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—Photo Illustration by Sean Parsons

Can CU Turn Its Lousy Football Program Around?

Twenty-five years ago, the University of Colorado football team was celebrating a piece of the NCAA national championship. Today, the program can't buy a win. How did the Buffs lose their swagger—and will they ever get it back?

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To a college football fan, the view from Mike MacIntyre’s office is striking. Located on the second level of the University of Colorado’s Dal Ward Athletic Center, the office’s immense windows overlook Folsom Field’s north end zone, affording an inside-the-fishbowl panorama of 50,183 seats and a velvety grass surface. The regal gold lettering spelling out “Buffaloes” seems close enough to touch. The third-year head football coach, however, doesn’t spend much time admiring the view.

MacIntyre, 50, hasn’t had two minutes to relax since moving to Boulder to take on what could politely be called a fixer-upper project. In fact, he’s spent the past hour staring—and grumbling—at the Sony flat screen on the wall above his desk, trying to figure out not only what went awry at this morning’s spring practice, but why things went so very wrong last season.

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The coach wasn’t a high-profile hire in December 2012. But as a proven rebuilder of hopeless teams—he righted the ship at San Jose State University in just three seasons and shored up a once-pitiful defense at Duke University in 2008 and 2009—MacIntyre was brought in as the repairman. His first two seasons in Boulder, however, have shown little evidence of any refurbishment. The last game of the 2014 campaign, in particular, still haunts him: For the fifth time that season, his team was in a close game in the final quarter. With 10 minutes left, Buffs quarterback Sefo Liufau threw a screen pass intended for the tailback. The play looked set up for a gain, but the pass sailed wide—right into the arms of a University of Utah defender, who ran 20 yards unobstructed into the end zone. CU never regained the lead and lost by four points. It was the fourth late-game defeat of the season.

The loss marked the first time in 99 years that the team had gone winless in its conference. The disappointment was plain on MacIntyre’s face as he told sideline reporters he was struggling to reconcile another “gut-wrenching” loss in a season rife with them. But his pain paled in comparison to the anguish on his players’ faces.

For the 21 graduating seniors, the grief was cumulative. For these young men, there had been little fanfare, few tastes of on-field success, and zero bowl bids during their tenures at CU. They’d been promised more by those who’d recruited them; they’d been told they would return Buffs football to relevance. Instead, as 17- and 18-year-olds, these players had signed up to be part of another regrettable chapter in the ongoing gridiron saga in Boulder, one fueled by administrative instability, a high-profile scandal, questionable decision-making, financial troubles, dilapidated facilities, ineffective recruiting, and an apathetic attitude toward the university’s football program from students, administrators, alumni, and the surrounding community.

The post-game coverage was difficult to watch, not only because the players were heartbroken, but also because it was clear that CU fans had come to expect ineptitude from their once-mighty team. Losing had become de rigueur. That CU had been defeated—again—was no longer even a postscript on SportsCenter. “We’re improving,” MacIntyre says, “but when I got here, you’d have to say CU was the worst Bowl Championship Series college football program in the country.”

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—Photo Courtesy of CU Athletics


We Are the Champions

Boulder has never really been much of a football town—not in the fanatical way that, say, Columbus, Ohio, or South Bend, Indiana, or State College, Pennsylvania, are. In fact, the People’s Republic has typically been fairly indifferent when it comes to collegiate sports like football and basketball. Weekend excursions into Colorado’s prodigious natural playground have long trumped buying tickets to so-called revenue sports. Except, of course, during the Mac years. Mac is short for McCartney—as in Bill McCartney, CU’s head football coach from 1982 to 1994, who for almost a decade made many denizens of Boulder forget they didn’t give a hoot about football. Winning an NCAA national championship has a funny way of doing that.

Victories didn’t come easily for Mac initially. He had back-to-back-to-back losing seasons in his first three years as head coach, and even in those days, patience was at a premium in college football. “When I was hired as CU’s president in 1985,” says Gordon Gee, who now holds the same title at West Virginia University, “Bill McCartney had already been there for a few years, and many people wanted me to fire him.” Instead, Gee and athletic director Bill Marolt extended the coach’s contract, believing the charismatic protégée of legendary University of Michigan coach Bo Schembechler possessed the qualities of a great coach. They were correct. In 1985, McCartney began a remarkable stretch that included 10 consecutive winning seasons, nine bowl appearances, a Heisman Trophy winner, and a share of the 1990 national title, which the Buffs split with the Georgia Institute of Technology, colloquially known as Georgia Tech.

McCartney’s captivating personality probably had as much to do with the team’s success as his football acumen. Recruits responded to his enthusiasm, his vigor, and his ability to inspire. He coined phrases such as, “Big dreams create the magic that stirs men’s souls to greatness.” McCartney simply knew how to make kids believe they were special. But beyond being blessed with a gift for influencing young people, coach Mac understood two incontrovertible truths about college football: The best teams are made up of the best players, and those players live primarily in Texas, California, and Florida. “There’s this misconception out there that guys outcoach each other,” McCartney says. “Coaching is overrated, and recruiting is underrated. The reason we won is that we had the best players.”

