Hoping Head Coach No. 7 is Lucky

Colorado will soon name the 25th football head coach in its history.

It will be CU head football coach No. 7 for me.

Of the previous six, three have been amongst the most successful in CU history. The other three are – by winning percentage – the worst three coaches who ever patrolled CU sidelines for at least two seasons.

Bill McCartney won more games (93) than any other Buff coach, and won CU’s only national champsionship. Rick Neusheisel has a better winning percentage (.702) than coach with four or more seasons at the helm except legendary Fred Folsom. Gary Barnett won division titles in four of his last five seasons in Boulder.

Meanwhile … Dan Hawkins (.320), Chuck Fairbanks (.212) and Jon Embree (.125) have the worst winning percentages of all of CU’s head coaches in history with two or more years in Boulder.

Which category will head coach No. 7 fit into?

Time will tell, but for today, the story is how the previous six transitions went down. For five of the six, they were not the first choice of the fans and/or the CU administration. Only one was a “home run” hire that everyone was excited to get.

Do you remember which one?

Transition No. 1, 1982

Outgoing: Chuck Fairbanks … Incoming: Bill McCartney …. The path not taken … Lavell Edwards

All you need to know about the head coaching transition in 1982 is the date Bill McCartney was hired … June 9, 1982.

You think its tough landing a strong candidate now? Trying coming up with one long after every coaching position for the year has been filled, after the recruiting classes have been signed, and after spring practices have been concluded.

Yet that is what CU athletic director Eddie Crowder had to deal with in June, 1982, after Chuck Fairbanks – who probably wouldn’t have lasted past the 1982 season anyway – took off to coach the New Jersey Generals of the United States Football League.

There was a favorite to replace Fairbanks – BYU head coach Lavell Edwards. Edwards at the time was the ten-year head coach of the Cougars, compiling a 75-33-1 record. BYU had just come off an 11-2 season, was ranked No. 13 in the country, and had won or shared six straight Western Athletic Conference titles.

Still, Edwards interviewed in near anonymity. The search for Fairbanks’ replacement wasn’t tracked by thousands of fans. There were no internet sites, and the only computers on campus were used by the geeky engineering students carrying around boxes of punch cards.

Neill Woelk recounted the scene recently for BuffStampede.com … “I remember being the only one in the parking lot and I was hungry so I ordered a pizza,” Woelk recalled. “The pizza guy asked, ‘Where are you?’ and I said, ‘I am in the parking lot at Folsom Field.’ So I sat there and ate a Domino’s pizza waiting for LaVell Edwards to come out.

“Exactly one week later, I am sitting there waiting and waiting and waiting because I hear this guy named Bill McCartney is in Crowder’s office and I am the only one in the parking lot and I sat there for almost five hours waiting for this meeting to get over with. Finally McCartney comes out and talks to me”.

McCartney, Michigan’s defensive coordinator, was hired as CU’s 20th head coach, even though most Buff fans had never heard of him. It worked out for Colorado, but it bears mentioning that in McCartney’s third season, 1984, Colorado went 1-10. That same season at BYU, Lavell Edwards had a Heisman trophy winner (Ty Detmer) and a national championship.

(The CU at the Game archived story on the hiring of Bill McCartney can be found here).

Transition No. 2, 1994

Outgoing: Bill McCartney … Incoming: Rick Neuheisel … The path not taken … Bob Simmons

November 19, 1994, was supposed to go down in Colorado history as a very happy day. CU quarterback Kordell Stewart, in a 41-20 home rout over Iowa State, became the first (and only) Big Eight player to top 7,000 total yards of offense. Rashaan Salaam not only surpassed the 2,000-yard barrier rushing, but did it in Heisman-trophy award winning style, going for a 67-yard touchdown run to give him 2,055 yards for the season.

Coach Bill McCartney trumped those stories, though, by announcing at the post-game press conference that he was retiring. McCartney was less than a third of the way through his “lifetime” 15-year contract extension. The Buffs were the No. 7 team in the nation, on their way to an 11-1 finish, so Colorado was the last team one would have thought to be looking for a new head coach, but there we were.

