Preseason: 2004 – Barnett suspended – A chronology of the recruiting scandal
Preseason – 2004
The setting for Preseason, 2004, for the Colorado Buffaloes had its origins over two years earlier.
On December 7, 2001, Colorado football players and recruits attended an off-campus party. At least one woman indicated she was raped at the event, though no sexual assault charges were ever filed. Four players did have their scholarships revoked for providing alcohol to minors at the party.
It was this recruiting visit which initiated a firestorm of controversy which dominated Colorado football in the early months of 2004.
A brief chronology:
On December 9, 2002, a year after the party, a woman, later identified as Lisa Simpson, filed a federal lawsuit against the school, alleging that she was raped by players and recruits of Colorado. The suit also accused Colorado of fostering an environment hostile to women.
Another year later, on December 10, 2003, a second woman sued Colorado, also alleging that she was raped by football athletes.
January 14, 2004. Former Colorado soccer player Monique Gillaspie files suit, alleging that she too was raped by two football players during the party.
January 28, 2004. A deposition given by Boulder County district attorney prosecutor Mary Keenan is released, accusing the Colorado athletic department of using sex and alcohol as recruiting tools. These allegations are quickly denied by Colorado head coach Gary Barnett and athletic director Dick Tharp. Colorado Governor Bill Owens immediately demands a public accounting.
February 2, 2004. Colorado President Elizabeth Hoffman announces an independent commission will look into Keenan’s allegations.
February 17, 2004. Former Colorado kicker Katie Hnida tells Sports Illustrated she was raped by a teammate in 2000.
February 18, 2004. Gary Barnett is placed on administrative leave over comments about Hnida, including a comment that Hnida was an “awful” football player.
February 20, 2004. Assistant coach Brian Cabral is named interim head coach.
As a result of Barnett’s suspension, the Colorado football team conducted spring practice in 2004 without a head coach. While Gary Barnett was later reinstated, and the numerous investigations resulted in no new criminal charges being filed, the cloud hanging over the Dal Ward Athletic Center was dark and low-hanging. Self-imposed recruiting restrictions, including the elimination of player hosts and most official on-campus visits during the football season, did little to appease the Colorado critics. The Buffs received more bad news later in the summer of 2004 when wide receiver/kick returner Jeremy Bloom exhausted his appeals with the NCAA to be able to play football and ski professionally at the same time.
Preseason, 2004 – Roster Issues
The outlook on the field did not provide much solace to the Colorado faithful. The 2003 Buffs had struggled to a 5-7 mark, and, while there was talent returning, there was no way to measure how the off-season turmoil would affect the team. The players, for their part, were saying the right things. Joel Klatt, returning starter at quarterback, reflected the party line, stating, “Everybody on this team came here for two reasons: to get an education and play football for the Buffaloes. When we’re together, when were with each other, we can concentrate on those things.”
How full was the Colorado cupboard? A bright spot was Joel Klatt. The junior quarterback threw for 2,614 yards and 21 touchdowns as a sophomore in 2003. The question in 2004 was: who would he throw to? Very little experience returned at wide receiver. Senior Ron Monteilh, who had all of 18 catches in 2003, led a talented but untested corps of wide-outs, including Evan Judge, Blake Mackey, Mike Duren, and Dusty Sprague.
The Colorado running game faltered badly in 2003. After successful 2001 and 2002 seasons, the Buff rushing attack fell to 113th nationally (out of 117 teams) in 2003, carrying the ball for only 93.3 yards/game. Returning was Bobby Purify, who in 2004 at least had a more experienced offensive line to run behind.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Buffs went back to the future in bringing in Mike Hankwitz as defensive coordinator. Hankwitz served in the same position under Bill McCartney (1985-91), posting some enviable defensive numbers. In 2003, the Buffs surrendered an average of 33.2 points/game, 98th in the nation. Gone was the 4-2-5 defense, replaced by a 4-3 scheme. Much more zone defense was projected in order to protect a porous secondary. The defensive backfield had a number of players returning, but this was a unit which had surrendered 27 touchdowns through the air the previous year.
Much was expected from an untested linebacker corps. Combining for only 75 tackles between them in 2003, Akarika Dawn, Thaddaeus Washington and Brian Iwuh were to be supplemented by the import of true freshman Jordan Dizon. The pass rush and run defense were to be manned by defensive end Abraham Wright, a junior college transfer, and senior defensive tackle Matt McChesney.
At least the kicking game was solid. Sophomore kicker Mason Crosby returned after connecting on seven-of-nine field goal attempts in 2003, while junior punter John Torp looked to improve on his already impressive average of 42.5 yards/kick. The main issue for the special teams, with the loss of Jeremy Bloom, was who was to take over the kick return duties.
Preseason, 2004 – The Schedule
Overall, the Buffs looked like a team hoping to turn a 5-7 record into a bowl-worthy 6-5 squad. The schedule did include nine bowl teams from 2003, but was still less daunting than the previous year’s slate. The Colorado State home opener was set for Boulder instead of Denver, followed by a trip to play Washington State in Seattle. A home game against the Mean Green of North Texas set up a conference slate wherein the Buffs traded Oklahoma, Baylor, and Texas Tech for Oklahoma State, Texas, and Texas A&M.
No publication put the Buffs in their Top 25, and no one picked the Buffs to win the Big 12 North. In the South Division, Oklahoma and Texas were the consensus picks to dominate, while in the North, the field was wide open. Defending Big 12 Champion Kansas State was an obvious choice to win the North Division, though a trendy pick was Missouri behind all-everything quarterback Brad Smith. Nebraska was considered an unknown quantity, with new head coach Bill Callahan looking to improve on the 58-19 record posted by ousted coach Frank Solich.
When the preseason polls came out, USC was pegged as the number one team in the nation. Big 12 teams were well represented, with Oklahoma coming in at No. 2, Texas at No. 7. The North was represented by Kansas State (No. 12) and Missouri (No. 18).
Colorado was nowhere to be found in the preseason poll, un-ranked to start the year for only the fourth time in the past sixteen seasons. But the Buff players, who had one of the worst off-seasons any group could hope to endure, polls were the least of their concerns. They had a game with Colorado State for which to prepare. The Rams were coming to Boulder for the first time since the annual battle was moved to Denver for six games. CSU was coming off of a 7-6 season, with quarterback Justin Holland stepping in for Bradlee Van Pelt. Good news for the Buff fans was that only two starters returned for the Ram defense.
The Buffs were likely to be able to score in their home opener for 2004, but would Colorado be able to stop the Rams from scoring?