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CU at the Game Podcast Companion – Coaching Changeovers

For the premiere episode of the CU at the Game Podcast, I got together with Brad Geiger to talk about the departure of Mel Tucker for Michigan State, and the hiring of Karl Dorrell as CU’s head coach. Since I joined the Buff Nation as a freshman in 1980, there have now been eight such turnovers in leadership.

Below is a brief history of the other passing of the batons …

One of the changeovers in the head coaching position at Colorado Brad and I discussed was the Rick Neuheisel departure for Washington in January, 1999.

Like most CU fans, I was less than enthralled when Neuheisel left.

1998 … Neuheisel’s Surprise Departure … 

… But it was true.

Colorado head coach Rick Neuheisel was leaving Colorado to coach the Washington Huskies. The prime motivation? Money. Neuheisel was receiving approximately $650,000.00/year to coach the Buffs. In Seattle, Neuheisel would earn over $1 million per year.

“I’m not motivated by money,” said Neuheisel after the announcement, “although I know that sounds a little funny right now.”

Real funny.

Neuheisel was just as disingenuous with his players, returning for a talk with his players two days after accepting the Washington job. “He just read from notes …. just like that”, said cornerback Ben Kelly of Neuheisel’s five minute speech to the team. “I think we expected a little bit more from him.” Linebacker Ty Gregorak perhaps best summed up the feelings of the team when he shouted after Neuheisel: “We’ll see you on September 25th”, a reference to Colorado’s upcoming 1999 game against Washington in Seattle.

Reaction was swift and brutal.

Few understood the motivation of Neuheisel; many felt betrayed. Mark Kiszla of the Denver Post was harsher than most. In his January 10th column, Kiszla opened the column with: “The Colorado Buffaloes have no football coach this morning, which is an improvement over their position 24 hours earlier.”

Continue reading story here

(For a contrary view from an insider … In the summer of 2019, I interviewed CU’s longtime media relations director, Dave Plati, who was privy to the conversations taking place between Neuheisel and the University of Washington. That interview: “Nobody realizes – Rick would have stayed” … can be found here).

Other CU coaching changeovers from the past 40 years … 

1982 … Bill McCartney … The Unlikely Choice …

Bill McCartney was hired as the University of Colorado’s 20th head football coach on June 9, 1982.

The significance of the date cannot be understated.

June 9th … four months after the 1982 recruiting class had been announced, two months after spring practice had been concluded, and only three months before Colorado’s home opener against the California Golden Bears on September 11th.

For a coach who had never been a head football coach for a program higher than the high school level (three years at Devine Child High School in Dearborn, Michigan) on-the-job training would not be a cliché but a way of life for the Buffs’ new head coach. (McCartney, while at Devine Child, did become the first coach in Michigan prep history to guide a football team and a basketball team to the state championship in the same season).

Coach McCartney did bring to the program a fine coaching pedigree, coming from Bo Schembechler’s program at Michigan, where he had been an assistant coach for the previous seven seasons. McCartney also brought with him a reputation for being a recruiter and a defensive strategist.

In 1980, after devising a six defensive back scheme to stop Purdue quarterback Mark Hermann, McCartney was actually named the Big Ten’s Player of the Week (it may be the first – and only – time that a coach was named Player of the Week).

The hiring of “Coach Mac” also brought questions.

McCartney was the polar opposite of Chuck Fairbanks, who had come to Boulder with a big time reputation and high profile. McCartney, by contrast, was low key and a virtual unknown. At Michigan, McCartney was in charge of defensive ends from 1974-76, moving up to the job of defensive coordinator in 1977.

Though he came to Colorado from the tradition-laden Big Ten, McCartney was not unfamiliar with the Big Eight. McCartney played in two Orange Bowls while a linebacker at Missouri, being named second team all Big Eight as a senior in 1961. While at Missouri, McCartney lettered 11 times in football, basketball, and baseball. As a senior, he was captain of both the football and basketball teams. He graduated in 1962 with a degree in education.