McCartney had his choice for a successor, Bob Simmons. Simmons had been on the CU staff since 1988, had coached linebackers and the defensive line, and was the assistant head coach under McCartney.

CU athletic director Bill Marolt, though, went with Rick Neuheisel, who had all of one year in Boulder as the Buffs’ quarterbacks coach.

Neuheisel was very successful his first two years in Boulder, going 20-4, but was less successful the next two, going 13-10, before bolting for Seattle and the Washington Huskies.

Simmons, the road not taken? Simmons was hired as the Oklahoma State head coach after the Neuheisel hire. In five seasons in Stillwater, Simmons posted a 30-38 record before being fired after the 2000 season.

(The CU at the Game archived story on the McCartney announcement and Neuheisel hiring can be found here … but just for fun, the story on the game, including the YouTube highlight of Salaam’s touchdown run, can be found here).

Transition No. 3, 1998

Outgoing … Rick Neuheisel … Incoming … Gary Barnett … The path not taken … Gary Kubiak

Colorado went 8-4 in 1998. Not a great year, by the standards of the early 1990’s for the CU program, but a successful bounceback year nonetheless, coming on the heels of a disappointing 5-7 campaign in 1997. The Buffs earned a trip to the Aloha Bowl, and took care of business against Oregon, 51-43, on Christmas Day.

In January, Buff fans were settling in to read about the next great recruiting class at Colorado, when instead their world was shaken by the announcement that head coach Rick Neuheisel was leaving to take the job at Washington. “It’s not about the money”, said Neuheisel, who was set to earn a $1 million salary in Seattle.

A number of names were mentioned for the plum job in Boulder – former assistants Bob Simmons, Gary Barnett and Gerry DiNardo. Purdue coach Joe Tiller and Colorado State coach Sonny Lubick were names which were thrown out. Even former head coaches Bill McCartney and Tom Osborne were under consideration.

But the job was offered to … Gary Kubiak. The Broncos assistant coach was the favorite to replace Barnett, and there was even a press conference scheduled to announce the hiring … before Kubiak backed out. Gary Barnett, head coach at Northwestern, was then hired to become the 22nd head coach in CU history.

The path not taken? Kubiak stayed with the Broncos for seven more seasons, before being named the head coach for the Houston Texans, a team which is 11-1 this season.

(The CU at the Game archived story on the Neuheisel announcement and the Barnett hiring – remember “Return to Dominance”? – can be found here).

Transition No. 4, 2005

Outgoing … Gary Barnett … Incoming … Dan Hawkins … The path not taken … n/a

Gary Barnett won the Big 12 North title four of five seasons between 2001-05. He won the Big 12 championship in 2001. He had an overall record of 49-39 …

But that was not enough to save him from the recruiting scandal, his own comments about a female kicker, and a 70-3 loss to Texas in the Big 12 championship game.

In announcing the firing after the loss to Texas, Colorado athletic director Mike Bohn was asked about options he hand in mind for a new head coach. “I have several in mind,” said Bohn,”but I think there’s really one that’s a great, great fit for us right now. He would be a home run, and I could look every one of those players in the eye, and also those recruits and fans and donors and (tell them) we’ve got a star.”

Bohn got his star, Boise State head coach Dan Hawkins.

And who could argue? Hawkins’ 53-10 record at Boise State ranked his as the winningest active coach in Division 1-A. His 53 wins were the fourth most all-time for a coach in their first five years. His Broncos had won four Western Athletic Conference titles in his tenure. On Boise State’s infamous home blue turf, the Broncos were 31-1. Overall, including stints in the NAIA, Hawkins’ record as a collegiate head coach stood at 93-21-1.

Some could disagree about Bohn’s decision to fire Barnett, but there were few who disagreed that Dan Hawkins was the best available option to replace Barnett.

(The CU at the Game archived story on the Barnett firing and the Hawkins hiring can be found here).