In those days, landing talented players meant out-recruiting pigskin powerhouses such as Michigan, Nebraska–Lincoln, Florida State, Notre Dame, and Miami (Florida). McCartney did it as well as anyone. He’d travel to athletes’ homes, look their mothers in the eyes, and win them over with his charm. He also stationed his assistants in Texas and California and made sure they understood their jobs were to persuade kids who had grown up dreaming of playing in Austin or Lincoln or Los Angeles or Ann Arbor to take one of their five official recruiting trips to Boulder. When a kid accepted a visit to CU, the coach knew he had his opening. “I would pick them up at the airport,” McCartney says, “and as we got to the top of that hill on U.S. 36 that overlooks Boulder, I’d pull over. I’d have them get out of the car, and I’d ask them, ‘Have you ever seen anyplace this beautiful?’?”

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It wasn’t just a line. McCartney thought Boulder was a little slice of heaven. And because Mac believed there was no better college town in America, he could sell it. He could sell it despite uninspiring athletics facilities, fair-weather fans, meager rations from the institution, and a lily-white town that sometimes proved uncomfortable for his black players. Boulder, he insisted, was safe, walkable, and gorgeous. McCartney had other things to market as well: a bevy of black assistants, whom Mac had hired to give his players relatable role models; a Big Eight schedule and a noteworthy out-of-conference lineup that allowed players to compete against the best teams in the country; and a university with respected academics, making players’ degrees worth something in the world outside of football.

But Mac had something else, something powerful, that his teenage recruits probably didn’t know enough to care about: institutional support from longtime athletic director Marolt and, perhaps more important, from president Gee. “Gordon wanted to have a good football team,” McCartney says. “When the president of the university says, ‘I take pride in having a highly competitive football program,’ you’re halfway there. If the administration is indifferent toward college sports, that makes it harder.” And so, when McCartney needed something—like new or upgraded facilities—he felt confident that Marolt and Gee would thoughtfully consider his wishes. In fact, with Mac in mind, Gee brokered the deal for the $14 million Dal Ward Athletic Center project, which was completed in 1991.

The Buffs became college football royalty under McCartney—at least, on the field. Off the gridiron, the program stepped out of bounds on occasion, a fact that’s sometimes obscured by the thick nostalgia borne of winning. Between 1986 and 1990, at least two dozen of Mac’s players were arrested for a variety of offenses, including rape—a story that was picked up by Sports Illustrated. That the conservative Christian McCartney’s young daughter got pregnant out of wedlock twice—by different CU players—also became fodder for local and national media. What’s more, CU faculty complained about the coach’s outspoken conservative views on gender roles, homosexuality, and abortion.

McCartney had to fight intra-institution battles as well. Even with Gee’s help, resources for the program were more limited than Mac thought befit a team bringing so much exposure (there was good with the bad) to the university. But Mac was the kind of person who willed things to happen despite circumstances. And in those days—unhindered by the NCAA academic eligibility rules enacted years later, and unscathed by the nit-picking today’s coaches endure from the Twittersphere—he was freer to do so. Harnessing Gee’s support and combining it with his knack for securing blue-chip prospects, McCartney kept the Buffs in the national polls—and himself in a job. In 1990, the same season the Buffs won the championship, McCartney signed an unheard-of 15-year contract extension, meaning he would be the Buffs’ head coach until 2005.

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That same year, however, McCartney lost his biggest ally when Gee left CU for the Ohio State University presidency. Even so, the team continued to win, and McCartney enhanced his legacy, which reached another crescendo on November 19, 1994. The Buffs were 9-1 heading into the final game of the season against lowly Iowa State University. The 46,000 fans at Folsom Field were excited about advancing to another big-time bowl game and were doubly enthused about running back Rashaan Salaam’s chances of becoming only the fourth college player to break 2,000 rushing yards in a season, which would virtually guarantee him the Heisman Trophy.

Everything seemed to be going right for CU that day, so when Marolt asked to speak privately with CU sports information director David Plati at the start of the fourth quarter, Plati thought it could only be good news. As the pair stood talking on the roof of the press box, they watched Salaam break off a 67-yard touchdown run to smash the 2,000-yard mark. (He would later win the Heisman.) “I thought Bill had taken me to the roof to tell me he’d gotten word about which bowl we’d be playing in,” Plati says. “Instead, he says to me, ‘After the game, Mac’s going to announce he’s resigning.’ I looked at him and said, ‘What did you just tell me?’?”

—Photo courtesy of CU Athletics


State of Neglect

Gary Barnett was no stranger to Boulder. He’d been one of McCartney’s assistants during CU football’s magical run in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and after spending seven seasons as the head coach at Northwestern University, getting the job at CU in 1999 felt like a homecoming. That home, however, was looking a little unkempt; it had been almost a decade since Gee secured the funding for Dal Ward—the last meaningful dime that had been invested in the university’s athletic infrastructure. In the interim, the school had hired two football coaches (Barnett and his predecessor, Rick Neuheisel), three presidents, and an athletic director. But little attention had been paid to what Barnett saw as one of the football program’s Achilles heels: inadequate facilities.

