh my God. Wow.’ I don’t know what was the best word was — bizarre, just unusual,” Corbet said. “It just really kind of caught you, like, ‘This is really strange.’”

Eventually, Corbet warmed up to the color, though he admits that sometimes it is still strange to see the field on television. Corbet had arguably the best seat in the house to watch the oddity of the blue turf evolve into a national icon, thanks to the success of the football teams that played on it year in and year out.

Boise State Football Stadium

Photo courtesy of Boise State Photographic Services, Boise State Special Collections and Archives.

According to Bleymaier, the coaches at the time were uncertain about the turf until they started recruiting. Especially in the west and northwest, players associated Boise State with its novelty field.

“There was a real excitement amongst the recruits because everybody knew about the blue turf and about Boise State,” Bleymaier said. “They said that really helped get their foot in the door in recruiting, so the coaches came around quickly once they realize[d]that it was popular with the players.”

As the first non-green football field in NCAA history, Bleymaier’s innovative idea received its fair share of doubt from the community and media. After its installation, rumors circled about ducks “diving into the field” thinking that it was a body of water. Bleymaier, Corbet and many members of the football staff received questions about this myth at almost comical frequency.

“After the first weekend it was down, I went out to run early in the morning around the track and there was a huge camera and a cameraman there,” Bleymaier said. “I said, ‘Can I help you?’ And he said, ‘I’m here with the networks to film the ducks crashing into the field.’ And I kind of chuckled and I said, ‘Well, you might you might be here awhile waiting for that to happen.’”

Prior to the Broncos’ first game on The Blue, or as some referred to it, “Lake Lyle,” a nod to head coach Lyle Setencich, The University News spoke with students about their reactions to field. They called the change “one of a kind”, “a little strange” and said, “it’s about time they did something different.” Overall, most students and football players approved of the color.

On Sept. 13, 1986, Boise State stepped onto the blue turf for the first time in history and demolished Humboldt State 74-0.  

Ironically, the Broncos went 5-6 in the same season — their first losing record in 40 years. According to Corbet, many skeptics blamed the losing season on their superstitions about the oddly colored field, often making comments about getting rid of the turf. This suggestion was one that would have Bronco players, coaches and fans up in arms today. But seeing as they couldn’t simply “rip out” their eye-catching project from the ground, the turf stayed and, eventually, grew on the community.

Today, even the slightest mention of Boise State prompts people from all over the country to think of the iconic blue field. If Boise State comes up in the conversation — even in a context completely unrelated to athletics — so does The Blue. 

But the household name isn’t solely due to the football team’s success on the turf. In 2011, Boise State obtained a federal trademark registration for “the color blue as applied to artificial turf.”

“After the 2007 Fiesta Bowl when we got on the map, so to speak, in such a large way, our licensing and sales and retail just ballooned,” said Spencer Jahn, Boise State’s trademark licensing specialist. “So at that point, President Kustra decided to make a whole position for a trademark licensing person.”

That person was Rachael Bickerton. Bickerton’s first attempt at getting The Blue trademarked right away in 2008 failed, but she succeeded in getting approval with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in 2009. 

Now stepping into Bickerton’s shoes, Jahn is involved in renewing the trademark every 10 years.

Boise State football

Photo courtesy of Boise State Photographic Services, Boise State Special Collections and Archives.

“The reason for trademarking it — and it was an incredible decision — was because of the strength of our football program. Boise State as a whole was just synonymous with blue turf,” Jahn said. “You see blue turf, you see a colored field, automatically, your first thought that comes into your head is Boise State.”

As a result, any program that seeks to install a non-green turf must first ask the permission of Boise State. 

On Sept. 6, 2019, just seven days from being the exact 33rd anniversary of the first game on the original blue turf, the Broncos played their first home game of the season on the latest installation of turf. The Blue now extends all the way to the stands, making for an even more intense, eye-catching beacon of school spirit. 

Constructed from May 18 to May 30 by McAlvain Companies, Inc. and FieldTurf, the newest update is the sixth installation since 1986 (other replacements occurred in 1995, 2002, 2008 and 2010).

“The first thing I thought when I saw it was just how clean the look is… From a safety standpoint, there’s no question; it’s a lot nicer. It’s not exactly the same as something that they play on, but having that blue cover around the whole field makes it a lot safer for them,” Corbet said. “I thought it looked really clean; I wish we could have done that sooner, it gave it a really nice look to the whole stadium.”

Whether due to its unique shade, famed trademark, unforgettable football programs or anything in between, The Blue is a stark symbol of Boise State’s pride and work ethic. Lynda Murray, who was a nursing major in 1986 when The University News asked for her opinion on the new field, managed to perfectly predict the future when she said, “Boise will be known for its blue turf.” 

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