This Time, It's Different
For better or worse, I am a veteran of five coaching hires at the University or Colorado. At the time these new coaches were introduced, all five seemed like good moves ...
My first new head coaching hire was Bill McCartney, in 1982. McCartney was the defensive coordinator at Michigan before coming to Boulder, and no one knew much about him. Remember, this was long before the "instant information" internet age, where names of coordinators like Chow, Muschamp, Malzahn, and McElwain are familiar to football fans. In 1982, few knew much about their own team's coordinators, much less about anyone else's. Not that there was anyone around in Boulder to care - McCartney came to the University of Colorado in June, 1982, when school was out for the summer (Chuck Fairbanks bolted for the USFL after spring practice). Still, the reaction was favorable from those who were paying attention to the team. The legendary columnist for the Boulder Daily Camera, Dan Creedon, wrote at the time of McCartney's hire: "Not since another Michigan native, Sonny Grandelius, swept CU committees off their feet 24 years ago, has a coaching candidate made as favorable impression here as McCartney did". (Grandelius coached the Buffs from 1959-61).
Next came Rick Neuheisel, in 1995. McCartney was only five years into his fifteen year "lifetime" contract extension when he ann0unced his retirement, so Coach Mac's departure was a surprise. Assistant head coach Bob Simmons was McCartney's choice for successor, but there were other notable candidates, among them: Illinois head coach Lou Tepper; Northwestern head coach Gary Barnett; defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz; and offensive coordinator Elliot Uzelac.
Instead, Colorado administrators went with a brash young coach who had never even been a coordinator, Rick Neuheisel. "The thing I like about him is that he's got a tremendous competitive background," said athletic director Bill Marolt. "He's been very successful at every level, but the thing that impressed me is that he didn't accomplish those things as a celebrated athlete coming out of high school. He was somebody that walked on (at UCLA); somebody who took the challenge."
For Buff fans hoping for another long-term coach, Neuheisel seemed like a natural fit for Boulder. And he was ... for four years.
"Slick Rick", as he became derisively known, left his guitar and reputation behind in a move to Washington to coach the Huskies after the 1998 season. Jilted, CU hastily put together a nationwide search in the wake of Neuheisel's surprise announcement. Names from four years previous were again circulated, including: Bob Simmons, now the Oklahoma State head coach; Lou Tepper at Illinois; Gerry DiNardo at LSU; Joe Tiller at Purdue; even CSU head coach Sonny Lubick.
The Buffs settled on Denver Bronco assistant coach Gary Kubiak, who had coached at his alma mater, Texas A&M, before helping the Denver Broncos win their first Super Bowl after the 1997 season. A press conference was scheduled for Monday, January 18th ... then Kubiak balked.
With the calendar showing only a few weeks left in the 1999 recruiting season, Colorado quickly turned to its second choice, hiring Gary Barnett away from Northwestern. Barnett had been McCartney's offensive coordinator, and had performed a miracle in taking the Wildcats to the Rose Bowl. Again, the reaction was largely favorable. "I see his picture in the national championship picture in the football office," noted cornerback Ben Kelly. "I'm sure he knows what it takes to get to that level." Barnett waxed nostalgic in his introduction as the new Colorado head coach in 1999, noting that he knew he was home when he saw the RTD buses on the Boulder turnpike. "Return to Dominance" became the theme (anyone else still have their "RTD" buttons and sticker?), and Barnett did take the Buffs to their one and only Big 12 championship.
Scandals and mismanagement of those scandals, however, led to the downfall of Barnett in 2005. After a 70-3 loss to Texas in the Big 12 championship game, Barnett was let go. While the team prepared for the Champs Sports Bowl game against Clemson, Colorado began its search for a new head coach. On December 16, 2005, new athletic director Mike Bohn introduced his "home run" hire, Boise State coach Dan Hawkins.