The 52-year-old coach wasn’t necessarily surprised by the languishing infrastructure: Dal Ward had been overburdened for years, and the university’s indoor practice facilities—or lack thereof—were even worse. Multiple squads, including the football team, had to fight for time in the dark, rusting-from-the-inside-out Balch Fieldhouse, the university’s only indoor practice space. It had been built as a basketball venue in 1937 and was so small that practicing QBs could only throw passes of 20 yards or less. “I knew how difficult the job with Colorado would be,” Barnett says. “I knew about the fiscal problems; I knew the challenges of the fan base; I knew the problems with the facilities.” It’s partly why, Barnett surmises, he was such a compelling candidate for CU. The administration—president John Buechner and athletic director Dick Tharp—didn’t have to worry about a new coach quickly becoming disgruntled with the status quo.

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Aware that he’d made an unspoken agreement to get by without badly needed upgrades to CU’s facilities, Barnett chose his battles carefully. He supported the building of a new indoor practice facility, for which he says the athletic department never got clearance to fund-raise. For the most part, though, Barnett says he remained quiet while the college football arms race accelerated around him.

Looking to capitalize on increasingly lucrative TV contracts and attract students who would see their campuses on ESPN’s College GameDay, American universities were spending millions to update their existing athletic complexes or build entirely new flashy ones. CU, however, wasn’t tempted to keep up with the Ohio States and the Oregons—or even Big 12 rivals Oklahoma and Nebraska, whose indoor athletic spaces were more than twice as large as CU’s.

The lack of investment meant Barnett became familiar with the unimpressed looks in 17-year-old recruits’ eyes when they visited Boulder. The coach says he tried to explain that buildings were just buildings; what was important were the people inside. It was a hard sell. “Guys good enough to have options want to feel like football is important to a university,” says ESPN college football guru and CU alumnus Chris Fowler. “They want to feel like they’d have what they’d need to win. Facilities have both a functional and symbolic value. CU not having an indoor practice facility with the weather there—that alone sends a message the commitment and resources are not there.”

Despite these challenges, the Buffs were performing fairly well on the football field. In his first five seasons as head coach, Barnett went 34-28. The record was unremarkable, but Barnett felt the team was finally coalescing after what had been an unexpectedly up-and-down start. Although the roster of players Barnett inherited from coach Neuheisel—whom Marolt had hired in a surprising move when McCartney shocked the sports world by retiring to spend more time with his wife—was full of talented upperclassmen, it wasn’t what Barnett would’ve called a mature team. In Mac’s absence, the Buffs’ work ethic and cohesive culture had corroded, and the team had acquired a reputation for being undisciplined under the four-year-long tutelage of the young, brash, rules-averse Neuheisel (who did not respond to interview requests for this story). “My style demanded a more businesslike approach based on leadership and maturity,” Barnett says. “There was very little of either in that first locker room.”

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It had taken a season or two to re-engineer the dynamics and character of the squad, but Barnett says he felt confident his team was on the rise, even after a lackluster 5-7 mark during the 2003 campaign. Instead, what became known as “the Ordeal” undercut the football program—and damaged the reputation of the entire university.


The Ordeal

Nearly every major American news outlet latched onto the appalling stories coming out of Boulder in early 2004. CNN, the New York Times, NBC News, ESPN, CBS News, and a host of others began digging into the accusations levied against the University of Colorado athletic department. The allegations surfaced in a leaked courtroom deposition in January. They stemmed from two situations that had occurred years before in which sexual assaults had been reported after parties attended by CU football players and recruits. The first incident transpired in 1997, when a high schooler said she had been sexually assaulted by recruits at a party thrown by a Buffs player. No charges were filed, but Boulder County prosecutors said they warned CU officials then about their concerns with what they saw as ongoing alcohol-soaked parties to which CU players would bring recruits. (Athletic director Dick Tharp publicly refuted that such a warning ever occurred.)

The second incident, in which two women said they were raped by CU recruits at an off-campus gathering, happened in December 2001. Following the allegations, the athletic department revoked four players’ scholarships for their involvement in the party and discontinued relationships with a number of recruits who had attended the shindig. Barnett also conducted an internal review of CU’s recruiting practices, making sure his host players were aware of every rule. The Boulder County district attorney again declined to file charges, but one year later the two women sued the university under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. They claimed CU knew the risk of sexual harassment of female students in connection with the football team’s recruiting program and that the university failed to take action to prevent further harassment before their assaults. (The suit was later settled for a combined $2.85 million.) The leaked deposition from that lawsuit—in which the Boulder County district attorney accused the football program of using sex and alcohol as recruitment tools—compelled news teams to set up camp in Boulder for months.

A grand jury was convened in May 2004 to investigate potential criminal misconduct during CU football recruiting. Only one indictment—apparently unrelated to the scandal—of an athletic department aide was handed down. The Board of Regents, CU’s governing body, assigned an independent commission to examine the DA’s claims, but little came of the resulting report. Sordid details did emerge though—from leaked grand jury documents, news outlets, and the commission’s report—and they painted a troubling picture of what CU host players did of their own volitions to entertain recruits. The fact that CU players were providing alcohol to minors, hiring prostitutes, and paying strippers stuck in the country’s collective consciousness.

Barnett’s callous comments about former CU player Katie Hnida didn’t help. Weeks after the deposition leaked, Hnida, a one-time walk-on kicker, said she had been raped by a teammate in 2000 and also had been sexually harassed by her teammates. Although the university and law enforcement asked Hnida to reveal names, she declined to do so, and charges were never filed. Instead of supporting Hnida as a victim, Barnett incited a media frenzy by disparaging her kicking abilities: “Katie was a girl, and not only was she a girl, she was terrible. There’s no other way to say it.”