For his part, the man of quiet intensity did not back down from the daunting task which lay before him.

Upon his introduction to the media on June 9th, 1982, McCartney said: “I promise you we will have a program built on integrity, honesty, and character”.

Apparently, the local media was quite taken with the new coach. Columnist Dan Creedon of the Boulder Daily Camera reported on June 10, 1982:

“Not since another Michigan native, Sonny Grandelius, swept Colorado committees off their feet 24 years ago (Grandelius coached the Buffs from 1959-61, compiling a record of 20-11, including a Big Eight title in 1961) has a coaching candidate made as favorable an impression here as McCartney did.”

McCartney was equally complimentary of Boulder as 1982 season opened. McCartney was quoted in the program for his first game as head coach:

“The thrill of getting a head coaching job has not worn off. The big thing has been the overwhelming response that we’ve received from the media, boosters, and most recently the players. I am more excited now than ever before.”

Continue reading story here

1994 … Rick Neuheisel … Bill Marolt’s Bold Move …

Colorado Athletic Director Bill Marolt was faced with a difficult decision.

Replacing a head coach is always difficult, but in most instances the team needing new leadership is one in disarray, suffering from a string of losing seasons. McCartney was going out on top, with ten wins already posted with a bowl game still to play. Marolt received letters and faxes from “too many applicants to count”, and while several former CU assistants who were now head coaches (Illinois’ Lou Tepper, Northwestern’s Gary Barnett, and Vanderbilt’s Gerry DiNardo included) were considered, there were only four official candidates for the job. All four were in-house.

Four existing CU assistants were considered, each bringing different assets to the table. Defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz had seniority, with ten seasons in Boulder. Offensive coordinator and guards and centers coach Elliot Uzelac had the distinction of being the only candidate with head coaching experience (Western Michigan, 1975-80 and Navy, 1987-89). Assistant head coach and defensive line coach Bob Simmons already had the title of assistant head coach on his resume. Only Rick Neuheisel, the 33-year old quarterback and receivers coach, did not possess at least the title of coordinator.But Marolt chose Neuheisel.

“The thing I like about him is that he’s got a tremendous competitive background,” said Marolt of the 21st head coach in Colorado football history. “He’s been very successful at every level, but the thing that impressed me is that he didn’t accomplish those things as a celebrated athlete coming out of high school. He was somebody that walked on, somebody that took the challenge.”

Marolt’s reference to Neuheisel’s upbringing would become a familiar story to Buff fans. After leading his Tempe, Arizona, high school team to the state championship, Neuheisel walked on at UCLA, only to lead the Bruins to a Rose Bowl win his senior year (with Neuheisel being named MVP of the game). Brief stints in the USFL and NFL led to a job as an assistant at UCLA before being named to the CU staff February 28, 1994. Nine months later, Neuheisel was the Buffs’ head coach.

Head coach Bill McCartney, who had endorsed Bob Simmons for the post, was nonetheless was supportive of the choice: “He’s a very gifted young man who is equipped to do what is necessary.” All that was left was for Neuheisel to head out on the recruiting trail, convince 18 year olds that the winning tradition established by Bill McCartney would continue.

No small task.

Continue reading story here

2005 … Dan Hawkins … Mike Bohn’s “Home Run” hire … 

At the press conference announcing the departure of Gary Barnett, Athletic Director Mike Bohn indicated that he had a pick in mind. “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.”

After less than a week, and after conducting only two interviews (one with Jon Embree, which was seen by some as a “courtesy” interview), Bohn made his announcement.

The 23rd head football coach at Colorado would be the coach at Boise State, Dan Hawkins.

Dan Hawkins was announced as the new coach at Colorado on December 16, 2005. Hawkins brought with him to Colorado an impressive resume. His 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.

What was also important about the new 45-year old head coach was what he didn’t bring on his resume: any hint of scandal. In his years as a head coach and assistant coach, Hawkins’ teams had played without much in the way of controversy. “I don’t think there’s any question we are talking about a bright future here,” said Bohn.

