Beaten Like a Red-headed Stepchild
“Beaten like a red-headed stepchild” is an old phrase with a seemingly clear derivation.
Stepchildren are often seen as being the disfavored children in the family, and one with a clearly different genetic makeup from the stepparent – as in a different hair color and complexion – was easy to single out for scorn and ridicule.
And it’s a phrase I have been familiar with most of my life … but fortunately not literally.
My parents were divorced when I was about ten, and both were remarried within a few years. So, for going on about 40 years now, I have been, in fact, a red-headed stepchild.
In the world of college football, the phrase can be likened to the outcasts of a given conference. These are the teams which really don’t belong, but are either kept around simply due to tradition, or other benefits derived outside of the gridiron.
In the SEC, the red-headed stepchild is Vanderbilt. The Commodores were a power in the old (very old) Southern Conference. Vanderbilt enjoyed 19 consecutive winning seasons – between 1915 and 1933. But Vanderbilt joined the Southeastern Conference in 1933, and the fun soon stopped. Vanderbilt, the only private university in the SEC, has never won a conference championship in football, and has been to all of six bowl games in its history (one of those coming in 1984 under George MacIntyre, father of CU head coach Mike MacIntyre).
In the ACC, the red-headed stepchild is Duke. The Blue Devils, a charter member of the Atlantic Coast Conference, last won an outright ACC title in football in 1962. Duke has been to nine bowl games in its history … with only three of those coming in the past 50 years.
In the Big Ten, the red-headed stepchild used to be the Northwestern Wildcats. Northwestern, like Vanderbilt, is a private university in a league with powerful state schools as competition. Before Gary Barnett came along in the mid-1990’s, Northwestern hadn’t won a Big Ten title since 1936, and hadn’t been to the Rose Bowl since 1948. Even with the resurgence started by Barnett, and continued by one of his former players, Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern still holds an all-time record against current members of the Big Ten of 259-458-22 (.366).
In the Pac 8/10, the red-headed stepchild was Washington State. The Cougars play in Pullman, a town so remote that visiting teams don’t fly into or stay there on road trips. In a league with teams in or around Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco and Phoenix, Washington State always seemed out of place. Dating back to the 1918 Rose Bowl, the Cougars have made all of ten bowl appearances in their history, and play in a stadium which seats 33,522 … roughly 1/3 the size of the Rose Bowl.
When Colorado joined the Pac-12 in 2011, the Buffs were not seen as the candidate to replace Washington State as the league’s red-headed stepchild. The Buffs had a proud history, a national championship, a Heisman trophy winner, and a long history of conference titles (at least one in every decade CU has played football, except for the 1950’s, when Bud Wilkinson’s Oklahoma teams dominated the Big Seven).
If anything, it was to be Utah, not Colorado, who would don the mantle of the scorned step-child in the new conference. The Utes were not the first choice of the league for an expansion partner, and Utah was making a step up from the Mountain West Conference, while Colorado was making a lateral move from the Big 12.
Sure, Colorado was coming off of a 5-7 season in 2010, and the Dan Hawkins experiment was a bomb, but the Buffs were sure to bounce back in the new league. Meanwhile Utah, though an impressive 10-3 in 2010, was all but certain to crash against a conference slate of Pac-12 powers.
Instead of folding, Utah has held its own as a new member of the Pac-12, and now has a win over No. 5 Stanford as proof positive that it is a viable member of the new league.
As for Colorado … the wait for credibility continues.
Colorado has now endured 11 straight conference losses. Never in school history – not in the days of leather helmets, not in the days of the actual Depression – have the Buffs been this bad. Even in the darkest days of Chuck Fairbanks and Dan Hawkins, the number of consecutive conference losses never surpassed eight.
And the Buffs are losing by enormous numbers. Other than the 42-35 loss to Utah to end the 2012 season, during the 11-game conference losing streak, the Buffs have not been within 25 points of any Pac-12 opponent.
That’s not losing, that’s being crushed.
That’s not being competitive, that’s being toyed with … by teams which Colorado is supposed to consider as peers.
So I guess it was no surprise that this week there was a rumor posted on another fan site about CU being kicked out of the Pac-12. The site reportedly quoted an unnamed CU official stating that, if Colorado did not improve on the field in the next few seasons, that the league would revisit taking in some Big 12 teams into the league, and dumping Colorado.
The statement was quickly – and tersely – repudiated by Dave Plati, CU’s assistant athletic director for media relations.
However, the fact that anyone felt that such a story was even worth putting out there is disturbing. Colorado is in such a deep hole right now that it will take years, if not decades, to climb out.
In two-plus seasons as a member of the Pac-12, the Colorado football team has posted a 3-18 conference record, and it’s not likely that the Buffs are going to break even on their remaining six conference games this year. As a result, even if the Buffs were to start posting winning records in conference play next year (5-4, or even 6-3), and go bowling on a consistent basis with 2-1 or 3-0 non-conference records, it would still take until the 2030’s for Colorado to have an overall record in conference play of over .500.
Now we’re talking Vanderbilt bad. Duke bad. Washington State bad.
Red-headed stepchild bad.
“I told the young men in the locker room, we’ve got to keep battling, keep fighting, keep working,” said Mike MacIntyre after the Buffs’ 54-13 drubbing by Arizona State. “The one thing I told them, and I truly believe this, you’ve got to give me your effort and you’ve also got to give me your heart. Sometimes you can give effort but you don’t give your heart. It’s kind of like you put your heart out there and get it stomped on, it hurts and you don’t want to do it again. Well, you’ve got to put your heart out there . . . I see them doing that.
“I did see progress this week in practice, I promise you I did. I was hoping we’d play a little better and we didn’t. But I have seen progress.”
For now, the Buff Nation must believe Mike MacIntyre, and believe that the Buffs are making progress.
Just like we believed in Dan Hawkins.
Just like we believed in Jon Embree.
The wait continues …