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Tone-deaf didn’t begin to describe the gaffe. Barnett tried to explain that his comments had been taken out of context—that he’d been answering a question from a reporter and was explaining how hard they’d tried to keep Hnida on the team despite her skill set. But there was no undoing the damage. CU president Betsy Hoffman placed Barnett on administrative leave, a divisive decision that spawned 6,500 emails addressed to Hoffman and the Board of Regents in a single morning. Some critics thought Barnett should’ve been fired outright; others supported the coach, calling the suspension unwarranted.

During Barnett’s leave, Hoffman announced new stringent recruiting guidelines, which angered some members of the athletic department who were concerned that limiting recruiting trips to one night instead of two, and only during the off-season, would decimate the program. “I did what I thought was responsible and reasonable given the situation,” Hoffman says of Barnett’s suspension, “but the decision made no one happy.”

Surprisingly, the recruiting scandal did not result in one obliterating shock wave of firings. Instead, consequences landed slowly and awkwardly. Athletic director Tharp became the first casualty when documents that surfaced during the grand jury investigation showed the athletic department might have violated NCAA rules by using booster money for recruiting purposes instead of for a summer football camp. Tharp resigned in November 2004 (although no NCAA penalties were ever assessed). His boss, chancellor Richard Byyny, resigned in December. Three months later, president Hoffman, still beleaguered by the football scandal (which ultimately cost CU approximately $20 million, including revenue lost from a decrease in out-of-state enrollment) and newly besieged by controversies surrounding state budget cuts as well as CU professor Ward Churchill’s inflammatory essay in which he called World Trade Center victims “little Eichmanns,” gave her notice. Meanwhile, having been reinstated by Hoffman—and an 8-1 vote by the regents—Barnett still had a job. In fact, he posted winning seasons in 2004 and 2005 despite the ongoing turmoil and recruiting restraints.

His post-scandal tenure would be short-lived. Although the Buffs took the Big 12 North Division title in 2005, the final three games of the regular season were disastrous defeats. The losing streak gave recently hired president Hank Brown and new athletic director Mike Bohn an opportunity to fire Barnett. It was clear the sacking had little to do with football scores. “It’s just part of what happens at institutions [after crises],” Tharp says today. “It’s all about quelling because in order for institutions to go forward, they believe they need to have everyone on the same page. A lot of times the way to do that is by starting over…[but] I think the decision to make a change on our head football coach two years [after the scandal] was a mistake.”

—Image Courtesy of CU Athletics

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Hawk Love

Dressed in a gold blazer and a black shirt, Dan Hawkins was just as engaging as CU fans had hoped during a press conference introducing him as the Buffs’ new head coach in December 2005. Surrounded by his wife and four kids, Hawkins seemed remarkably at ease, joking around with athletic director Bohn and promising to bring “Hawk Love”—his style of earnest, emotional coaching—to Boulder. The 45-year-old coach also stated his intention to recruit the next Heisman Trophy winner and tweak the program’s goal of winning the Big 12 to vying for another national title.

Considering Hawkins’ history, the goals seemed attainable. Before arriving in Boulder, he’d been the magic man at Boise State University, racking up a 53-11 record and four Western Athletic Conference (WAC) titles over five years. Like many leaderless programs across the country, CU—which needed a feel-good hire after the tortured end to Barnett’s tenure—fawned over one of the nation’s hottest coaching prospects. Bohn and company were so intent on bringing Hawk to Boulder they offered a five-year, $4.25 million contract and miraculously found funds to build an additional indoor practice space known as “the Bubble,” a $1.6 million semipermanent tent that covers one of the auxiliary football fields. Although the Bubble was a temporary fix to a larger problem, Hawkins happily took the job—and Buffs fans began dreaming of better days.

By 2009, however, Bohn’s lauded hire was floundering. In four seasons, Hawkins had posted a 16-33 record. “I did some things incorrectly,” Hawkins says from his home in Boise, Idaho, joking that the only coaching he’s doing these days is for his grandson’s flag football team. “I should’ve better assessed dynamics. CU required a more unique set of strategies than I’d encountered before.” Hawkins could’ve been forgiven for not knowing the exact tone to take in the wake of the recruiting scandal, but the coach also failed to understand Boulder’s other ingrained characteristics, ones that had little to do with the Ordeal.

“Boulder is an academically tough place,” Hawkins says, explaining that the high standards dictated the athletes he could recruit. “I should’ve embraced that better.” Although Bohn says he and Hawkins talked about the scholarly prerequisites at CU, the athletic director wasn’t worried about the transition for his new coach. After all, Hawkins had a proven ability to recruit, and CU was making major investments in scholastic resources for the athletics department. But a harsh reality quickly set in for Hawkins: At Boise State he could recruit players—particularly junior college transfers—whom CU would simply never admit for academic reasons. Barnett’s seven years at academic titan Northwestern had trained him well for working within CU’s strict requirements. “We just had a different set of circumstances at CU,” Barnett says, “and you could either yell about them or work within them. But if you decided to yell, you were going to create enemies in admissions and the administration. I think Dan probably experienced some of that.”