With 53 wins in only five seasons with Boise State, Hawkins seemed to be a great choice for righting the ship off the field, while continuing the Buffs' success on the field (four Big 12 North titles in the last five seasons under Gary Barnett). Bohn conducted only two interviews - Jon Embree and Dan Hawkins - with the Embree interview seen by many as a "courtesy" interview. Bohn had his man. "I don't think there is any question we are talking about a bright future here," said Bohn.
And few disagreed. "He is a good hire, and I don't think there is a better one out there on the board," said Jerry Crabtree of Rivals.com. "I think he can still recruit and win in the Big 12." The 2006 preseason magazines gushed over the hire. "Hawkins was the ideal choice for Colorado," said Athlon Sports, "which needs an image makeover more than anything." The Sporting News graded the ten new coaches of the Class of 2006, and gave out only one "A+" ... to Dan Hawkins.
Unfortunately for the Buff Nation, Dan Hawkins could not translate his success in Boise into success in Boulder. The bloom fell off the rose in game one of the Hawkins' era, a 19-10 loss to 1-AA Montana State ("One of the worst losses in CU history", proclaimed the Daily Camera the next day). Colorado stumbled to a 2-10 record in 2006, and Hawkins, and the Buffs, never recovered, with Hawkins being fired with three games remaining in the 2010 season after accumulating a 19-39 overall record.
On December 6, 2010, Jon Embree became the 24th head football coach at the University of Colorado. Embree inherits a program which has posted five consecutive losing seasons, the second longest streak in school history (the longest drought was six seasons, between 1979-84).
How can Embree succeed where Hawkins failed? What makes the hiring of a member of the "Buff family" a better bet than the "home run" hire we all thought (myself included) Dan Hawkins would be?
The answer came to me when I was reading a cubuffs.com interview with Embree a week or so after he was hired. "I know I'm a first-time head coach, but everything is planned out," said Embree, who had earlier indicated that he had been plotting out names for his staff since June ... just in case. "People have just got to be patient. It's like panicking because you're down 10-0 in the first quarter," said Embree. "There's plenty of time left and nothing to panic about."
Every coach has a "plan", but Embree's quiet confidence seems to be a seismic shift away from what the Buff Nation received from Dan Hawkins.
What's the difference? Let's take a look at the all-important topic of recruiting.
I was never a fan of Dan Hawkins' philosophy of recruiting. Colorado was always last amongst Big 12 schools to fill out their recruiting class. Hawkins believed in letting high school seniors play out their final season before making a commitment. He didn't see the necessity of obtaining a verbal commitment from players interested in playing for Colorado, believing that players should be allowed to make all five of their official visits and enjoy the process. In the end, Hawkins' reasoning went, the players which ultimately signed with Colorado would be comfortable with the program, and confident in their choice. A content player would be a better player.
That philosophy didn't work for Hawkins in Boulder.
It did work for Hawkins in Boise ... and that's my point.
Dan Hawkins, fresh from his 53 wins in five seasons with Boise State, was trying in Boulder ... to build another Boise State.
The philosophy of waiting out the recruitment period and building a solid class of recruits in December and January makes perfect sense ... for Boise State. Coaches for the Boise State Broncos, Dan Hawkins and Chris Petersen included, are not going to regularly succeed in going up against USC, Washington and Oregon for five-star recruits during the summer before their senior seasons in high school. Early commitments to play on the Smurf Turf do not come from players being courted by national powers. Instead, the what works for Boise State is to stay in the game with a number of good, but not great, recruits, in hopes of melding them into great players once they get to campus. (In the five years under Chris Petersen, the average national ranking for their recruiting class has been 77th; Colorado, during the the Hawkins' era, averaged a recruiting class ranking of 48th).
