Championship Goals Can Destine Programs for Failure

Kyle KensingContributor IFebruary 21, 2014

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The prestige and revenue a winning football program brings a university athletic department has administrators pushing coaches for more success in shorter periods of time. Every program should aspire for championships, whether divisional, conference or national, but it's when these goals become too lofty that success can be perceived as failure. 

Colorado has yet to put together a winning season since joining the Pac-12 in 2011. That drought goes back eight seasons total, including the Buffaloes' final five in the Big 12.   

New Colorado athletic director Rick George unveiled a road map for the university's athletic future on Thursday, the entirety of which can be read on 

The key goals set for head coach Mike MacIntyre and the football program, which finished the coach's first season at the helm 4-8, are bowl berths in 2014 and 2015 and an appearance in the Pac-12 Championship Game by 2016.  

Via Anthony Cotton of the Denver Post, George explained that there is a motivation both in setting and publicizing such an ambitious goal:

We've talked with the coaches. We've talked with the student-athletes. Everybody's on board. And when you publicly state where you're going, it gives you energy; it holds you accountable. ... With this plan, we'll think differently. We'll work differently. It will make us better.

What accountability entails varies from person to person, and the definition ultimately falls to George. But the pressure to win, and winning soon will provide influence. 

College football's current climate is such that wins cannot come fast enough to placate fanbases or administrators. Colorado showed measurable improvement in MacIntyre's first season, and the athletic department gave MacIntyre a vote of confidence Thursday with a one-year contract extension through 2018, Sarah Kuta of the Daily Camera reports. 

Sentiment is positive now, but if Colorado isn't playing for a conference championship by the expiration of that deal, let alone by the ambitious 2016 deadline George announced, is MacIntyre's tenure deemed a failure? 

A Pac-12 case study is new USC head coach Steve Sarkisian, who stepped into a situation at Washington similar to the one that MacIntyre inherited at Colorado. Both programs were powerhouses in the 1990s but hit hard times in the 2000s before ultimately bottoming out. 

Oct 19, 2013; Tempe, AZ, USA; Washington Huskies head coach Steve Sarkisian looks on during the first half against the Arizona State Sun Devils at Sun Devil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports
Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Sarkisian won five games in his first season and seven in his second. The 2010 season was the first of four straight in which the Huskies reached bowl games after failing to do so the previous seven. It's a dramatic departure from finishing 0-12—but not dramatic enough to prevent Sarkisian from being derisively christened "Seven-Win Sark," a nickname Matt Zemek explored for Campus Insiders

The criticism leveled against Sarkisian is a reminder that it's not enough to simply win. A coach must also win at a championship level to be praised as a success. 

However, measuring success only through championships is a metric guaranteed to doom a program for failure. 

Compare Colorado's plan against the most noteworthy turnaround in the Pac-12 during the past decade, Stanford. Jim Harbaugh inherited a team that finished 1-11—the same record the 2012 Colorado Buffaloes compiled before MacIntyre's arrival. 

Like MacIntyre with the Buffaloes, Harbaugh's first Cardinal team made measurable strides at 4-8, yet it still finished near the Pac-12 cellar at 3-6 in conference play. His second Stanford squad also improved, but at 5-7, it still missed a bowl game. 

It wasn't until Year 3 under Harbaugh and his staff that the Cardinal made their first postseason appearance in eight years. 

MIAMI, FL - JANUARY 03:  Head coach Jim Harbaugh of the Stanford Cardinal celebrates as he is lifted up by his players including Zach Ertz #86 (L) after Stanford won 40-12 against the Virginia Tech Hokies during the 2011 Discover Orange Bowl at Sun Life S
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The next season was the program's best in almost four decades, culminating in an Orange Bowl victory. And yet, Harbaugh never won a conference championship. His successor, and current Stanford head coach David Shaw, did. However, the architect of one of college football's most noteworthy turnarounds would not have even won his division had the conference been split during his tenure.

That's no slight on Harbaugh, but rather a testament to just how difficult it is to win a conference championship. 

Certainly accepting the head coaching position at a program that has struggled for as long as Colorado's has means understanding the challenges. MacIntyre is a uniquely experienced coach to that end, having transformed San Jose State from one of the most downtrodden programs in the Football Bowl Subdivision to a team ranked in the final Associated Press Top 25 of 2012.

And even then the Spartans did not win the now defunct Western Athletic Conference championship.  

On the same week as Presidents Day, it seems fitting to refer to President John F. Kennedy's 1962 address at Rice University. It may be a stretch to compare President Kennedy's impassioned plea to Americans to support a space mission moon—though, the president himself drew the analogy of the Rice Owls taking on the Texas Longhorns. 

Nevertheless, there's a nugget within that applies to all ambitious goals. 

"We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard," he said, via the NASA transcript

Winning is hard. Winning at a championship level is harder. It's a benchmark all programs should strive to reach, but falling short does not always equal failure.


Kyle Kensing is the Pac-12 Lead Writer. Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.