Colorado Football: A Look Back at The Buffs' Last Four "Transition" Classes

Stuart WhitehairAnalyst IJanuary 29, 2011

BOULDER, CO - NOVEMBER 20:  The Colorado Buffaloes offenses huddles up against the Kansas State Wildcats at Folsom Field on November 20, 2010 in Boulder, Colorado. Colorado defeated Kansas State 44-36.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images


Transition Classes

It is axiomatic that a new head coach will have a difficult time with their first recruiting class. After all, the new coach comes in late in the recruiting cycle, usually in December, well after other schools have their incoming class of recruits fairly well formulated. What’s more, in most instances, the new head coach is coming into a situation where the former coaching staff has been let go, with losing records most often the culprit.

Jon Embree became the 24th head coach in Colorado history on December 6th. He took over a program mired in a five year streak of losing records, the second longest streak in Colorado history.

How will the Class of 2011 match up with the first recruiting classes of other Colorado head coaches?

Dan Hawkins – Class of 2006

Unlike Jon Embree, Hawkins inherited a team with a winning record. In fact, Colorado had won the Big 12 North title four of the previous five seasons, including the previous two. By the same token, the atmosphere in Boulder in December, 2005, was not conducive for recruiting. For several seasons previous, the black cloud of scandal had hung over the program. To make matters worse, the Buffs had just limped home to end the season. Ranked 22nd in the nation to start the month of November, Colorado fell on the road to Iowa State, 30-16. From there, the wheels fell off, as Colorado lost to Nebraska, 30-3, before being embarrassed by Vince Young and the Texas Longhorns, 70-3, in the Big 12 championship game.

Dan Hawkins’ first class was devoid of four star players. The highest ranked amongst the 22 players signed in February, 2006, was the coaches’ son, Cody Hawkins, ranked by Scout as the 21st best quarterback in the nation. The only other players ranked in the top 100 at their positions were defensive end Jason Brace, safety Jimmy Smith, tight end Steven Fendry, linebacker Marquez Herrod, and running back Demetrius Sumler.

Rivals ranked the Colorado class 48th in the nation, while Scout had the Buffs in at No. 50.

How did the Class of 2006 turn out? … Say what you want about Cody Hawkins (and I have said my share), but the top ranked player of the Class of 2006 etched his name into the Colorado record books. By the time his career was over, Hawkins held most of the career passing records at Colorado, including passing yards, attempts, completions, touchdowns, and interceptions. The defensive secondary was also aided considerably by the Class of 2006, with Jimmy Smith, Jalil Brown, and Cha’pelle Brown all becoming longtime starters (only Smith was a three-star recruit, both Browns were two star prospects). Linebackers Michael Sipili and B.J. Beatty were also part of the Class of 2006, with only Sipili considered to be a three-star prospect by both services.

The most decorated member of the 2006 Class was seen as three-star tight end by Rivals; a two-star offensive tackle by Scout. His name? Nate Solder.

Gary Barnett – Class of 1999

Like Hawkins, Barnett did not inherit a losing team. After guiding the Buffs to an 8-4 record, including a 51-43 victory over Oregon in the Aloha Bowl, Colorado head coach Rick Neuheisal suddenly, and surprisingly, bolted for Washington. While Colorado had slipped to a 5-6 record in 1997, the first losing season for the Buffs since 1984, Neuheisal had posted a 33-14 overall record in four seasons in Boulder. What was more, Neuheisal had not exactly left the cupboard bare. In the 1999 preseason rankings, Colorado opened the season ranked 15th in the Associated Press poll. Barnett wanted Colorado not to just continue it’s recent relative success, but stated that his goal was for Colorado to “Return to Dominance”.

The recruiting Class of 1999 was small, just 16 members. It was the smallest recruiting class for the Buffs since 1987 (12 members). The “steal” of the Class was supposed to be junior college transfer Robbie Robinson, expected to contribute immediately in the defensive backfield. The offensive line was bolstered by three new names: Karl Allis; Jordan Gehring; and Dan Major. On defense, there were three new linebackers: Dryden Dunsmore; Joey Johnson; and Kory Mossini. With the small size of the class, the Colorado Class of 1999 was not highly rated nationally, but was seen as being a “solid” class.

