Five Stages of Grief
For those dealing with a loss, the “Five Stages of Grief” has been a mantra for decades.
The Buff Nation has lost its football program, and, in the past month, has had to endure the Five Stages of Grief – Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance.
The rest of the college football was in agreement when it came to the fortunes of the University of Colorado football program.
Everyone, and I mean everyone, predicted the Buffs would finish last in the Pac-12 South. Never mind the fact that, since World War I, Colorado had never finished last alone in conference play. 2012 would be the year the Buffs would occupy their first basement since 1915.
Athlon had the Buffs as only the 84th-best team in the nation. CBSSportsline had the audacity to pick at No. 107. In the Pac-12 media poll gave Colorado a total of 164 points. The team picked to finish last in the Pac-12 North, Oregon State, garnered 205 points. The Buffs were not only the worst team in the Pac-12 South, according to those who followed the Pac-12 for a living.
The Buffs were the worst team in the Pac-12. Period.
“No”, cried the Buff faithful. Colorado had lost 28 seniors, to be sure, but there was new young talent everywhere. The coaching staff which had entered the 2011 season with a head coach and two coordinators who had never held those positions before had had a year to learn their trade. The schedule was much kinder than had been the 2011 gauntlet of 13 straight games. The Buffs had erased the road losing streak, and had won two of their final games in November.
Matching the three wins of 2011 was a certainty. Five wins and continued progress was a realistic possibility.
Six wins and a bowl game were the goal.
With the Buffs sequestered, closed away from peering eyes, there was no way to chart progress. Eyebrows were raised when Jordan Webb was annointed as the starting quarterback just eight days into fall camp, but, we reasoned, the coaches know what they are doing, and perhaps Webb will just be a care-taker to help all of the new young talent as the team got its feet wet in the early season, when the victories would come most easily.
We were in denial …
The anger came less than two quarters into the first game of the season.
Up 14-3 against Colorado State, the Buffs had turned the ball over near midfield.
No problem. The defense forced a three-and-out, with no damage done.
Less than a minute remained before halftime, and the Rams were forced into a punting situation. The Buffs had a two-score lead, and would get the ball back to start the second half.
Then, the inexplicable happened. Instead of allowing the ensuing punt to fall harmlessly to the turf, the Buffs attempted to field the ball. Fumble. One play later, the score was 14-10, and the momentum for the game, and perhaps the season, was turned.
Up in the stands, we talked about not doing anything silly (read: stupid) before the end of the half. When the punt was muffed, I took my CU at the Game hat and banged it multiple times against the seat in front of me – a rarity for me (I like to think of myself as being more the Hank Stram type, with a suit and tie and rolled up program in my hand). Colorado had taken a good situation, and, by poor coaching/communication/execution (take your pick), had given a team with an eight game losing streak new life.
Then, in the third quarter, the Buffs gave their fans additional reason to fear the upcoming season. Colorado coaches were selling CU as a power rushing team. Yet, on fourth-and-goal at the one yard line, the Colorado play call was a roll out pass. The play, much to CU fans anguish, failed miserably.
That the play could have worked is immaterial. That the Colorado coaching staff did not simply line up and muscle the ball in was a clear sign that the Buff Nation had been sold a false product.
I give you the Sacramento State game, fourth quarter.
The home game against the Hornets from the Big Sky Conference started out the way it was supposed to, with the Buffs taking a 14-0 lead midway through the first quarter.
All was not exactly right with the world, as the stench from the CSU loss still lingered, but a win was a win. The Buffs needed to work on their fundamentals for the remaining 52 minutes, pad their stats, and start worrying about Fresno State.
Instead, Sacramento State stayed in the game, clawing its way back, then taking the lead.
By the start of the fourth quarter, Colorado was back on top, 28-24. A dominating victory was now out of the question, and the Buff Nation was left to simply beg and plead for their team to pull out a victory.
Three times Colorado took possession of the ball in the fourth quarter, holding onto a lead. Three times the Buff fans pleaded with the offense to put together a drive, to put the game out of reach, to seal the victory.