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Hawkins also faced an increase in competition for talent. He and his staff recruited well in the WAC, but nearly every team in the Big 12 demanded better athletes than even the best teams in his old conference. To play with the big boys, Hawkins had to beat out veteran Big 12 recruiters for four- and five-star players, the kind he rarely would have pursued at Boise State—and the kind who might have been turned off by CU’s sagging facilities and the recruiting restrictions still in place after the scandal. Hawkins’ 2007 and 2008 recruiting classes were respectable, but without a well-tended pipeline funneling recruits to CU from hotbeds like Texas and California, maintaining a flow of talent became unworkable. Things got worse when many of Hawkins’ top athletes from 2007 and 2008 fizzled out, some of whom left the program for academic reasons. His 2009 recruiting class ranked near the bottom of the conference. “Back in the days when CU was successful,” says ESPN’s Fowler, alluding to the McCartney era, “it had a well-defined recruiting blueprint. It had strong contacts in Texas, especially in Houston, and coaches went into Louisiana and Southern California for kids. That blueprint began to slip until it didn’t exist anymore.”

By the end of the 2009 season, the program was in free fall. Stories in the Denver Post and the Boulder Daily Camera questioned Hawkins’ job security, but the coach didn’t receive a pink slip. Having been in the CU president’s office for less than two years, Bruce D. Benson (the school’s seventh president since Gee left in 1990) leaned toward keeping the flailing coach. Some observers attributed this stance to Benson’s fear of upsetting the state Legislature with what might have looked like extravagant spending during a dicey budget-setting season. To be fair, the CU athletic department was in a financial hole after paying Barnett $3 million in severance and being sorely short on revenues due to empty seats in Folsom on Saturdays. The university could ill-afford to pay Hawkins’ $3.1 million buyout.

The decision to keep Hawk had long-term consequences. Instead of possibly luring a big-name coach to Boulder—Tommy Tuberville, Charlie Strong, and Butch Jones all jumped into new jobs in 2010—CU continued to implode. In the end, the university still had to write a $2.1 million buyout check to rid itself of Hawk Love in 2010, but not before enduring another year of substandard recruiting, waning fan and donor support, lost revenue, and more losses than wins.


Shifting Allegiances

In the 20 years since McCartney’s dream team had brought home a national title, CU had churned through seven presidents, five chancellors, three athletic directors, and four head football coaches. The institution had sustained dramatic cuts to its state funding (between 2002 and 2010 alone, state funding per pupil dropped by 48 percent), and its athletic department had incurred substantial debt, some of which it owed to the university itself. The football team had posted only eight winning seasons since McCartney’s retirement, and two of those could fairly be chalked up to his remaining recruits. And scant investment had been made in the aging athletics facilities on the Boulder campus since Dal Ward opened in 1991. It was this bad-to-worse litany that made an ostensibly good decision in the summer of 2010 stand out: In a move sports pundits lauded for its shrewdness, the university announced it was leaving the Big 12 Conference for the Pacific-10.

The reasons CU gave for joining what became the Pac-12 were sensible: More CU alumni lived in the Pac-12’s footprint than in the Big 12’s, which meant fostering fan and donor support would be easier with games being played in L.A. instead of Ames, Iowa. Additional revenue would come in from the Pac-12’s more lucrative TV contracts and, with a possible conference-owned network on the horizon, exposure for all CU sports could be greatly increased. Another potentially significant benefit was that by aligning the university with schools like Stanford University, UCLA, and the University of Washington—institutions with respected academics that still found ways to invest in sports—the athletic department might, over time, be able to make more cogent arguments with faculty and administration for the need to better fund its endeavors. “That wasn’t a reason to move conferences,” Bohn says today, “but it’s probably a nice piece of equity.”

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While the move was expensive—leaving the Big 12 meant forfeiting almost $7 million in distributions—Bohn’s work to shift CU into a supposedly more profitable, stable, and academically and philosophically aligned conference should have been a momentum builder for the football program. But CU squandered the opportunity. After firing Hawkins, the Buffs were again looking for a head coach, one who could navigate a Pac-12 Conference that had recently begun to rival the Southeastern Conference for college football supremacy. Attracting a quality coach would’ve been challenging enough after Hawkins’ high-profile face plant and without any fancy facilities on campus; however, it was the search committee’s decision to hire someone from within the CU family that further decreased an already small pool of candidates.

The names of those with CU ties were so few that Bill McCartney—by then 70 years old and living in Westminster—appeared to be a viable candidate. McCartney said he would coach while simultaneously grooming a head-coach-in-waiting: someone with CU roots, someone with football know-how who just needed a guiding hand. Someone like Jon Embree, a former Buff who played for McCartney and who had been coaching tight ends for the Washington Redskins.

But the reaction to bringing back Mac was swift: Detractors, some of whom were CU faculty, sent nearly 20 letters to the administration and circulated an email flier voicing “deep concerns” about Mac’s candidacy. The missives cited his belief in traditional gender roles, his remarks about abortion and gay rights, and the criminal behavior of his players. So instead of hiring Mac as a mentor, CU hired an inexperienced Embree and asked him to learn the head coaching position on the fly. “Coach Mac didn’t want me to take the job,” Embree says today. “He felt the situation in Boulder was going to take a long time to fix and that people might be more apt to give him enough time to build it back up because of who he was. He was going to take one for the team. I guess I ended up taking one for the team instead.”