How did the Class of 1999 turn out?Medford Moorer turned out to be a better safety than the more highly touted Robbie Robinson. Moorer was a second-team All-Big 12 performer as a senior after earning honorable mention honors as a junior. In 2003, Moorer led the team in tackles with 111. Wide receiver Derek McCoy was also an honorable mention honoree as a senior, and finished his career as the No. 6 wide receiver all-time, with 2,038 yards. McCoy also tied Charles E. Johnson for the school record of 20 receiving touchdowns. As seniors, offensive tackle Karl Allis won the team’s Tyronee “Tiger” Bussey Award for overcoming the most adversity; Moorer was named the team’s outstanding defensive player; and McCoy won the team Fugitive Award (symbolizing “I don’t care” attitude for the benefit of the team).

Still, whatever momentum Barnett had in coming back to Boulder from Northwestern in 1999 did not materialize into a stellar recruiting class.

Rick Neuheisel – Class of 1995

Of the most recent Colorado coaching hires, Rick Neuheisel took over in the best situation. The Buffs had just concluded the 1994 season with an 11-1 record, ranked third in the nation. The 1994 season had been the season of “The Catch”, Colorado’s first Heisman trophy winner, Rashaan Salaam, and a convincing 41-24 victory over Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl to send Bill McCartney out in style. When Neuheisel took over, Colorado could boast that it was one of only ten schools nationally which had strung together ten consecutive winning seasons.

There was plenty of momentum from which Rick Neuheisel could build, but he knew that he could last only so long without continued success. “You get a honeymoon period,” said Neuheisel at the time. “Then you go into the fishbowl and get labeled. The question then becomes, ‘Can you last?’. It’s not what you inherit. It’s what you build.”

The Colorado Class of 1995 was 22 strong, and one of the most decorated in CU history. Twenty of the 22 signees earned some kind of All-American honors (roughly equivalent of a four-star rating in later years), with a record 17 of the signees being “multiple” All-Americans (meaning the prospect was honored as a prep All-American by two or more organizations). Of the 15 players in the Class of 1995, three were placed on the “Dream Team” (five-star players): offensive tackle Shane Cook; defensive tackle Fred Jones; and defensive end Clyde Sanders. Also earning mention on at least three All-American lists were: defensive back Tavon Cooper; defensive tackle David Gates; offensive tackle Ryan Johanningmeier; offensive tackle Corey Kish; offensive guard Chris Morgan; linebacker Brandon Southward; and quarterback Jeremy Weisinger.

How did the Class of 1995 turn out? … If anything, the recruiting Class of 1995 illustrates that it takes more than high school accolades to make up a successful college football player. The Class of 1995 had everything going for it – Coming onto a team which had just enjoyed a storybook season; a team with ten consecutive winning seasons; a team with a hot, young head coach – but it didn’t work out. From their rankings as prospects, Colorado should have been dominant for years to come, with the recruiting Class of 1995 leading the way. As it turned out, though, it’s hard for Buff fans to remember many of the above names. Fred Jones had a good career at Colorado, as did Ryan Johanningmeier … but that’s about it.

Otherwise, you have to look to the players who were less decorated to find names with which you are more familiar. Only two of the 22 recruits did not receive prep All-American honors, but they are names you know, linebacker Hannibal Navies and kicker Jeremy Aldrich. By the end of his career, Navies was 14th on the all-time list for tackles, with 274, while kicker Jeremy Aldrich was second on the all-time scoring list at Colorado, coming in behind only Eric Bieniemy. Aldrich also finished his career with the most field goal attempts in school history (64) and field goals kicked (48). His 75% success rate was also a school record.

So, the most decorated recruiting class in Colorado history, but little to show for it.

Bill McCartney – Class of 1983*

The first recruiting class for Bill McCartney was not really a transition class, hence the asterik.