Any negatives to the hiring? One immediate concern was that Hawkins would be coaching Boise State in the MPC Computers Bowl against Boston College on December 28th, leaving the Colorado players and remaining assistant coaches in limbo for the upcoming Champs Sports Bowl on December 27th against Clemson. Hawkins would not take over as Colorado head coach until January 1st, meaning that the reeling Buff players were on their own, with only lame duck coaches to assist them, as they attempted to rebound from three devastating defeats. It also meant that the Buffs’ new coach would have only a month to shore up the incoming recruiting class.

What about Hawkins’ ability to recruit against other Big 12 schools? “A good thing is I think he can still recruit and win in the Big 12,” said Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Jeremy Crabtree. “He is a good hire and I don’t think there’s a better one available on the board.”

And what about Hawkins’ lack of ties to the program? While someone like Jon Embree or even Dave Logan may have created a stir locally, Colorado had to think nationally if it wanted to compete nationally. Plus, it didn’t seem as if Hawkins was having much trouble winning over the locals.

At the same press conference announcing the hiring of the new coach, it was announced that a gift of $1.5 million had been made by Tom Marsico, a CU graduate, and his wife, Cydney, to help fund a long sought after indoor facility for the athletic department. In addition, Hawkins won the praise of former coaches Eddie Crowder and Bill McCartney. “One thing that struck me about this man was that one of his greatest strengths is his humility,” said Crowder. “Humility is an unbelievable power – and most great leaders possess great humility.” Added McCartney: “When you look at his resume, you of course see his winning percentage. But when you meet him, you also realize that he is very humble and obviously a family man.”

Continue reading story here

2010 … Dan Hawkins out … Jon Embree hired … 

We all know how that hire ended up.

Here is a look at some of the candidates being discussed before Jon Embree was hired …

Former Colorado head coach Bill McCartney, former Buff and current NFL assistant Jon Embree; former Buff and current NFL assistant Eric Bieniemy, Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn; Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain.

Next are two former head coaches, Mike Bellotti (Oregon) and Mike Leach (Texas Tech).

There are also head coaches who already have jobs, who may be 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 take 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 include Paul Chryst at Wisconsin and Brent Venables at Oklahoma.

Read full story here

2012 – Mike MacIntyre … “The Miracle at San Jose State” to be repeated in Boulder …

Notes and quotes from the introductory press conference … with some of the better quotes highlighted …

“I feel very blessed, and honored to be the head football coach at the University of Colorado. I just left a program of young men who cared deeply, who went from 120th in the nation to 24th in every poll in 2 1/2 years, raised their APR (Academic Progress Rate) from 930 to 981, and committed to being successful, and a coaching staff that was relentless”.

On his coaching staff: “I look forward to bringing a lot of those guys here to build something special here at Colorado. I’m honored to be a Pac-12 coach. All my life, I’ve wanted to be a football coach. I grew up a coach’s son, and it’s in my blood.”

“I will make you proud, I promise you. I will work tirelessly, we will work correctly, and we will work with passion … We’ll win a lot of football games, but at the same time, these young men will learn a lot of life lessons.”

We’ve got a long way to go, but I”ve been there before, and I know what to do.”

On taking the job: “When I first met with Phil and Mike, I liked what they said, a sense of total commitment to getting it done. I felt also that they had a commitment to young people … and I also felt like when I was young, and playing ball, Colorado was special, and I definitely think that they can get there again. I like the footprint of the Pac-12. I’ve coached in California now, and I’ve recruited that state. I coached in Texas, when I was with the Dallas Cowboys, my kids went to high school there. I think the footprint is there to getting more football players out of the state of Colorado … I like the footprint of the Pac-12, and there is no reason why this school should not be at the top of that conference.”

On meeting the CU players before the press conference: “I can tell they are hurting a little bit, and they should be. They want to prove themselves … I saw the same thing at San Jose State. These young men are hungry. They looked me in the eye, and listened to every word I said. The last thing I told them was, ‘don’t do a double negative. You’re kind of down right now, but make sure you take care of your exams. Make sure you take care of your papers. Don’t push that off and have problems when you come back in January … They all came up and looked me in the eye and shook my hand, I was very impressed with that.”