Taking cues from Mac, Embree tried to recreate the recruiting footprint in Texas and California that the legendary coach had plied in the glory days. Although Embree’s first recruiting class—which he cobbled together in only two weeks—garnered a ranking of 75, his 2012 class rang in at 36th in the country. Plus, Embree made an impression on the kids he brought in. “Coach Embree was a player’s coach,” says Juda Parker, a talented defensive lineman recruited by Embree’s staff. “He had an NFL mentality. He expected results. You could feel his passion—he cared about winning for CU.”

The Buffs only won three games in Embree’s first season, but losing wasn’t the 46-year-old coach’s only problem. Wanting to infuse the program with a bit of the old magic, he hired a cadre of former CU football players as assistants. It proved to be a rookie manager’s mistake: Instead of surrounding himself with more knowledgeable collegiate coaches, Embree’s assistants had mostly come from the NFL and were relatively untried at the college level. Not only did they struggle with the bureaucracies associated with a public university, they also seemed to forget their players weren’t 26-year-old professionals. “Coach Embree and his staff assumed we knew too much,” Parker says. “They didn’t seem to get that many kids hadn’t had great coaches in high school, that they needed to be taught the basics again.”

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Like Hawkins and Barnett before him, Embree says he ran afoul of the administration over budgets, facilities, and admissions. Even so, he says he has no idea why, on November 25, 2012, less than two years after being hired, CU let him go. “You’ll have to ask Mike Bohn that question,” says Embree, who was paid a $1.5 million buyout. “You could say it was our record, but that wouldn’t make sense because other coaches at CU have had similar records and weren’t fired that quickly.” Bohn says Embree was let go due to “further erosion of the program.”

No matter the reason, no one—not Gary Barnett, not Dan Hawkins, not Bill McCartney—thought the Embree hiring and firing was handled well by the higher-ups at CU. And no one seemed particularly surprised it hadn’t worked out. “The people who hired Jon knew he had no experience,” Barnett says. “You don’t hire someone like that and not give him everything you can to support him. I mean, you’re going into the Pac-12 and you hire a guy who’s never called a play in his life? That’s just a poor decision.”

—Photo Courtesy of CU Athletics


Re-Renergized

Standing on a makeshift stage erected in the 78-year-old Balch Fieldhouse this past spring, Mike MacIntyre paces nervously and sneaks looks at a small cheat sheet in his left hand. His cadence is punchy and his voice is elevated, like a halftime pep talk, but his words fall a little flat. It’s difficult to find the right tone when your team has set up residence at the bottom of the conference, even if the day’s main event—the unveiling of CU’s new Nike uniforms—should stoke fan enthusiasm. As the coach finishes his remarks, smoke-blowers and bass-heavy music usher four players onto the platform wearing the fresh designs. From backstage, MacIntyre signals the crowd to cheer, but he gets a muted reaction. Even the fans seem to understand that new uniforms will not help the Buffs make a miraculous run through the Pac-12 this year.

Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott says he’s not concerned with CU’s current slump. He contends the Buffs will be competitive as time goes on, though it’s difficult to believe that will be any time soon given that the conference has been rapidly improving while CU has been devolving. Not only has Oregon earned trips to two national championship games in the past five years, but Stanford, Arizona, Arizona State, and Utah (which entered the conference with CU) have also joined USC as semiregular members of the Top 25. Plus, as of 2015, at least six of the teams in the conference have higher annual revenues than CU’s modest $64 million. “I don’t think anybody at CU envisioned being a bottom feeder in the Pac-12,” ESPN’s Fowler says. “The current was just a little swifter than it looked from the shore when they dived in.”

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Jumping into the Pac-12 had been Bohn’s handiwork, but in doing so, the athletic director became the orchestrator of his own dismissal. Having moved to a conference with deeper pockets, president Benson and chancellor Phil DiStefano felt CU needed a powerhouse fund-raiser and businessman to compete. By May 2013, Bohn was out, but not before he hired MacIntyre—hot off a 10-2 campaign and a regular-season-ending ranking of 24 at onetime national doormat San Jose State—to replace Embree.

By the time new athletic director Rick George arrived in Boulder, it had been 23 years since any capital investments had been made to the university’s athletics infrastructure. “Frankly, we had fallen way behind,” says George, a one-time CU assistant athletic director whose resumé also includes time spent with the Texas Rangers and the PGA Tour. “Facilities weren’t a want; they were a need.” In December 2013, the Board of Regents approved George’s plans for the Sustainable Excellence Initiative—a slick name for a $143 million proposal that would renovate Dal Ward, construct a new athletics complex called the Champions Center, and build an indoor multipurpose practice facility. The regents unanimously approved the plan, even though some critics have been skeptical that George can rustle up enough donor support to responsibly fund it. “Moving to the Pac-12 brought things to the next level,” says regent Michael Carrigan. “I think Benson, after two successive unsuccessful coaches, saw that this is something he needed to devote more of his time and energy to. He’s more involved now in athletics.”

Although few would compare the brusque, politically minded Benson to the affable, loosey-goosey Gee, the tenor surrounding the football team has, in recent months, begun to feel a little more optimistic—a welcome change even if the renewed energy arises from desperation. “That’s why Mike MacIntyre has a better chance than any of us over the past 20 years to make it work,” Barnett says. “He finally has the administration, admissions, and an athletic director that are all pulling in the same direction.” Of course, improved on-the-field results would be a big help. “Building something takes time,” MacIntyre says. “It’s frustrating because you can’t recruit to something that isn’t built. Now that [the Champions Center] is tangible, something real to look at, it’s going to help us attract players.”

