November 16, 1996: In one of the most emotional games in Boise State history, cancer-stricken Pokey Allen returns to the sidelines to coach the Broncos against New Mexico State in Las Cruces. Allen had been away all season undergoing alternative treatment in Canada. At that point, his doctors told him there wasn’t much more they could do, and there would be no harm in hopping a plane to Boise to realize his dream of coaching in Division I-A (it was the Broncos’ first year at that level). Pokey showed up at the airport on Sunday night, November 10, greeted by a gaggle of cameras and reporters. Trying to mask the inevitable, he said he was feeling good and was ready to go.
Boise State had struggled with a 1-9 record that included a school record eight-game losing streak, ensuring only the fourth losing season in program history. It was a difficult situation, as defensive coordinator Tom Mason took over as interim coach while everybody wondered how Allen was doing. It was a team adrift. The Broncos had defeated Portland State 33-22 in the second game of the season, but then the losses piled up. The first three were by less than a touchdown—then they ran into No. 5 Arizona State and fell 56-7. Defeats and injuries were taking their toll.
Interestingly enough, New Mexico State was also 1-9. But that was par for the course for the Aggies. Boise State was hopeful. Allen looked tired and drawn, but he was energized when he put his headset on. The Broncos fell behind 20-7 in the second quarter but clawed their way back to take a 27-26 lead with 3½ minutes remaining in the game. Then NMSU put together an 80-yard touchdown drive and went up 32-27 with 43 seconds on the clock.
Things looked grim. But a 69-yard kickoff return by Andre Horace put Boise State on the Aggies 22-yard line, and from there Tony Hilde threw his third touchdown pass of the game to Ryan Ikebe with 14 seconds left. The Broncos won 33-32, giving Pokey his first and only victory as a Division I-A football coach. The hugs and tears were what you might expect.
Boise State returned home to host Idaho in the season finale and was rocked by the Vandals 64-19 to finish 2-10. It remains the worst record ever for the Broncos, and nothing else is close. Allen resigned 2½ weeks later, promising to continue his fight against cancer. But most everyone knew what was going on. That evening, he asked friends to join him at the Piper Pub, his favorite spot downtown. We all knew why we were there. Pokey would then head back to his hometown of Missoula, where he passed away on December 30, 1996, at the age of 53. But nobody could take that one Division I-A victory away from him.
(Tom Scott hosts the Scott Slant segment during the football season on KTVB’s Sunday Sports Extra. He also anchors four sports segments each weekday on 95.3 FM KTIK and one on News/Talk KBOI. His Scott Slant column runs every Wednesday.)