On similarities with the San Jose State job when he started there: “The year before I got there, they won two games. My first year we won one. We only had 75 scholarships, we were under an APR penalty at that time … I see young men who are hungry … I had (an athletic director) who was tired of getting their butt kicked. They have showed me (at Colorado) what they are going to do (presumably facilities upgrades), so I’m excited for this opportunity.”

Continue reading story here

2018 – Mel Tucker … “Restrained Exuberance” … 

The problem with starting anew with a new head coach is that it gives fans a case of collective amnesia.

Had Mike MacIntyre been retained, we would have spent the entire 2018-19 off-season burdened with the yoke of a seven-game losing streak. There would have been constant reminders that CU had missed out on a bowl bid – again – going a collective 0-10 over the past two seasons with a bowl invitation on the line.

This just in … the players who won only five games in 2017 and 2018, are, for the most part, the players who will take the field in 2019, and will do so with a more difficult schedule in 2019 (New Hampshire will be replaced by Air Force in the non-conference schedule; Oregon State and Cal replaced by Oregon and Stanford in Pac-12 play).

Don’t get me wrong, I’m excited about the hiring of Mel Tucker, and the quotable quotes he has given in his first few days as CU’s new head coach are inspiring.

The thing is … we’ve heard them before.

“We want to have a team that changes the way people think,” Tucker said at his introductory press conference. “When it’s all said and done, when they leave the field, we want them to think ‘I never want to play that team again.’ That’s the type of the team we had here in the early 90’s. This is a no excuse program as of right now.”

Remember Dan Hawkins, and his “Ten wins. No excuses” campaign?

Yeah. So do I.

“I met with the players this morning,” Tucker said. “We had a really good conversation. I had them to myself. Sometimes you just know, and I know the young men in that room are hungry. They want to win. They want to compete for championships. They want to be relevant. I promised them if that they follow a process and buy in and they do the things we’re going to ask them to do, we will achieve at a high level and they will reach their full potential and compete for championships.”

Remember “Return to Dominance”?

Hell, I still have my “RTD” key chain from the 1999 season, the year Gary Barnett returned to Boulder.

Did you read all of the glowing quotes about Mel Tucker, from the likes of Nick Saban, Kirby Smart, and Jim Tressel? (If not, you can find them here). Great stuff.

Problem is, there are not too far removed from the quotes we heard about Mike MacIntyre from the likes of Bill Parcells, Eli Manning and David Cutcliffe when MacIntyre was hired (If you want to check them out, they are still there on the CU website as part of the Game Notes for the Cal game – page 32).

Bring in a new coach … lather, rinse, repeat the promises.

I’m not saying that this only happens in Boulder. It happens all across America, every off-season. Schools fire coaches, and the new coach promises better days to come.

Okay, enough of being a Debbie Downer.

There are several notes on Mel Tucker’s resume which do have me excited about the future.

— The Saban Factor —

Mel Tucker coached at Michigan State, LSU, and Alabama — all under Nick Saban, one of the most successful coaches of all time. Rick George couldn’t help but notice.

“Nick Saban hired him three times,” said George. “There’s probably a reason for that, because (Tucker) is one of the best in the business… That speaks volumes.”

Added Tucker: “(Saban) is a mentor to me. He’s been like a father-figure to me in the world of football. He gave me my first opportunity to coach in 1997 at Michigan State, and I’m forever indebted to him.”

Saban returned the compliment. “I’ve known Mel for well over 20 years and he is one of the brightest coaches in our profession,” said Saban. “I think he will do an outstanding job as the head coach of the Colorado Buffaloes.  They are getting a guy with a great personality, who knows college football, works hard each and every day, and does it with a tremendous amount of enthusiasm and positive energy.”