Transition No. 5, 2010

Outgoing … Dan Hawkins … Incoming … Jon Embree … The path not taken … numerous

There was little drama in the conclusion of the 2009 season about the firing of Dan Hawkins – he was already gone. Dan Hawkins was fired with three games to play, replaced by Brian Cabral, who rallied the Buffs to a 2-1 finish. Hawkins finished his 19-39 career at Colorado with a flourish, as the Buffs managed – somehow – to turn a 45-17 fourth quarter lead against Kansas into a 52-45 loss.

Hawkins was gone, with weeks of speculation as to who the next head coach would be.

Here is just a sampling of the names previewed here at CU at the Game the month leading up to the hiring of Jon Embree … Former Colorado head coach Bill McCartney, former Buff and current NFL assistant Jon Embree; former Buff and NFL assistant Eric Bieniemy, Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn; Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain. Next were two former head coaches, Mike Bellotti (Oregon) and Mike Leach (Texas Tech). There were also head coaches who already had jobs, but who may have been looking at Boulder for a change of scenery, Al Golden (Temple), Troy Calhoun (Air Force), Les Miles (LSU), and Pat Hill (Fresno State). What about a “hot” young offensive coordinator, like Stanford’s David Shaw or Oklahoma State’s Dana Holgorsen? Of course, Colorado could have taken a shot with long-time assistant coach Brian Cabral, or with an up-and-coming head coach like San Diego State’s Brady Hoke. Other hot coordinators included Paul Chryst at Wisconsin and Brent Venables at Oklahoma.

Pick out your favorite for the path not taken … Gus Malzahn went to Arkansas State  and now is back to coach Auburn; Jim McElwain, as we know, took the Colorado State job in 2011; Mike Leach returned to coaching, but at Washington State, while Al Golden took his talents to Miami and Brady Hoke to Michigan. David Shaw took a promotion to head coach at Stanford, while Paul Chryst went to Pittsburgh.

(The CU at the Game archived stories on the 2010 coaching search can be found here, while my essay on why I thought Jon Embree would work out, “Why you will (ultimately) like this hire”, can be found here).

Transition No. 6, 2012

Outgoing … Jon Embree …. Incoming ….  xxxxxxxxxxx … The path not taken … Butch Jones

The story as to who will replace Jon Embree, and whether they will prove to be a success or disaster, has yet to be written.

Buff fans know that former Cincinnati head coach Butch Jones will not be coming to Boulder, as Jones has opted to take his talents to Tennessee.

Will Jones work out in Knoxville? Hard to say. But what does appear clear is that, even if Jones had come to Boulder, he would have kept his eye on the coaching want ads, with Colorado in a no-win situation – If Jones couldn’t turn the program around, the Buffs would face another rebuiding project; but if Jones was successful, he would bolt for a better gig.

So, who will be the next head coach at Colorado?

Will he join the list of booms or busts in the Buff annals?

There is only one thing that I can say for certain … of the six coaching transitions I have been around for, five of them included other potential candidates, candidates who may have done better, or who may have done worse.

Only once in the past 30 years has there been a sure-fire, can’t miss, A+, everyone in the country is envious pick for the next CU head coach … and that was Dan Hawkins.

So here’s to Colorado not getting its first choice in 2012 …

3 Replies to “Hoping Coach No. 7 Is Lucky”

  1. Couldn’t agree more with Justin’s last comment “don’t fire one team builder without a clearly better team builder in place.” I remember watching the press conference after Embree had finished saying goodbye and then the press asked Bohn about what his plan was and he seemingly didn’t even expect that question. I was thinking “what? Did you fire Embree without ANY plan?” It is beginning to look that way.

    The coach I’m most interested in is MacIntyre from San Jose State. Had to build something from nothing. I hope they are having a serious chat with him.

  2. Nice write up Stuart. What a long, strange trip it’s been. I keep saying that I was against Embree’s firing, but it’s only gotten worse. Bohn came out and said that he had a top choice in mind (Butch), and yet he swung and he missed. Now, he’s left sifting through what remains (DeRuyter is the best of a not so good lot). I guess my point is that you don’t fire one team builder without a clearly better team builder in place.

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