He’s getting help from the admissions department as well. While CU insists it has not changed its entry requirements for student-athletes, it has, over the past two years, allowed more “academically at-risk” recruits onto the football team. The generally recommended number of at-risk students on the squad has been about 20, per CU’s Athletics Academic Assessment Committee. Yet there were an estimated 27 on the roster in 2013, according to an August 23, 2013, memo from faculty athletics representative David Clough to DiStefano. Then, for the 2014 and 2015 recruiting classes, DiStefano green-lighted approximately 15 more (which means the team will likely be carrying well over the suggested 20 during the 2015 season). DiStefano told the Colorado Daily in 2014 he was OK with the move because MacIntyre had been recruiting many top-notch students as well. “We take a composite look at the whole recruiting class to get the balance right,” DiStefano says today. “Everyone must still meet our requirements, but we’ve been able to accommodate a few more in the lower range recently.”


A New Hope?

The Pac-12 Network cameras pan across Folsom Field, capturing images of CU players warming up for the 2015 spring game. The lenses aren’t only trained on the field though. Using a bluebird Colorado sky as the backdrop, video crews aim their cameras at the exposed beams of the under-construction Champions Center, which crests the northeast end of the stadium. Oblivious to the cameras and the banging of the construction behind him, MacIntyre stands 10 yards from his starting quarterback, Sefo Liufau. Hands on his knees, the coach focuses on the junior signal-caller as he drops back and delivers a short strike to a receiver.

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Although his team is inexperienced at wide receiver and offensive guard and he only has 10 seniors on scholarship, MacIntyre has been more concerned with changing the way his team finishes its games in 2015. He’s made it a point of emphasis during spring ball, even making his players end each practice by holding up four fingers in a we-own-the-fourth-quarter display. MacIntyre says he’s not sure whether last season’s late-game lapses were due to youth or a lack of confidence—he just wants to fix it. That may be a difficult task if the problem is talent; MacIntyre’s first three recruiting classes have been ranked 68, 63, and 71 nationally.

Ask MacIntyre about those rankings, and he shakes his head and says he’s not worried about recruiting-class standings. He says he’s taking a more holistic view of where the program is—and where it’s heading. He likes what he sees. He’s coaching in a Power 5 conference that’s beginning to pay dividends in revenue ($21,173,032 in 2014) and enhanced TV exposure. He believes he has a crew of players who are ready to advance from what he called “a junior varsity team” in 2014 to a squad that’s at least mature enough to be competitive in 2015. And from his current office in Dal Ward, when he’s not reviewing film, he can look out his windows and see his new office (and the football team’s new home, as of last month) being built.

Is that enough to pull CU out of the crater it’s dug over the past 20 years? The woefully unsatisfying answer is maybe. If the new facilities help attract better talent; if MacIntyre can string together a couple of 5-8 or 6-7 seasons; and if Benson, DiStefano, and George can remain on the same wavelength (while keeping their jobs), then maybe yes. But if CU slips back into the questionable decision-making of its past, then maybe not. And if CU doesn’t give MacIntyre the time he needs to rebuild, definitely not. “If you keep turning over coaches,” says CU’s all-time winningest coach, Bill McCartney, “you lose continuity and credibility with the kids. The longer you’re at someplace, the more credibility you gain. A lot of recruiting is about track record and being able to explain to a kid why this is a great place for him. Kids want to go to a place where they can dream of themselves playing in a big game.”


Players In Motion

An abbreviated history of events related to University of Colorado football, beginning with the hire of legendary coach Bill McCartney.

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1982 CU hires Bill McCartney as its head football coach.

1985 CU hires its 15th president, Gordon Gee, who is known for his support of athletics.

1985 The CU football team has its first winning season in seven years.

1989 season The Buffs go 11-1 and battle the University of Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl for a shot at the national title. They lose the game 21-6.

1990 McCartney founds Promise Keepers, a conservative Christian ministry for men.

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1990 McCartney signs a 15-year contract extension.

1990 Gee leaves for Ohio State University; William H. Baughn serves as interim president before Judith Albino becomes president in 1991.

1990 season The Buffs go 11-1-1 and face Notre Dame (again) in the Orange Bowl. They win 10-9, earning a piece of the national championship, which they share with Georgia Tech.

1991 The Dal Ward Athletic Center opens.

1994 McCartney announces he’s retiring to spend more time with his wife.

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1994 CU running back Rashaan Salaam wins the Heisman Trophy.

The Neuheisel Era 

1994 Athletic director Bill Marolt hires Rick Neuheisel, a CU assistant and former UCLA quarterback, to replace McCartney as head coach.

1995 CU hires John Buechner as its president.

1996 Dick Tharp becomes athletic director when Marolt leaves CU after a 12-year run for the chief executive position with the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association.

January 1999 Neuheisel leaves CU for a bigger payday at the University of Washington. Weeks later, news breaks that the coach may have violated NCAA recruiting rules while at CU.

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The Barnett Era 

January 1999 Gary Barnett is hired as CU’s head football coach.

2000 President Buechner leaves CU; Alexander Bracken becomes president. Later in the year, CU hires Betsy Hoffman as president.

