BOISE, Idaho – As the calendar turned to 2021, Bronco Athletics found itself asking What’s Next and hasn’t stopped since. Despite being forced to navigate everchanging dynamics as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Boise State student-athletes put together phenomenal performances in their respective fields of competition and in the classroom, while also finding ways to positively impact their community.
As a department, Bronco Athletics focused its attention in 2021 on enhancing the student-athlete experience, while also setting the stage for future successes in the evolving landscape of collegiate athletics and finding ways to connect with those who helped shape the trajectory of the successes being experienced today.
Although Boise State staff, coaches and student-athletes are already preparing for another successful year in 2022 and pushing to once again discover What’s Next, the following is a look back at what was a memorable 2021.
Bronco student-athletes repeatedly raised the bar in the classroom, establishing department records for grade-point average in the spring before breaking them in the fall. Boise State student-athletes have now combined for 29-straight semesters with an all-department GPA above 3.0, and as a result of their efforts, the department set benchmarks in Academic All-Mountain West and Mountain West Scholar-Athlete accolades. Boise State also established its all-time best NCAA Graduation Success Rate, and saw 70 student-athletes earn their degrees between the spring (54) and fall (16) semesters.
Boise State fifth-year senior defensive back Kekaula Kaniho was named to the 2021 Academic All-America Division I Football First Team, while senior wide receiver Khalil Shakir and fifth-year senior linebacker Riley Whimpey received second-team honors, selected by the College Sport Information Directors of America (CoSIDA). This marks the first time three Broncos have earned Academic All-America status since 2016 when offensive linemen Mason Hampton (first team) and Steven Baggett (second team) and punter Sean Wale (second team) were each selected.
The year began with a splash, bringing home one of the most beloved former student-athletes in the history of Bronco Athletics in Andy Avalos. Avalos, in his first year at the helm of his alma mater, led Boise State to a pair of road victories over ranked opponents for the first time in school history, as the Broncos knocked off 10th-ranked BYU and No. 25 Fresno State. Although the Broncos were unable to compete in the Arizona Bowl, the team achieved bowl-eligible status for the 24th-consecutive season – the third-longest active streak in the country, trailing only Ohio State (33) and Georgia (25) – despite playing a schedule that included 10 bowl-eligible opponents, tied for the second-most nationally.
The volleyball team captured its first conference tournament championship in school history, ultimately earning the program’s second appearance in the NCAA Championship all-time. The Broncos’ men’s golf team also made a postseason appearance, earning an invitation to the NCAA Regional Championships as a team for the first time since 1994. The men’s basketball team earned a postseason bid, garnering a No. 2 seed in the NIT, the team’s third such bid in the last four seasons. The women’s cross country team competed at the NCAA Cross Country National Championships in the spring, garnering a ninth-place finish, the third-highest finish in program history behind only the two back-to-back sixth place efforts in 2017 and 2018. The Broncos’ gymnastics team made its 13th-consecutive appearance at the NCAA Regional Championships.
On the individual front, Bronco gymnastics captured conference titles in three of four events – Courtney Blackson, Emily Muhlenhaupt and Adriana Popp earned league titles on vault, bars and beam, respectively – at the Mountain Rim Gymnastics Conference Championships, the men’s (Ryan Cavinta, 400m hurdles) and women’s (Olivia Johnson, 1,500m) outdoor track and field programs each boasted a conference champion and Dario De Caro recorded the second-fastest time in MW history en route to the first individual men’s cross country title by a Bronco since 2016 (Yusuke Uchikoshi), and was also named MW Men’s Student-Athlete of the Year..
Muhlenhaupt ultimately earned MRGC Specialist of the Year honors on bars, and was named to the Women’s Collegiate Gymnastics Association All-America First Team for the second-straight year, just the second gymnast in school history to garner multiple All-America accolades. On the course, Hugo Townsend and Dan Potter swept the conference’s postseason awards, earning league player of the year and coach of the year honors, respectively. Townsend was also named third-team All-America, the Broncos’ first All-American in men’s golf since Troy Merritt in 2007. On the diamond, Bella Rocco was named MW Softball Co-Freshman of the Year. Volleyball’s Paige Bartsch was named the 2021 MW Freshman of the Year. In women’s outdoor track and field, Clare O’Brien earned a pair of All-America accolades, while cross country standout Tyler Beling notched her first-career All-America honors with a 39th-place finish at the NCAA Cross Country Championships, becoming just the sixth Bronco to achieve All-America status in women’s cross country. On the men’s side, three Boise State cross country student-athletes competed at the NCAA Cross Country Championships in Tallahassee, Fla. De Caro, Ahmed Ibrahim and Logan Rees secured three of the four men’s individual qualifying spots in the West Region and were three of the 38 individuals selected nationally.
O’Brien and gymnast Gabriela Cavinta were selected as nominees for the 2021 NCAA Woman of the Year Award. Cavinta and O’Brien are among 535 student-athletes across the country to earn a nomination for the award which honors academic achievement, athletic excellence, community service and leadership of outstanding female student-athletes. O’Brien would go on to be selected as a 2021 NCAA Woman of the Year conference honoree, one of two women selected by the MW to receive conference recognition due to her outstanding achievements during her collegiate career. Nationally, 152 conference-level honorees are nominated for NCAA Woman of the Year.
