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In 2010, shortly after being hired as the men’s basketball coach at the University of Colorado Boulder, Tad Boyle went house hunting. Although Boyle’s contract paid him a base salary of $589,980 a year, the collapse of the housing market was still fresh. Boyle gave his real estate agent a number he didn’t want to go above. She pushed back: Surely the new men’s basketball coach at Colorado’s flagship public institution of higher education—one of the highest-paid state employees—could afford to splurge. “If I get my ass fired,” Boyle responded, “I don’t want to be upside-down in a house.”
Today, Boyle is considered the best basketball coach in CU history, having guided the Buffaloes to the NCAA Tournament five times in 11 seasons (it likely would have been six if COVID-19 hadn’t canceled the 2020 event). Before Boyle’s arrival, the school had qualified for March Madness only twice in the previous 41 years. “He’s doing things that I don’t know if anybody else will ever be able to do,” says Mark Turgeon, the men’s basketball coach at the University of Maryland and Boyle’s longtime friend.
Boyle, in other words, no longer has to fear the ax. That’s not to say he’s at peace, though. His reward for turning a historical afterthought into arguably the most stable program in the Pac-12 conference seems to be more pressure. Wins now feel less like reasons to celebrate and more like brief reprieves. Defeats are almost unbearable. “Oh, man, I can’t sleep,” Boyle says. “It’s terrible.” He visited a therapist to try to gain perspective, but it didn’t help.
So, the goal is to keep winning—to become a conference champion and a Sweet 16 squad. The question is whether those are realistic expectations for a school that spends less on basketball than most of its conference rivals and is located hundreds of miles from the closest recruiting pipeline. “Everything about Boulder, Colorado, and the University of Colorado makes it an unbelievable place for school, for living, for all that,” says John Calipari, the men’s basketball coach at the University of Kentucky. “It’s just a tough basketball job. … What happens is what Tad has done—you’ve got to feed the beast. You’ve built it to a point. And now, it eats more.”
Boyle is no stranger to being the face of basketball in Colorado: Four decades ago, the six-foot-four shooting guard led Greeley Central High School to a state championship. Touted as the best recruit to come out of Colorado in decades, Boyle spurned CU and signed with the University of Kansas.
At the time, KU was a breeding ground for coaches. Larry Brown, the only man to win both NBA and NCAA championships, took over the program before Boyle’s junior year. Calipari was a grad assistant. Two of Boyle’s teammates, including Turgeon, would go on to coach Division I programs.
Boyle’s only ambition, however, was the NBA—a dream quickly tripped up by his own two feet. “I used to play him one-on-one,” Calipari says. “And I used to beat him all the time. He had no chance. I’d throw left hooks on him. I’d fake right, go left, hook, done. … Yeah, he’s got bad feet.” Boyle was the Jayhawks’ captain his senior year but never a consistent starter.
If he wasn’t going to be able to make it in pro ball, Boyle decided he’d make his fortune anyway. After graduating from KU in 1985, Boyle moved to Greeley, and later Boulder, became a financial adviser, bought a Toyota Camry and a house, got married, and coached high school basketball on the side.
Then, in the early 1990s, a car ran a red light and smashed into Boyle’s Camry head-on, knocking him unconscious. Boyle remembers the accident as the moment he realized there was more to life than money. (He’d also gone through a divorce and was ready for a new start.) So, when Turgeon called a few months after the crash to let him know that a $16,000 a year assistant job at the University of Oregon had become available, Boyle, at 31, sold his house in Boulder and moved into a studio apartment in Eugene.
The next few years saw Boyle ride the assistant coach carousel from Oregon to the University of Tennessee to Jacksonville State University in Alabama, before Turgeon was hired to lead Wichita State University in Kansas in 2000 and Boyle became his top assistant. Boyle helped transform the Shockers from an also-ran into a Sweet 16 team by 2006. When it became obvious that Turgeon would be leaving for a bigger program, Boyle asked his boss to approach the athletic director to find out if he would be chosen to take over at Wichita. The AD at the time said Boyle would receive consideration; he interpreted that response as a maybe. “That’s all I needed to hear,” Boyle says.