December 2001 University of Colorado football players and recruits attend a get-together held at an off-campus apartment. Two women report being sexually assaulted by
CU football recruits during the party. Boulder County prosecutors decline to file charges related to the incident.

April 2002 Colorado officials confirm the school has been accused by the NCAA of lacking institutional control and of multiple minor violations stemming from Neuheisel’s tenure. The NCAA later puts CU football on probation.

December 2002 Two women who say they were sexually assaulted at a 2001 party file a complaint in court against the university, under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, for failing to remedy the sexually hostile environment on campus they say led to their assaults. The suit asserts that since at least 1995, CU had known about sexual assaults, alcohol abuse, and other illicit activities that were occurring during visits by football recruits.

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January 29, 2004 A deposition from the Title IX suit is leaked; in it the Boulder County district attorney accuses the CU athletic department of using sex and alcohol as recruiting tools.

February 2004 Former CU walk-on kicker Katie Hnida tells Sports Illustrated she was raped by one CU teammate in 2000 and sexually harassed by others. Hnida declines to give names, leaving the university and police unable to investigate the matter.

February 2004 Barnett makes cringe-worthy comments about Hnida’s athletic abilities in the aftermath of her allegations. Barnett is placed on paid leave by president Hoffman.

March 2004 CU administrators announce changes to football recruiting policies, including a rule that recruiting visits to campus will be limited to one night.

May 2004 A grand jury investigates possible criminal behavior associated with CU football recruiting. Attorney General Ken Salazar ultimately announces that no sexual assault charges will be filed against CU football players or recruits.

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May 2004 Barnett is reinstated as head coach after a months-long suspension.

November 2004 Athletic director Tharp resigns.

December 29, 2004 CU finishes 8-5 after a victory over Texas El Paso in the Houston Bowl; the game is CU’s most recent bowl win to date.

March 2005 Hoffman resigns, explaining her presidency has become a distraction amid controversies surrounding the athletic department and the conduct of outspoken professor Ward Churchill.

April 2005 Hank Brown—a former U.S. senator from Colorado—is introduced as interim CU president.

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April 2005 Mike Bohn is introduced as the new athletic director.

August 2005 Brown takes office, eventually shedding the “interim” part of his title.

December 2005 Barnett’s team finishes the season with a 7-6 record, winning the Big 12 North division. The Buffs get annihilated by the University of Texas in the Big 12 Championship.

December 8, 2005 Barnett is fired. Per his contract, he is paid a $3 million buyout.

The Hawkins Era

December 16, 2005 Dan Hawkins leaves Boise State University and is named CU’s 23rd head football coach.

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November 2006 Hawkins finishes his first season at CU with a 2-10 record.

November 2007 Hawkins goes 6-6 in the regular season, garnering a bowl appearance; the Buffaloes lose to the University of Alabama Crimson Tide by a score of 30-24 in December.

December 2007 After a drawn-out court battle, CU settles with the two women in the Title IX case for $2.85 million. The university’s legal costs run approximately $3 million in addition to
the settlements.

November 2008 The Buffs finish Hawkins’ third season at 5-7.

January 2008 CU president Hank Brown retires.

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March 2008 Bruce Benson becomes the eighth president of CU since 1990, the year of the national championship season. (The average tenure for American college presidents is roughly seven years; at CU, it has been 3.75 years since Gee was hired in ’85.)

2009 Hawkins finishes his fourth season at 3-9.

June 2010 CU announces it is leaving the Big 12 Conference for what was then called the Pac-10 Conference.

November 2010 Hawkins is fired. He takes a $2.1 million buyout.

The Embree Era

December 2010 CU hires Jon Embree as its head football coach, giving the former CU player a five-year contract.

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November 2011 Embree goes 3-10 in his first season. It’s also CU’s first season playing a Pac-12 schedule.

November 2012 Embree’s team finishes the season with a 1-11 record. It’s the first time the team goes winless at home since 1920.

November 25, 2012 Embree is fired; his contract stipulates a $1.5 million buyout.

The Macintyre Era

December 10, 2012 CU hires Mike MacIntyre from San Jose State University to replace Embree.

May 2013 Athletic director Mike Bohn is forced to resign. He receives a $918,000 buyout.

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July 2013 CU hires Rick George as its new athletic director.

November 2013 In his first season, MacIntyre’s Buffs go 4-8.

December 2013 The CU Board of Regents approves a proposal for $143 million in new and upgraded athletic facilities on the Boulder campus.

May 2014 CU begins construction of its new athletic facilities, the plans for which include renovations to the Dal Ward Athletic Center, a Champions Center (which will house the football program), and a new indoor practice facility. The work marks the first major upgrade to CU’s athletics infrastructure since Dal Ward opened in 1991.

November 2014 MacIntyre posts a 2-10 record in his second season. The team goes winless in its conference for the first time since 1915.

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February 2015 CU hires Jim Leavitt as its new defensive coordinator.

May 1, 2015 CU unveils new football uniforms designed by Nike. It’s the first uniform change since 2010. In a nod to MacIntyre’s “Be uncommon” mantra, the word “Uncommon” is stitched into the inside back collars of the jerseys.

September 3, 2015 CU opens the season at the University of Hawaii. This season’s first Pac-12 game will be played at home versus the University of Oregon on October 3.

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