Despite all of the work going into the many successes and accomplishments, the Broncos – including coaches, staff and student-athletes – still found time to impact the Treasure Valley community. Football head coach Andy Avalos launched the Avalos Family Christmas Drive, more than 100 members of the department helped local community members with its Broncos Give Back project and the department hosted the first Movie on The Blue event, showing Into the Spider-Verse to Bronco Nation at Albertsons Stadium. All of this in addition to countless other reported and unreported community service hours conducted by coaches, staff and student-athletes, volunteering their time to impact our community.
CONNECTING WITH FORMER STUDENT-ATHLETES
Making a positive impact on the student-athlete experience is the ultimate goal of coaches and support staff within Boise State Athletics, but keeping our family connected once they have departed is also an important task. As such, Boise State partnered with Athlete Network to create a digital platform to offer a more engaging experience for former Bronco student-athletes, and then hired former Bronco football standout Daryn Colledge to lead the Varsity B into a new era of connectivity for those that gave their blood, sweat and tears to the Blue and Orange.
Bronco Athletics, with the help of a group of alumni, also launched the Legacy Project last February, a space to celebrate the first Black student-athletes at Boise State University. The goal was to highlight and bring to our community’s attention the history of Boise State University’s Black student-athletes. We are forever grateful for the efforts of Mike Campbell, Trent Johnson, Carl Powell and Booker Brown. Without their love for Boise State and the countless hours of work collecting information from their fellow alumni, this project would not have been possible. The initial group of honorees is comprised of a proud fraternity of Black Boise State athletes who competed between 1968-80, and helped lay the foundation for diversity and inclusion in Bronco Athletics before going on to successful careers in sport and beyond.
Boise State Athletics partnered with AECOM’s sports practice to conduct a comprehensive facilities analysis. AECOM’s sports practice, which will conduct a complete review of the Broncos’ current facilities, is the industry’s only fully-integrated sports consultancy – from comprehensive facility assessments, to economic impact and revenue analysis and full design services. Following a complete venue assessment of all Bronco Athletics facilities, including a current condition analysis, AECOM’s sports practice will provide a review and make recommendations, taking into account the student-athlete impact, budget and timeline. AECOM’s sports practice has been serving national and international clients for more than 50 years, and has worked with Bronco Athletics on multiple occasions over the last decade. The company’s diverse client list includes premiere brands in both collegiate and professional sports.
Following a COVID-impacted year that either eliminated or significantly impacted fan attendance at Bronco sporting events, Boise State made sure to leave no stone unturned when it came to the fan experience entering the fall 2021 schedule. From pregame and in-game upgrades like an improved cellular distributed antenna system to increase coverage in and around Albertsons Stadium on gamedays, to an upgraded Ford Fan Zone on DeChevrieux Field; and from launching alcohol sales at home venues for the first time in school history, and working to improve the experience throughout the season, our staff worked around the clock to ensure fans kept wanting to come back to experience our athletic events. Our efforts to improve the fan experience for next season are already underway, as Bronco Athletics launched a fan experience committee to further engage with Bronco Nation and enhance our holistic gameday experience.
The fan experience also includes staying connected 24 hours a day, seven days a week, which resulted in the launch of an official app. Developed in partnership with From Now On, the new Bronco Sports App enhances the fan experience by putting everything in the hands of Bronco Nation.
The launch of the Lyle Smith Society has struck a chord with Bronco Nation. The Broncos reached 50 members in April, secured the philanthropic giving society’s first $1 million gift in July and then achieved their goal of adding 100 members in December. Through the end of 2021, the Lyle Smith Society had brought in more than $10 million in gifts and pledges over the next five years, and with the first 100 members in the fold, Boise State has set a new goal of reaching 200 members by December 31, 2023.
Of the 100 members, 55 are first-time major gift donors to Bronco Athletics. Donors contributed to 17 different funds, benefiting all 18 Bronco sport programs and each of the more than 350 Boise State student-athletes. Lyle Smith Society membership begins with a minimum pledge of $25,000 over a five-year period or donating an annual cash gift of $25,000 or more.
In 2021, the department also reimagined many of its external units to focus more attention on those that support us. Athletics partnered with the Boise State Division of University Advancement to complete a team dedicated to securing and stewarding major gifts. Led by Mike Keller, associate athletic director for development, the team of five focuses its efforts, in coordination with the revenue generation team, to identify, cultivate and solicit gifts of $25,000 or more. Additionally, Boise State Athletics launched an in-house ticket sales team led by Jake Mankin, associate athletic director of ticket sales and service, who joined the Broncos this past summer from Alabama. Mankin and his staff will utilize data to strategically engage more Treasure Valley and Idaho residents as Boise State supporters. Currently, less than 50 percent of Albertsons Stadium and ExtraMile Arena are currently sold as season tickets. By acquiring staff to focus solely on ticket sales, the department will have a team dedicated to filling its athletic venues with the next wave of Bronco supporters.
