The Denver Post called the firing of Colorado State University head football coach Sonny Lubick “the end of an era.” The Rocky Mountains News stated, “It was time.” Even the Fort Collins Coloradoan punted, saying only that the decision lacked integrity. But no one has thrown out the one word that best describes this scenario: shameful.

Now, before you accuse me of being sentimental over practical, let me just say I would almost always choose the latter. After all, winning trumps losing any day of the week and twice on gameday. But winning isn’t everything–sometimes.

Before 1993, the CSU Rams were floundering in college football oblivion, forever in the proverbial basement of Division I ball. The program had not won a conference championship in four decades. In fact, they had only seen seven winning seasons since 1960–and three fully winless seasons in that same time frame. The stands at Hughes Stadium stood nearly empty on crisp fall Saturdays. No one, not even ESPN, was talking about the Rams. But all of that changed the day Sonny Lubick returned to CSU after a stint at Stanford and a successful term as defensive coordinator at the University of Miami.

The turnaround was nearly immediate. The Rams had a breakout season in 1994, going 10–2 and taking a bid to the Holiday Bowl. Lubick was that year’s Sports Illustrated National Coach of the Year. The triumphs didn’t end there. Lubick and his now-respectable Rams went on to win six conference titles, had 10 straight winning seasons, and accepted bids to nine bowl games in Lubick’s 15-year tenure. Lubick became the winningest coach in school history with a 108–74 record. His name is immortalized on the walls of the arena: Sonny Lubick Field at Hughes Stadium.

So if you want numbers, Lubick has them. But he also has something else: character. By all accounts–Mike Shanahan’s, Joey Porter’s, and Cecil Sapp’s included–Lubick is a stand-up guy. He cares for his players. He’s gracious. He’s classy. And he’s loyal, a trait with which CSU president Larry Penley and athletic director Paul Kowalczyk must not be familiar.
It was widely reported that over the years Lubick turned down multiple job offers from the likes of Kentucky, Oregon State, and Minnesota. Big job offers from big conferences where big-time players want to play. And where good coaches can reach Hall of Fame heights. Instead, Lubick chose to stay at CSU, make an 80th-ranked salary (out of 119 programs), and continue to build a program he raised from infancy.

And he did it well. So well that he became a victim of his own success. Lubick succumbed to the pressures of big–OK, bigger-time–football, where winning is everything. After giving CSU’s administration, fans, and boosters a taste of victory from 1994 to 2003, Lubick’s team struggled through three consecutive losing seasons. Which shouldn’t have been a surprise considering defensive coordinator Larry Kerr, special teams guy Brian Schneider, O-line coach John Benton, and offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild have all been picked off in the past five years by other teams. But the natives, now accustomed to winning, started becoming restless. And there’s nothing wrong or unusual about that. But there is something wrong with the way CSU reacted.

If Penley and Kowalczyk had taken a look around the current college football landscape, they would have seen at least two programs exhibiting a bit of integrity while facing a similar situation. Florida State University’s Bobby Bowden and Penn State University’s Joe Paterno are both legendary coaches at storied programs. They’ve had long, often-successful careers at their respective schools. Yet in recent seasons both have had lackluster, if not downright dismal, records. They are both still coaching. And you know why? They deserve the benefit of the doubt. They’ve earned the right to finish their careers as they see fit. And they should be able to decide when it’s time to go. At FSU and PSU, that has been exactly the sentiment of the universities’ higher-ups. Yes, Lubick has not won any national championships like Paterno and Bowden, but he holds the same distinction at his program that they do in theirs: He is the father of CSU football.

Perhaps it’s pointless to lament what has already happened. But Kowalczyk had better hope he can find a worthy replacement, someone that doesn’t mind going to a program that has just drop-kicked their legendary leader. Someone that is happy to take a third-tier salary. A coach that’s OK with landing in a conference that lacks an automatic BCS bid. A person that takes care of his players. A coach with class, grace, humor, and, above all, loyalty. What CSU fans should be most worried about is the potential that Lubick’s firing may have cemented CSU as a stepping-stone program: one of those places where fans are perennially disappointed when a rising star graces the sideline only to leave a few years later for better money, a bigger stadium, and more glory.

Yes, Kowalczyk had better pray he can find a coach that has all of those traits–plus, an ability to win games. Good luck.