A 12-step guide to understanding the University of Colorado's popular—and peculiar—head football coach.
1) Make an Impression
I'm in Highlands Ranch, at Valor Christian High School, attending the groundbreaking ceremony for a new football stadium. For the past half hour I've been touring the construction site, eating hot dogs and popcorn, and contemplating why a small prep school needs a 4,300-square-foot weight room under its football grandstand. I've driven down here from Boulder not so much for the free food but to see Dan Hawkins, the head coach of the University of Colorado football team and today's featured speaker.
It's a late-winter afternoon. Although the sun still shines, I pull up the collar on my coat to ward off a chill. Hawkins is supposed to speak in the Valor gym in an hour. I decide to head inside early to warm up.
I spot a guy in the parking lot, talking on a cell phone, wearing a gray blazer and a black turtleneck. He has shaggy hair, a preposterously oversized head, and eyes concealed by black shades. He sees me and waves. It's Hawkins, and I'm surprised he recognizes me. I met him only once, and then only briefly. He slaps me on the back before I can reintroduce myself. "I know you, dude."
A week earlier I'd stopped by the CU athletic department to see if I could maybe, possibly, hang around Hawkins for a while. Permission is not a given with these requests. I expected to jump through hoops of bureaucracy before I could proceed, if I could proceed at all. Yet within three minutes I was standing in Hawkins' office, talking to the coach directly.
"I understand how everybody wants to know all they can about Rob Lowe and these celebrities in the public eye," he said then, questioning my interest in him. "I'm just your average cat on the street. I lie around on my couch and scratch my balls just like everyone else."
Now we walk across the Valor campus together. A wind cuts across the quad, making me shiver. I say something about the low temperature.
"Cold?" he quips. "This ain't cold."
I tell him that I'm from Miami, and although I've been in Colorado for a year I still haven't adjusted to the climate. He looks at me but doesn't say anything. I can't tell if he's processing my words or if maybe I'm boring him. His gaze drifts from me, past the campus, to a horizon of subdivisions and shopping centers. We take a couple more steps toward the gym.
"I think of myself as indigenous," he says finally. "When people ask where I'm from, I like to say I'm from Earth."
2) Know Where You Came From
Dan Hawkins, the 23rd head coach in Colorado football history, actually hails from Bieber, California, a place that, to be certain, is on Earth. More specifically, Bieber is in the northeast corner of California, near the Nevada and Oregon state lines. But there's not much actually there, no town to speak of, only the intersection of a couple roads. There are no stop lights, Hawkins says. The lone grocery store is the size of a Conoco mart.
"I call it the Dust Bowl," says Misti Hawkins, Dan's wife.
Hawkins was the sixth generation of his family born into the Big Valley, in which Bieber is located. His father, Norman, was a logger. Money was often tight; the family lived in trailers and sometimes cashed food stamps at that tiny grocery store. No member of the Hawkins family ever went to college, save one aunt who attended Chico State. Yet Dan, the second of three brothers, always harbored aspirations beyond Bieber. All of those aspirations centered on football. He slept with a football instead of a teddy bear. He wept when NFL Films compared a Washington Redskins drive to Paul Revere's famous ride. He wrote letters to Dick Butkus asking how he could join him in the NFL.
"He doesn't have a hobby," says Norman Hawkins, who still lives in California. "You know everybody has got a hobby of some kind, but that guy doesn't. It's football. It's football. It's football. He doesn't collect nothing. It's football, strictly."
Because he wanted to play football, Dan Hawkins enrolled at Siskiyous, a junior college in Weed, California, and then at the University of California-Davis, becoming the first person from his high school to play football at a four-year college. He was a fullback for Davis, a powerhouse program at the Division II level. Over the summer he'd return to Bieber to saw logs in the mill.
"It was hard, hard work throwing boards all summer long," Hawkins recalls. "A lot of guys were always chiding me, saying, 'Oh you'll come back. Everybody always ends up coming back.' And I remember thinking to myself, 'I ain't coming back. I am not coming back.'"
When it became clear Hawkins wasn't going to make it to the NFL as a player, he landed a succession of coaching jobs, first at UC-Davis, then at Christian Brothers High School in Sacramento, then at Siskiyous, then at Sonoma State University. It was a tough life: He and Misti were raising four kids, including Cody Hawkins, now a quarterback at CU. They couldn't pay all the bills every month. Dan eventually took the head coaching slot at Willamette University in Oregon, which is now a Division III school. In 1998, he accepted an assistant coaching position at Boise State University, and within two years became head coach. Over five seasons as head coach in Boise, he compiled one of the best records in Division I-A. This year, Hawkins enters his third season at Colorado. His contract, which was recently extended until 2012, pays him more than $1 million a year.
Hawkins finished his miserable first season 2-10. Last year his Buffs improved to six wins and a bowl game invitation, and his last recruiting class included Darrell Scott, a Californian considered the best running back prospect in the country. Things are trending upward, but the Buffs are playing nonconference games this year against national powers West Virginia and Florida State. Then there are Big 12 games against Nebraska and Texas, along with resurgent Kansas and Missouri. The odds of another bowl game are slim. But as the old athletic chestnut goes: If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best. Hawkins' clear, simple goal at Colorado is to be national champion.
"If you knew where he came from, and to reach that level where he's at?" asks Norman Hawkins. "I'll be right honest with you: His first game at Colorado, my wife and I, we was up in that suite up there? There's all that hoopla, and Ralphie running? When I seen Dan standing in the middle of it, I had to cry."
3) Be Honest
Dan Hawkins says the sort of things you can't say because they're not PC.
"This is the sort of thing you can't say because it's not PC," Hawkins tells me as we're walking back to the locker room after a spring practice. He'd been talking to Kyle Ringo of the Camera about the graduation rates of schools playing in the NCAA men's basketball tournament. One of the schools, University of Kentucky, graduates just 23 percent of its players. The rate is one percentage point lower at University of Connecticut, a basketball power. Graduation rates at most football programs aren't nearly so bad. Colorado's football graduation rate, for instance, is 68 percent.
"Why is basketball so much lower?" Ringo asked.
"You know why," Hawkins replied. "You know exactly why."
I thought I knew what he was getting at, but I needed to ask the question directly. As we walked up the hill to the Dal Ward Athletic Center and the coaches' locker room, I asked Hawkins to please clarify.
"It's because the players who arrive at college unprepared to work are largely black, and most of the players who play basketball are what? Black, right?"
When I contacted Hawkins later to confirm his quote, he was concerned. "I do not remember saying it exactly like that. Anyone who would read that statement would get a totally false perception of who I am or what my meaning is." Hawkins went on: "Clearly, like I believe I said to you at one time, I identify with many of our students of color. Coming from where I came from, I know how hard it is for first-generation students to make it. When you have no experience and very few role models to follow it is hard. That is why I think many students of color struggle."
At his speech to the students of Valor Christian, Hawkins managed to quote Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs, Mahatma Gandhi, and John Wooden on the need to enjoy the process because the process is all there is. "According to a survey I just read, 70 percent of people in society, if given a chance to lie, cheat, or steal, they will," he told the Valor crowd, setting up his reference to the Indian spiritual leader. "Gandhi lived by the ultimate truth: Tell the truth. Tell the truth all the time."
Sometimes when I'd ask Hawkins a question he'd cringe, making visible the battle between his desire to tell the truth and his knowledge that an honest answer might not look so hot in print. Eventually, inevitably, he would answer the question.