In November, the department announced The What’s Next Initiative. The ambitious strategic blueprint for success focuses on a multi-year plan to enhance the department’s infrastructure, revenue generation, student-athlete experience and marketability. Highlighted goals of the initiative include building a nationally-competitive athletics facilities portfolio, pursuing new and emerging revenue opportunities, providing first-class experiences to every Boise State student-athlete across 18 sport programs and increasing brand awareness and affinity for Boise State University, Boise State Athletics and Boise State student-athletes.
As part of The What’s Next Initiative, the Bronco Athletic Association publicly launched its Horsepower Drive membership campaign for 10,000 BAA members by 2025. The campaign is a multi-year effort to grow the Bronco Athletic Association membership and strengthen support for Boise State student-athlete success. At the time of launch, BAA membership totaled 4,200 members. At the end of the calendar year, the BAA has reported more than 400 new members joining as part of the initial campaign launch, averaging nearly 70 new members a week in the final months of 2021.
NAME, IMAGE AND LIKENESS
On July 1, the Name, Image and Likeness era officially became a reality, but our department began preparing for it long before NIL went into effect. Back in March, the Broncos signed a partnership with INFLCR, to provide student-athletes with the resources to build their brands in preparation for NIL. Boise State was the first member of the MW to partner with INFLCR department-wide and add the INFLCR NIL Suite to manage Name, Image and Likeness. Later that month, the Broncos signed a partnership with TeamAltemus, the only firm bringing unbiased expertise in protective education to student-athletes. This education, along with TeamAltemus’ third-party vetting and ongoing monitoring technology is the most comprehensive offering to protect student-athletes. Boise State was the first program in the country to utilize TeamAltemus to bring a complete set of NIL resources to help empower student-athletes with knowledge and tools to protect their NIL and the money generated from it, while equally prioritizing branding education.
In June, Boise State announced the final piece of its NIL programming for Bronco student-athletes, partnering with NOCAP Sports to assist the Broncos’ compliance office in monitoring NIL opportunities and assuring they meet the requirements of national guidelines.
Boise State announced the creation of a business development and revenue innovation unit within the athletics department in November. The unit, responsible for the pursuit, execution and management of emerging revenue opportunities, as well as enhancing existing revenue streams by implementing tech-forward and ROI-driven strategies, is led by Mike Walsh, who was elevated to associate athletic director and will be a member of the department’s senior staff. A priority of the business development and revenue innovation unit will be the creation of a best-in-class Name, Image and Likeness program for Bronco student-athletes and area businesses.
The first major step of the business development and revenue innovation unit was launching, in partnership with INFLCR, the Boise State NIL Exchange. The exchange is a registry which provides approved businesses, collectives, and individuals with a free-to-use custom portal for communicating with Bronco student-athletes and fulfilling NIL transactions. The Boise State NIL Exchange provides a one-stop shop for all facets of NIL transactions.
Our people are our most important asset, and Bronco Athletics prioritized its people throughout the year. The department launched Broncos United, an internal initiative that keys on six areas, combining to create a holistic environment of supporting student-athletes, coaches and staff. The six components include physical health and wellness, mental health and wellness, personal growth and development, professional development, community and equality/belonging. Broncos United focuses equally on student-athletes and staff, and is designed to be used as a roadmap to guide us as we evolve and grow as individuals and as a department. This initiative carries even more importance following the processing and hiring of more than 165 new staff members in 2021, from student assistants to full-time staff.
In November, Boise State Athletics partnered with RealResponse, the leading feedback and anonymous reporting platform for athletic organizations. The partnership highlights Boise State’s commitment to prioritizing student-athlete health and wellness, safety and experiences by giving student-athletes a platform to communicate with their administration in real time, and if necessary, confidentially. The platform also allows for the ability to centralize the department’s most important documentation and conduct surveys regarding student-athlete experience.
Boise State Athletics continued to prove its commitment to the health and wellness of its student-athletes with the addition of the department’s first full-time sports dietitian, announcing the hiring of Samantha Wade, a registered dietitian and graduate of esteemed sports nutrition programs at Penn State and Utah, in October.
Our department also enhanced its Olympic Sports Performance, Health and Wellness team, promoting two members of its staff to assistant athletic directors and a third to director level. The promotions recognized the leadership and dedication of our staff and will better define roles within our Olympic SPHW team. The collaborative care model our team has developed within mental health, nutrition, sports medicine and strength and conditioning allows us to provide better overall holistic care and support for our student-athletes on a day-to-day basis.
Boise State Athletics and the BroncoLife program announced the launch of a podcast series, “My Voice, My Story,” on the Bronco Sports Podcast Network. Each episode is an opportunity to learn more about a Boise State student-athlete, in their own words. The series, presented by PacificSource Health Plans, is hosted by men’s basketball assistant coach R-Jay Barsh. The goal of the series is to provide a platform for Boise State student-athletes to share their stories of triumph and struggle on and off the field, humanizing them for Bronco Nation and showing that athletics is a part of who they are, not all of who they are.