Bill McCartney was hired as the head coach at the University of Colorado on June 9, 1982. That’s correct … June. Chuck Fairbanks, who had been the head coach for the previous three seasons (compiling a 7-26 record along the way), bolted for the New Jersey Generals of the USFL shortly after spring practice, 1982. The recruiting class of 1982, as a result, was all recruited by Fairbanks. McCartney’s first recruiting class, the Class of 1983, at least had the advantage of getting to know McCartney and his staff during their senior seasons in high school, and observe the style of play the Buffs were putting on the field under McCartney.

Still, McCartney and his coaches were up against some long odds when it came to recruiting. After McCartney’s 1982 team finished with a 2-8-1 record, Colorado was on a streak of four consecutive losing seasons. What’s more, the 1982 Buffs had not shown considerable improvement under McCartney, finishing 89th in the nation in total offense; 83rd in the nation in total defense; 88th in scoring offense; and 84th in scoring defense. It was not a surprise, then, when few of the 25 recruits signed by McCartney attracted much in the way of national attention.

There were several exceptions. Tight end Jon Embree, from Cherry Creek high in Denver, earned honorable mention All-American honors, as was recruited by Oklahoma, USC, and Ohio State. Rick Wheeler was Embree’s quarterback at Cherry Creek, as was an All-State selection. Barry Helton was the A-8 Colorado Player-of-the-Year – at quarterback – three years running at Big Sandy high in Simla, Colorado. Eric McCarty was the Colorado Offensive Player-of-the-Year playing for Boulder high, with the fullback choosing Colorado over Michigan, USC, and Stanford. Kicker Dave DeLine was an all-state player at Mullen high in Denver. Also coming to CU from Mullen was safety David Tate, who chose Colorado over Indiana, Oregon, Kansas State and Utah.

There were also a few out of state prospects with good credentials, including cornerback John Nairn from Ann Arbor, Michigan, wide receiver Lance Carl from Fort Madison, Iowa, and cornerback Tommy Streeter from Miami, Florida. For the most part, however, the Class of 1983 was a home grown class. Of the 25 incoming freshmen, over half, 13 in all, were from the state of Colorado.

(Note: there is another player which bears mention who was a member of the CU recruiting Class of 1983, Ed Reinhardt. Reinhardt was not a highly acclaimed recruit, as he was injured most of his senior year in high school. Reinhardt was one of only three freshmen to play in 1983, and set a school record with ten catches in the 1984 season opener against Michigan State. Reinhardt then suffered a life-threatening head injury at the end of the second game against Oregon. Reinhardt remains a fan favorite to this day).

How did the Class of 1983 turn out? … Barry Helton, the A-8 quarterback star, turned out to be an All-American … punter, earning All-American honors in 1986 and 1987, and was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers. Tight end Jon Embree was an All-Big Eight selection, and was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams. Eric McCarty was an All-Big Eight selection, but at linebacker, not at fullback.

 The greatest contribution made by the Class of 1983, however, did not come by way of individual accolades. It was the fact that this particular class, Bill McCartney’s first, turned around the fortunes of a team mired in a streak of losing seasons. Success did not come right away, as the 1983 and 1984 teams also posted losing records, but the table was set, with Colorado going on to post winning regular seasons every year from 1985-1996. The recruiting class was not widely heralded, but they – particularly the 13 Colorado natives who chose to stay home and play for the Buffs – laid out the blueprint for success in Boulder.

And current Colorado head coach Jon Embree was a member of that Class of 1983.

So, what can we conclude from the Transition Classes of the past four Colorado head coaches?

Rick Neuheisel had a dream class, one of the most highly rated in school history, but it turned out that the Class of 1995 didn’t amount to much in the long term. Conversely, Bill McCartney had a group of local stars, not much known outside the state of Colorado, which produced the core of a team which laid the groundwork for a national championship.

Dan Hawkins and Gary Barnett, meanwhile, took over teams with winning records, but produced only mediocre first classes. One of Dan Hawkins’ two-star players, Nate Solder, though, is now being projected as a top ten first round NFL draft pick.

Just goes to show that you never know.

Guess we’ll have to wait four or five years to see what becomes of the Class of 2011 …

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