In 2006, Boyle turned his attention to a job in his home state: The University of Northern Colorado had recorded a combined 13-45 record over the previous two seasons and was transitioning from Division II to Division I on a Division II budget. With his ties to the community, Boyle seemed like an obvious choice—until the school pitched a salary. “What they offered was laughable,” Boyle says. “And I laughed at it. I said, ‘Thank you, but no thanks.’ ” Eventually, the school asked how much he would need to take the job. Boyle, who’d had three kids with his second wife, Ann, by that point, said he couldn’t afford to take a pay cut. So UNC offered Boyle $105,000 a year, the same salary he’d earned as an assistant at Wichita State.
Boyle’s first year in Greeley did nothing to foster a Krzyzewskian reputation. The Bears finished 4-24 and were ranked 336 out of 336 NCAA Division I teams. UNC gradually improved, though, winning 25 games in 2010—the same year the CU position became available.
The Buffs settled on three finalists for the job: Boyle; Mike Dunlap, who had guided Metropolitan State University of Denver to two Division II national titles in the early 2000s; and Steve McClain, an assistant coach on the previous CU staff who had the support of Buffs legend Chauncey Billups. Boyle wasn’t too worried about McClain, but he figured Dunlap’s local ties and history of success made him the front-runner.
After a sleepless night following his interview, Boyle called then CU senior associate athletic director Tom McGrath, who was leading the search, and said that, unlike the other candidates, he’d already committed to Colorado—the state. Boyle’s last-minute plea was unnecessary. McGrath told him to quit worrying and to expect a call from CU’s athletic director, Mike Bohn. They were going to need him in Boulder very soon.
Despite Boyle’s initial fear of being fired, Colorado has actually been patient with its coaches. Jeff Bzdelik, Boyle’s predecessor, lasted only three seasons, but he left of his own volition for a better job at Wake Forest University. Before Bzdelik, Ricardo Patton stuck around for 12 years. Coaches rarely, however, survived Boulder with their reputations intact. “It became a graveyard,” McGrath says. “They were all great hires at the time, and it just didn’t happen.”
The program’s ineptitude—from 1976 to 2010, the Buffs went a combined 453-532—stemmed in part from indifference. “It was like, ‘Hey, get through the football season, and, oh jeez, we got basketball opening next week,’ ” McGrath says.
That began to change under Bohn, the CU athletic director from 2005 to 2013. McGrath says Bohn scraped together $2.4 million to pay for certain amenities, but the program’s inflection point was the building of a basketball-specific practice center. Before, men’s basketball shared a single gym with women’s basketball. “When I got there,” Boyle says, “their ice bath was a Rubbermaid tub you could buy at the lawn and feed store in Greeley.”
The school unveiled a $10.8 million, privately funded basketball and volleyball practice facility attached to the CU Events Center, the team’s home arena, in August 2011. But there was a bigger issue: No amount of money could move Boulder closer to the country’s most fertile recruiting grounds (California, Texas, and the Southeast). Fortunately for CU, Boyle’s travails through basketball’s lower tiers prepared him for a life of finding jewels among the jumble of high school players that more illustrious programs disregarded. Players like Spencer Dinwiddie.
From Los Angeles, Dinwiddie was the California high school player of the year in 2011. Yet neither USC nor UCLA recruited him because the six-foot-three guard was rail thin. Boyle, though, could envision the player Dinwiddie would become after a few semesters in the weight room and spent years courting him—only for UCLA to swoop in with a half-hearted come-on near the end of the recruiting process. Nevertheless, Dinwiddie signed with CU. “I’ll never forget the day,” Boyle says. Dinwiddie went on to star for Boyle’s first NCAA tourney teams—in 2012, ’13, and ’14, though he was injured during that last season—and now makes $18 million a year playing for the Washington Wizards.
