Black Friday

After the hoopla of bowl season winds down, January is supposed to be a relatively quiet time for college football fans. Recruiting is in full swing, and there is a great deal of information for the truly faithful to digest and debate. But for most fans, January is the lull before February signing day, after which thoughts of the team are mostly shelved until fall.

For the second time in four years, though, January was an active time for Colorado football. In 1999, January brought the surprise defection of head coach Rick Neuheisal to Washington. January, 2003, brought defections of a different sort.

On Friday, January 10th, the Colorado football program lost half of its backfield.

First, record-breaking junior Chris Brown announced that he would forego his senior year at Colorado and would make himself eligible for the 2003 NFL draft. Several hours later, sophomore Marcus Houston asked for and received his unconditional release from his scholarship.

Neither of the announcements were completely unexpected.

Brown had accomplished all he had to accomplish in a Colorado uniform. Despite maintaining during the 2002 campaign that he would return for 2003 as a Buff, there were a number of unknowns for Brown to consider: his position coach, Eric Bieniemy, had left to coach at UCLA; Colorado would be breaking in a new offensive line and new quarterback; and the Buffs’ early season schedule for 2003 was not ripe for success. In addition, Brown had witnessed Willis McGahee, a superstar running back at Miami, blow out a knee in the Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State. Projected as a top ten first round pick in the 2003 draft, McGahee would now be facing a long rehabilitation.

It was not a secret that Marcus Houston was unhappy at Colorado. Even after being pronounced as healthy late during the 2002 season, Houston’s playing time was limited. Chris Brown was setting records, Bobby Purify was the accomplished backup, and when both Brown and Purify went down, it was freshman Brian Calhoun who was called upon to carry the load against Nebraska. Houston, one of the nation’s most promising recruits in 2000, a recruit whose declaration of his choice for school was carried live on a Denver radio station, was by the end of 2002 relegated to fourth string.

There was hope after the season that Houston would seek a new start with the Buffs. Houston had a public run in with position coach Eric Bieniemy previously, but now Bieniemy was leaving for UCLA. And now Chris Brown was going pro, perhaps creating a new opportunity. Apparently, however, the damage had been done. What made the news worse for Colorado fans was the report that Houston would now play for rival Colorado State.

What else could go wrong for the Colorado football program?

Six weeks earlier, the Buffs were riding high. Fresh off of a 28-13 win in Lincoln, CU was 9-3, ranked 12th, and heading back to the Big 12 title game. A humbling loss to Oklahoma and an embarrassing loss to Wisconsin later, the Buffs were 9-5 and searching for answers.

Off the field, the Buffs had lost two assistant coaches to UCLA. While movement of assistant coaches in the off-season is common, usually the coaches are either moving up in status (assistant to coordinator; coordinator to head coach), or are returning to their alma mater. Neither was true here. Jon Embree and Eric Bieniemy were both CU graduates, but were making lateral moves in their profession. Yes, they would be paid more by UCLA, but these were defections from a head coach who “bled black and gold”. Two good recruiters with long and strong ties to the program were willing to leave. A troubling notion for many CU fans.

Now, in one January afternoon, half of the CU backfield was lost. 2002 had kicked off with visions of Craig Ochs handing off to Chris Brown and Marcus Houston for the next two seasons. Now all three were gone. Head coach Gary Barnett now needed to shore up his coaching staff, keep key recruits from defecting, and reassure the Colorado fans that the CU ship was not now listing to one side.

January is usually a busy enough month for college football coaches.

Gary Barnett’s January, 2003, was much busier.

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