Three times the offense failed.
When Sacramento State took over possession for the last time, with just over two minutes to play in the game, the bargaining began in earnest.
One play, we asked of the defense. Just make one play! We promise not to ridicule your making us sweat out a game which you should have won handily! We promise to praise your victory!
Just make one play!
Of course, it was not to be. Sacramento State 30, Colorado 28.
It was hard to find words which would console Buff fans.
It was hard to find reason not to believe that Colorado, which had never had a ten-loss season before 1980, was now looking at the first winless season for the program since Year One, 1890. That year, the Buffs lost all four games they played, and were out-scored by the ridiculous total of 217-4.
Now, Colorado fans had to face the reality that the Buffs were on pace for an 0-12 season. The season was not only going to be bad, but it was going to be bad in historic fashion.
The easiest two games were in the books, and they were both losses. Five Pac-12 foes were now ranked, including teams which had posted losing seasons in 2011, fired their coach, and then scored upset victories over ranked teams in the second game of their new coaches’ tenures. Why could other programs turn things around in two games, while Colorado was going backward in two seasons?
It was one thing to be smoked by USC and Oregon. Now, Colorado was looking at being smoked by everyone on the schedule.
A loss to a 1-AA team? Again? How in the name of all that is Holy was that possible?
The Colorado football program had prided itself in being one of only a handful of schools which had never dipped its toes into the 1-AA/FCS pool. Let Kansas State play the directional schools, Buff fans sniffed, we’ll take on all comers.
In 2006, Colorado lowered its standards for the first time … and lowered its caliber of play.
The 19-10 loss to Montana State in the first game of the Dan Hawkins’ era was a shock. But the Buffs were not done. Colorado had to rally to defeat Eastern Washington in 2008, and had now fallen to a Sacramento State team which had won only two FCS games in the past 11 months, and those victories were over Northern Colorado and Idaho State, teams which posted a combined 2-22 record in 2011.
As Bill Murray famously said at the beginning of Stripes, after he had lost his job, his girlfriend and his apartment all in the same day …
“And then, depression set in”.
It took less than one half of one quarter of the Fresno State game to end all reasonable expectations for the University of Colorado football program.
Colorado was already down 21-0, and had done pretty much everything wrong it could have.
Then, it got worse.
The Buffs sent me scrambling for the record book, in order to find out how bad the beating was, as records were being set on almost every play.
The longest rushing play against Colorado? 90 yards, by Walter Mack of Kansas in 1980.
Not anymore … Robbie Rouse, 94 yards for a touchdown to make the score 28-0 in the first quarter.
The longest passing play against Colorado? 98 yards, Kelly Donahue to Willie Vaughn, again Kansas, this time in 1987.
Still a record … Derrick Carr’s pass to Isaiah Burse covered only 97 yards, making the score 35-0 in the first quarter.
The most points in the first quarter? 29, by Oregon in 2011 (I had remembered the record as being 28, by UCLA in 1980, in my very first game as a CU freshman, but I stand corrected).
Not a record any longer … as Fresno State, a 4-9 team in the WAC in 2011, put up 35.
The most points in the first half? 56, again by UCLA in 1980 (by the way, the Bruins pulled in the reins in the second half. The final was 56-14).
Almost, but not quite a new record, as the Bulldogs had to settle for a 55-7 halftime lead.
There is simply no other way to put it … Colorado is the worst team in Division 1-A football.
The remainder of the 2012 season will be a quixotic run to see if the Buffs can find someone willing to overlook them long enough for Colorado to avoid an 0-12 finish. Fans of other teams will ridicule us, mock us. Some will do even worse … pity us.
That’s okay. We have reached the final stage of grief, acceptance.
We know that the Buffs are beyond repair. We know that the coaching experiment with Jon Embree, as much as we wanted (hoped?) it would work, is a failure of epic proportions.
Can Colorado fire a coach in September? Not realistically.
But, barring a miracle – the experiment will last only two years.
The Colorado football program as we have known it has died. We need to accept that.
We need to push through the final stage of grief … and move on.