Dan Hawkins and the Power of Positive Thinking
A 12-step guide to understanding the University of Colorado's popular—and peculiar—head football coach.
6) Make a Difference
On a Wednesday night in April, the Colorado women's basketball team hosted Marquette in the semifinals of the National Invitational Tournament. The game was largely meaningless, an exhibition between two teams that had failed to qualify for the NCAA championship tournament. Dan Hawkins sat in the crowd next to Misti. Late in the first half, during a time-out, Hawkins joined the cheerleaders on the court, tossing free T-shirts into the crowd.
"Wasn't that great?" asked sociology professor Joanne Belknap after the game. "I was so happy about that. You never saw Gary Barnett doing something like that."
Barnett was Hawkins' predecessor. By the last years of Barnett's tour, the program had lost its way. Mike Bohn, who became the athletic director three years ago, told me about a lack of teamwork, trust, and focus. The football team underperformed on the field. Off the field, a series of scandals contaminated the entire campus. Three women claimed to be raped at a party for football recruits. In all, nine allegations of sexual assault by football players and recruits surfaced between 1997 and 2004. (No charges were ever prosecuted; one woman said she didn't file charges because she was intimidated by Barnett.) Members of the football program were also accused of entertaining recruits with alcohol, strippers, and call girls.
"There was always such a huge wall between academics and athletics," says Belknap, who was one of Barnett's most vocal critics. "Dan Hawkins and Mike Bohn have torn down that wall, and are building a community on campus."
Katie Hnida was the public face of the CU football scandal. A kicker, and the first female to play for the Buffaloes, she claimed her teammates exposed themselves to her, threw footballs at her head, and grabbed her breasts in the huddle. One player, she said, came up from behind and rubbed his erect penis against her. After transferring to New Mexico, where she became the first woman to score in a Division I-A football game, she claimed that before she left Colorado a Buffs player had raped her. (No charges have ever been brought against any CU football players.)
When her rape and harassment charges first surfaced in 2004, Gary Barnett addressed reporters. "It was obvious Katie was not very good," Barnett said. "She was awful. You know what guys do? They respect your ability. You can be 90 years old, but if you can go out and play, they'll respect you. Katie was not only a girl, she was terrible, OK? There's no other way to say it. She couldn't kick the ball through the uprights."
Barnett's tone deafness (what did her skill level have to do with anything?) prompted his suspension. His Hnida quotes remain the defining sound bite of his tenure.
Although Hnida was the first woman to score in Division I-A, she was not the first female college football player to ever score. That honor goes to Liz Heaston, who briefly kicked for her small liberal-arts college, in 1997. Heaston was a soccer player. When the football team failed to find a reliable kicker, and with the players on the men's soccer team unavailable because of scheduling conflicts, the school's football coach asked her to try out. The coach said it wasn't a gimmick, that he was simply desperate, and that he thought she could help the team. She kicked two extra points in a 27-0 win.
"Everyone was very supportive," Heaston has said. "Having a coaching staff invite you to come out and play is a lot easier. You're not trying to break through other people's prejudices. The support was there from the top down."
The school was Willamette. The coach was Dan Hawkins.
7) Provide Inspiration
One afternoon before a spring practice, I watched CU assistant coach Eric Kiesau lead a meeting of the wide receivers. Kiesau played video from an earlier practice, showing where players tipped off cornerbacks by dipping their shoulders too soon, or telegraphed patterns with sloppy footwork. There had been a page added to the playbook that day, and Kiesau went over the new information, asking questions to ensure each kid had the details down. Dan Hawkins sat in the back of the room, leaning forward the whole time, his hands cupped around his mouth. He only made a couple of quick comments.
"There are 20 of us on the staff, and I can go to lunch with any of them and we'll get along," Kiesau told me. "I can't say that about any other staff I've been on. And that all starts from him as the head coach. He hires good, quality assistant coaches, and then he gives them control."
At a speech at FlatIron Crossing mall, someone asked Hawkins how much of his job is devoted to football, to drawing up plays and testing them out and breaking down defenses. Only about 25 percent, he said. Most of Hawkins' time is spent working the culture. He lunches with the sociology department. He writes congratulatory notes to professors in the physics department. He lobbies for upgrades to the football facilities, and carpet bombs his players with inspiring text messages about a 100-year-old guy who ran a marathon, or about another guy who rowed a small boat from Namibia to Antigua. "Nothing better than a text message," Hawkins told me. "Cause with a text message—bam!—it hits them right in their pockets, right away."
Hawkins quotes Nelson Mandela in the mass text messages he sends his team. I've heard him also reference Martin Luther King Jr., Phil Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, and even Crazy Horse. The quotes are gleaned from books that Hawkins reads obsessively. Books are stacked in his bedroom and in his office; on one visit I saw copies of A Joseph Campbell Companion, Take the Risk by Ben Carson, and a biography of Denzel Washington. He talks about books at the dinner table, and can't pass a Barnes & Noble without buying four or five more.
Almost all of the books are self-help, or at least motivating. Hawkins is not a Renaissance man trying to learn about, say, pirates, as Texas Tech coach Mike Leach did one summer. Hawkins is more focused. He mines books almost exclusively for inspiration, for some nugget he can pass on to his coaches or his players.
"He really likes to fine-tune himself," says his son Cody Hawkins. "He's on a constant search to make himself better and make people around himself better. I think he just kind of knows he's got to keep doing things the right way, and he's always polishing the sword."