Despite the challenges of the CU job, Boyle keeps winning. In many respects, last season’s team was the quintessential Boyle roster, filled with seniors who had not been highly rated coming out of high school; the coach developed them into a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament. There, during practice sessions, Boyle ran into Michigan State University coach Tom Izzo. Izzo thought Georgetown, CU’s first-round opponent, presented a good matchup for the Buffs. But when he heard Boyle would likely face Florida State next, Izzo said, “Ouf. I don’t like that.” Sure enough, the Seminoles beat Colorado 71-53, denying Boyle his first Sweet 16 appearance.
Today, Boyle is building a house in Boulder. The lot sits along Boulder Country Club, where Boyle is a member, and the ranch-style home will contain four bedrooms so each of his children—he and Ann recently became empty nesters—can have their own when the family gets together. At more than 5,000 square feet, it’ll be big enough to host team gatherings, and a patio will look out at the Flatirons.
There is very little chance of Boyle leaving his new digs. CU athletic director Rick George says Boyle will be his basketball coach as long as George remains in charge. Boyle, despite offers from well-heeled universities, says he has no plans to leave the Buffs for another school. He might not coach much longer anyway.
George and Boyle meet regularly to discuss the direction of the program. George not only wants the Buffs to make the NCAA Tournament every year, but also believes they need to start progressing into the later rounds. He wants CU basketball to be a topic of conversation on ESPN. “I think if you asked Tad,” George says, “he would say that he has pretty much what he needs [to meet those expectations].”
But during the 2019-’20 fiscal year, the most recent period for which data is available, CU spent just $6.5 million on basketball, according to the Equity in Athletics Data Analysis. That was the third-smallest amount in the Pac-12 and about half of what UCLA, the conference’s biggest spender, shelled out. Boyle does indeed say that he has the resources he needs to win. But Calipari, whose Kentucky team spent more than $18 million over the same period, can afford to be less diplomatic: “Coaches win games. Administrations win championships. … And it’s not just all salary. But how do we take care of staff? Do we have the positions we need with social media? Do we have a video guy that’s with us 100 percent of the time?”
CU men’s basketball does not. Nor does the squad fly charter to all of its games, and Boyle takes commercial planes for recruiting trips, which means he’s waiting in line at security while his rivals are wooing players. It’s not lost on Boyle that he built his success at CU on top of the new practice center—the construction of which his predecessor, Bzdelik, baked into his contract.
However, if Boyle is lobbying behind the scenes for more funding, arguing that he needs more amenities to succeed, he did himself no favors this year by signing the best prospects of his tenure. This season’s Buffs, who play their first game on November 9 against Montana State University, will be bolstered by the 13th-ranked recruiting class in the country, according to 247sports.com. Although Boyle says he doesn’t pay attention to rankings, the so-called experts believe CU’s latest additions—such as K.J. Simpson—have the potential to be stars.
Like Dinwiddie, Simpson grew up in Los Angeles. Unlike Dinwiddie, Simpson was coveted by five major programs—not that you could tell by observing the first Buffs practice of the 2021-’22 season. Simpson is slow. Simpson doesn’t listen. Simpson doesn’t run the play right. Finally, Boyle bellows across the gym, “K.J. Simpson! I don’t know how coachable you are. But we’re going to figure that out.” When the team turns to a drill called “pressure free throws”—if someone doesn’t make his shot, the team does sprints—Simpson is the first player Boyle calls to the line. The four-star prospect misses.
This is the downside of being elite. Overlooked players like Dinwiddie—or, says Boyle, McKinley Wright, the star point guard from last season’s team—had something to prove. Simpson has always been wanted. “He’s not playing with a chip on his shoulder, and I’ve got to let him know that,” Boyle says. “I’ve got to create that chip for K.J.”
(Read more: Nikola Jokić Week: Unraveling Our Reluctant MVP)