BOISE -- Just one week before the Broncos face the Sun Devils in the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas, and it was still up in the air whether Boise State University's live mascot Willy would get to make the trip as he did last year. Finally, late afternoon Thursday, BSU told Willy's rider, Chelsi Horton, that they could both lead the team on out game day.
A MAACO Bowl miracle
I couldn't stop smiling, I just wanted to jump up and down, Horton said.
Just as KTVB arrived to interview Chelsi Horton, she got what you might call a MAACO Bowl miracle: A phone call from BSU marketing saying she could bring Willy along to the game.
'Willy and I will be in Vegas, we will be leading the team out and we'll be there sporting the blue and orange like we were last year, Horton said.
The news that Willy can go to Vegas came just one week before the game, and Horton has a lot of logistics to work out in just a few days.
No money, no permission
Last Friday, Horton was told Willy couldn't go. She forwarded us emails from Boise State's marketing assistant athletic director, Matt Beckman. According to those emails, Horton was first told the reasons were financial: We do not have the budget this year to afford Willy. The email goes on to apologize Willy couldn't go this year.
Horton and her family decided to look at getting the money themselves to bring Willy to the game for an entrance with the team. New sponsors came through.
I had new sponsors that came to me and said, tell me how much to make the check out for, Horton said.
Even after getting financial sponsors lined up, emails show on Sunday Beckman told Horton (in part): We were not able to get permission this year from the MAACO Bowl to bring the horse down. I was hoping it would have been different but unfortunately this is the position we are in.
MAACO Bowl: 'No truth to the rumor'
Beckman told KTVB he officially asked the bowl game's executive director for permission at the beginning of the week, and Willy was just approved to go to the game on Wednesday.
When approached about fan concerns Willy wasn't allowed, a MAACO Bowl Spokesman told us this Thursday evening: I talked to my executive director and she said there is NO truth to the rumor that the Boise State horse is not allowed back this year. I guess you can say you got it straight from the horse's mouth!
Beckman explained to KTVB via email that getting logistics together on such an early bowl game wasn't easy and as soon as they had approval, they began working on travel plans for Horton and Willy.
Fans proclaim: 'Free Willy'
It's been a really stressful week. All of this is going on on top of my finals week. But when I got the phone call, it was just such a flood of relief. All of this hard work and all of this was for something, Horton said.
Horton wasn't the only one worried about Willy. When she told fans she couldn't bring her horse, it caused a social media outpouring of support for both Horton and Willy; some fans even created a campaign to get BSU to find a way to get the horse to the game.
To put it simply, the big fun new slogan that has been on the Bronco Country blog site is Free Willy . It kind of cracked us up and we just love it, Horton said.
'Love for Bronco Nation'
Horton says she's excited to head back to the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas for a second time. BSU has arranged to help her pay for some gas and got her a hotel room with the band and cheerleaders. Willy will stay at the same place he did last year.
We get to share a lot of memories with everybody and really share that love for Bronco nation and that sense of community we have with the football team, Horton said.
Full statement from BSU Assistant Athletic Directorof Marketing
When bowl invitations come down, there is a very tight turn around on all of the details, especially a game that happens two and a half weeks after we find out the destination, as is the case with the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas. Any decision relating to our team travel, as well as staff, cheerleaders, marching band, dance team, mascot, etc., takes us some time to work through based on bowl requirements and budgets.
We also needed to specifically ask permission of the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas organizers to make sure having a live mascot lead the team out in the entrance is even allowed. Once we received the proper approval from the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas for our rodeo team horse and rider to be allowed to do that, we then put our plan together on getting Chelsi and Willy down to Las Vegas, provided her housing and defined her role in the pre-bowl game events and team entrance.
The spirit of a live horse leading the team out in front of a national television audience at a bowl game is something that is very unique to Boise State, and we're excited to continue that. We are 3-0 in bowl games when the horse has led the team onto the field. We are hoping to extend that streak to 4-0!