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What Kind of University Does Colorado Want to Be? – Part I 

By K Richard Engel

Part I – A Brief History of Football and Academics

“Dad, this college has had a new president every year since 1888…And that’s the year we won our last football game. Now, I like education as well as the next fellow. “

“Well, move over and I’ll talk to the next fellow. “

“But a college needs something else besides education. And what this college needs is a good football team and you can’t have a good football team unless you have good football players.“

“My boy… I think you’ve got something there. “ – The Marx Brothers, Horse Feathers

  1. Into – Here we are again – existentialism on the football field

To be a fan of Colorado football is at times like having a love affair with a bi-polar partner.  Moments of exhilaration, as experienced with the 1990 national champions, are punctuated by tremendous lows, as experienced in the short, but dismal, tenures of Chuck Fairbanks and Jon Embree.  Fans are again experiencing a depression in 2022, with results so far troubling reminiscent of Fairbanks’ disastrous 1980 squad.  (A campaign that led to Doug Looney writing his famous piece in Sports Illustrated, “There’s No Gold in Them Thar Hills”.) But while the teams of the early 1980’s and 2010’s spawned gallows humor, this campaign has so far produced an existential dread among the CU faithful, a morose feeling that Colorado football will not see a periodic return to greatness this time.  Why does CU have periodic boom to bust (and back) episodes, and why are donors and alumni more despondent than in previous troughs?  In the wake of Sunday’s firing of Karl Dorrell, this is a timely moment to ask this question.  This two part essay will examine the situation and offer up some big-picture recommendations.  In this first essay, I will provide you with a brief tour of the past sixty years of Colorado football.

  1. History of the egghead – jock argument

Colorado Athletics has had an uneasy relationship with school administration for at least sixty years.  In 1962, coming of a Big 8 title and Orange Bowl appearance, the university fired coach Sonny Grandelius after it was discovered that coaches were paying players under the table (imagine that being a scandal today) and replaced him with assistant dean Bud Davis. After predictably disastrous results, Davis returned to the administration and Eddie Crowder was brought in as coach and tasked with restoring the program.  Crowder enjoyed a solid decade of success, with two top ten finishes and five bowl berths, before stepping aside to be the full-time AD.

Matters reached an even bigger crisis moment in the late ‘70’s when CU, frustrated with the inability of Crowder’s successor, Bill Mallory, to keep pace with Oklahoma and Nebraska, and desperate to increase AD revenue to fund Title IX programs, made an ill-fated and badly executed hiring of Chuck Fairbanks.  When the resulting legal and salary expenses overwhelmed the AD budget, several Olympic sports and baseball were axed, and an edict was placed on the athletic department that it would maintain a balanced budget annually.  This led to donor Bud Palmer to utter his famous quip, “Does Colorado want to be in the Big 8 or the Ivy League?”  Of course, the faculty wanted to be Ivy League (or MIT), leading to the fatuous label “The Harvard of the West”.  Despite the school’s academic striving, president Arnold Weber, backed by some astute Regents, hired Michigan assistant Bill McCartney in 1982 and tasked Mac with restoring Colorado football to prominence.

Weber would leave Colorado for Northwestern in 1984. His replacement was E. Gordon Gee.  Gee, realizing that Colorado was a university with limited state support and a reliance of out-of-state students, set out to improve its brand.  One of his key insights was that football was a rare advertising opportunity, appealing to alumni, donors and potential students, and gave McCartney both public support during his lean early years, and behind the scenes support with admissions allowances for athletes.  The partnership was a smashing success, culminating with a national title and a brand awareness of CU that topped all public universities (more on that below).

Despite the rousing success on the field, the academic-athletic tensions remained during the McCartney years.  CU was accused in some publications of recruiting thugs.  Counteraccusations alleged that Boulder, if not racist, was hostile to people of lower socio-economic status.  Then of course, there was McCartney’s family scandals on public display, and well his unfortunate habit of making public pronouncement unrelated to football. Mac would retire after the ’94 season, with the responsibility of running a top football program taking a toll on his family and frustrated with dwindling support from Gee’s successor.

  1. From Top of the World to the Depths

Despite the absence of Gee and McCartney, CU was in an enviable place.  Its brand was the most valuable among public colleges, with increased out-of-state applications, increased alumni support and a ridiculously favorable media image.  Interestingly, the reason for the high brand value wasn’t because CU was a football factory, but because it was NOT a football factory.  Perceptions were that Colorado would play football on Saturday afternoon, everyone would mountain bike up Boulder Canyon after the game and be back for classes on Monday.  Not entirely accurate, but certainly it was a good perception to have.  In 1994 Colorado had its choice of conferences to join as the Pac-10 invited Colorado (and Texas) to join, while the Big 8 begged the school to remain to launch the new Big 12 conference.  It was a time of unbelievable prestige for the university.