— The Process —

Saban – Part II. If you follow football, you have heard about Nick Saban and his “process”. It’s the process which has made Alabama the year-in, year-out favorite to win the national championship.

Remember the 2007 Independence Bowl? A 6-6 Alabama team squared off against a 6-6 Colorado team. It was Dan Hawkins’ second year at Colorado; Nick Saban’s first year at Alabama.

Alabama won that night, 30-24 … and we all know the direction the two teams took after that season.

“You will hear me use that word, process, quite a bit,” Tucker said. “Everyone wants to win, but how do you win? There is a process of winning. If you do things the right way each and every day and the standards and expectations are high and the environments are right, then you can achieve success. But there is a process. We will work that process day in and day out. All of the great coaches I have been around have had a plan. They have had a process that they implemented and haven’t wavered, and have gotten great results.”

— Recruit. Recruit. Recruit. —

Slogans will only get you so far. At some point, it comes down to the Jimmy’s and the Joe’s.

“He’s a great recruiter. He’s recruited nationally,” George said. “He’s brought in some of the great players to the schools he’s been at. He’s a proven recruiter, and I’m excited about what he will bring and add to the tradition of the Colorado Buffaloes.”

“You want guys who can win one-on-one,” said Tucker. ” They can win their box in whatever position that is. The evaluation process is critical. It takes talent to evaluate talent. We first have to identify the players, evaluate them, and once we decide that those are guys who can be difference makers and help us reach our goals, it’s all about marketing at that point. We know what we’re looking for. We know what it takes to compete and win. It’s not always about talent; it’s about talent and character. We know what we’re looking for and we’re going to go get it.”

— Expectations — 

“He’s been a part of two national championships and that is where I aspire this program to be,” George said. “Those are the expectations that we have for this program. It is about winning championships and he has experienced success at the highest level. That is a level we want to be at here at the University of Colorado.”

“The expectations are high,” Tucker said. “You heard it from Rick (George); we’re here to win championships. That’s O.K with me … I’ve never been in a game — as a player or coach — where we weren’t expected to win. Ever. There’s one thing that I can tell you — there’s no one on this planet that can put more pressure on me than I can put on myself. The expectations that I have for this program are extremely high. We’re going to start working today to get this thing going in the direction it needs to go.”

For a program that is 0-13 all-time against USC, it’s refreshing to hear its head coach say he’s never been in a game where he didn’t expect to win.

Let’s hope he’s able to maintain that philosophy through his first year in Boulder.

— Mac II … a different Mac II – 

Mike MacIntyre was supposed to be Mac II, the reincarnation of Bill McCartney at Colorado.

Instead, the MacIntyre era will be remembered more like the Dan Hawkins era – one good season, but ultimately, disappointment.

Mel Tucker comes to Colorado without a huge national following.

He will not be perceived as a “splash hire”. Most Buff fans – including this one – had never heard of Mel Tucker until recently.

A relatively unknown defensive coordinator from a Power Five conference team back east.

The same way Bill McCartney, defensive coordinator under Bo Schembechler at Michigan, could have been described when he came to Boulder in 1982.

Let’s hope so …

And now … here we go again … with Karl Dorrell …

2 Replies to “Podcast Companion – CU Coaching Changeovers”

  1. Sheesh Dog, that dang ol history lesson.
    “De Pain De Pain”
    No new sports stuff to read about, listen to or watch.
    ESPN doesn’t even qualify as background noise anymore
    The screeching voices of some of them who lead NFL Live or Sports Center are migraines waiting to happen. Damn.

    Okay Stuee I kinda liked reading it. Especially clicking on the links. Mein Gott are we all such fools. Let me change that. We all are such fools.

    Well you know what they say about “A Sports brain and its intelligence are …………………….”

    Anyway good morn to you all.
    F**K the Corona virus. I ain’t dealing with it.
    I’m a Mighty Buff Fan.
    This ain’t nothing.

    So F**k Off Ms. Wuhan virus. I ain’t interested.

    Buffs.

    ” Ralphie Forever”

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