This is the philosophy Dan Hawkins, consciously or unconsciously, brought with him to Boulder. While Texas annually has most of their recruiting class sewn up just days after the previous class was signed, Colorado was content to go through the summer with only a handful of recruits in hand. The Buffs would then make a late push in January, filling out the class with three-star players with great potential. True, there were a few exceptions - Darrell Scott and Nick Kasa were national recruits which signed on with Colorado late - but for the most part, Colorado's roster is made up of three-star players with "potential", obtained after competitors in the Big 12 had loaded up on four- and five-star talent.
Sometimes the "sign 'em late" philosophy worked. While Colorado fans were gushing over the signing of Darrel Scott and Ray Polk on signing day, 2008, the Buffs also inked that day a late signee no one was talking about - a short, quick back who had potential as a return man - Rodney Stewart.
But college football is, at the end of the day, a numbers game, and talent most often wins out. Dan Hawkins' concept of allowing the big dogs to chase after the five-star recruits while waiting patiently for three- and four-star to see the benefits of coming to Boulder late in the recruiting cycle just didn't pan out. It worked in the WAC; it didn't work in the Big 12.
Let's take the Boise State analogy one step further ...
There is a second reason why Dan Hawkins' philosophy did not translate from Boise to Colorado - scheduling.
For the first three quarters of the 2010 regular season, a great debate raged throughout the college football world: Did an undefeated Boise State team deserve to play for the national championship? The argument against the undefeated Broncos was that Boise State had, in essence, a two-game schedule. Defeat Virginia Tech in the season opener, and take down Nevada late, and Boise State would be a BCS lock. This was unfair to the teams in the major conferences, the argument went, who had to play a minefield of good to great teams all season long.
Fortunately for purists, Boise State stumbled against Nevada, and the argument became moot.
But if you think about it, lining up a team to play Boise State's schedule is just what Dan Hawkins did at Colorado. Sure, there was a game or two each season in which the Buffs rose to the occasion - taking down No. 3 Oklahoma in 2007; No. 21 West Virginia in 2008; No. 17 Kansas in 2009; and Georgia in 2010. Dan Hawkins built a team which could compete at the highest level ... for one or two games a year.
Unfortunately for Hawkins and the Buff Nation, Colorado's remaining schedule was not filled with games against the likes of New Mexico State, San Jose State, and Utah State, but rather Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Missouri. Does anyone believe that the talent on the 2010 Colorado roster would not have been competitive in the Western Athletic Conference? The 5-7 Buffs defeated the only WAC team they played this past season, Hawai'i, by the final score of 31-13. After spotting the Warriors a 10-0 lead, Colorado went on a 31-3 surge - and this was against a team which posted a 7-1 record in the WAC in 2010. If Colorado had played Boise State's schedule, Dan Hawkins would have an 8-4 or 9-3 team, and would currently be preparing for a bowl game.
An over-simplification? Perhaps. But the "Boise State theory" holds true in looking back at the past five seasons under Dan Hawkins in Boulder. Instead of building a team which could compete annually with Texas, Oklahoma, and Nebraska, Hawkins held true to his philosophies, and built a team capable of being dominant ... in the WAC.
Jon Embree knows better. Jon Embree played for a 1-10 Colorado team which, as he described it, was so far behind in facilities that the Buffs had "one dumbbell in the weight room". He witnessed the resurgence, however, and coached Colorado teams which finished with ten wins or more. He understands the difference between a team trying to compete and one prepared to dominate. Embree also knows that it all starts with his coaching staff. "I don't want people who want jobs; I want people who want to be here," said Embree. "It takes people who have a little bit of passion for this place."
Embree is calmly calling for patience from the Buff Nation starved for success. "I'm just waiting this out," said Embree in speaking about assistant coaching hires - but he could have as well been speaking about the state of the entire program. "There's probably going to be a lot of frustration by fans, but I feel good about this."
For now, with the painful wounds of five straight losing seasons still fresh, Colorado fans, for the first time in almost five years, are also "feeling good about this" ...
More on Colorado football, including recruiting updates, at www.cuatthegame.com