What went wrong?  A long combination of uninspired, and at times criminally incompetent, leadership, a mendacious faction on the CU faculty, Regents with agendas not in line with university’s best interest, a hostile and resentful populace in Boulder (tellingly, the Regent with the biggest ax to grind usually was from Boulder), and corrosive political leadership at the state level served to degrade this prestige.  Things culminated in an overwrought scandal in 2004 that had players labeled as sexual predators, lingering perceptions that Boulder was hostile to minorities and leadership CYA that hobbled the program and depressed morale. The firing of Gary Barnett (albeit not for cause) accelerated CU’s decline.  Meanwhile, college athletics moved onward, as schools invested in athletics and fundraising and the NCAA dithered on needed reforms.

Colorado struggled post Barnett (In a telling move for the school, AD Mike Bohn was asked to retain his successor, Dan Hawkins, for a year – not because buyout money was not in the budget, but because the optics were bad as CU asked the state legislature for emergency funding.) Colorado would soon hit what fans thought was rock bottom.  Despite the declining on field results, CU found a way to regain a semblance of stability.  CU joined the expanded Pac-12 in 2011, a rare move that united the academic and athletic sides of campus.  A period of growth and stability, despite the shifting winds in college athletics, appeared to be at hand for CU.

Lest this essay seem a one-sided attack on the academic side of CU, I will now mention the other trend present in these years: a seemingly constant inability for the AD to raise enough funds for its needs.  The trend started in 1980 when donors found enough money to fund Chuck Fairbanks’ needs (remember the $60K office remodel?) but were nowhere to be found when the Olympic sports were on the chopping block.  CU has trudged on with the minimum number of varsity sports to be considered a D1 program ever since.  CU managed to channel the national championship to raise funds for the Dal Ward center, but the impression was always that more could have been raised.  (Causing Rick Neuheisel to claim that CU had “everything that money can’t buy”.) There were some successes, such as the construction of the Boedecker practice facility, the ground breaking of which was written into Jeff Bzdelick’s contract (Bzdelick left Colorado for Wake Forest anyways.)  The single biggest success was the construction of the Champions Center in 2016.  It was a notable collaboration between the administration and AD, as the approval process was streamlined and access granted to university donors.  But the center was funded by ~ $95 million in debt, about $2 million of which come due this year.  There remains a long list of unfunded projects, including renovation of Balsch Fieldhouse and the west press box, home courts for women’s tennis and a permanent replacement for Prentup Field. (For a school that takes pride in its women’s sports, this is an alarming issue.) Whether CU lacks a donor base that actively supports athletics, or whether the University has done a poor job in cultivating alumni who would fill that role, I will leave to the reader to decide.

Despite these shortcomings, In the decade the followed the move to the Pac-12, Colorado climbed out of its subterranean status to a sustainable, if not world beating, level.  Only a few cranks noticed that the Pac-12 media strategy served more to enrich the conference commissioner than the member schools.  Meanwhile other college conferences moved into overdrive and the NCAA increasingly abandoned its oversite roles.  Amateurism was essentially jettisoned as conference moved to allow Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) compensation and any restrictions on transferring removed. But the thunderbolt that stuck the athletic core came on June 30th of this year.  UCLA and USC announced that they would join the Big Ten in 2024, putting the survival of the Pac-12 in doubt.  On that day, thirty years of leadership chickens came home to roost.

Note … Part II: Colorado, College Athletics and The Wild, Wild West … Will be posted on Saturday morning … 

K Richard Engel is a Financial Planner and saloon-keeper living in Denver. He has degrees from both the Boulder and Denver campuses and was president of the Bay Area alumni chapter in the mid-1990’s.  His views are his own and do not reflect those of the University of Colorado, the Board of Regents, Franklin D Azar or the United Network Command for Law Enforcement.

14 Replies to “What Kind of University Does CU Want to Be? – Part I”

  1. And yet somehow this history doesn’t chronicle The University Regents and the City of Boulder telling NIke no thanks to moving their corporate campus to Boulder. That Tax payers would miss out on likely $500 million dollars of investment into the athletic department and the school as a whole from the Swoosh. This is, and will always be the biggest turning point for CU. The lack of covering this truly calls into question the research of the writer or awareness of the inner workings of the University.

    1. What year was the Nike opportunity? I never heard of Nike possibly moving to Boulder. I’ve been to their Beaverton HQ complex, they seem well entrenched in metro Portland. PS – I noticed the post was at 2:30 in the morning. Hmmm

      1. Your comment made me jump on the wonderful World Wide Web to research this. In an article from March of 1998 in the Portland Business Journal, it talked about a pitch from entities in the state of Colorado about a proposed R&D site (not the corporation’s headquarters). The site specified in the article was on Table Mountain on land owned by the Coors family near Golden. The article went on to say that more relevant sites would be near the newly opened DIA or recycled land at the old Stapleton Airport. At least in this article, it never mentions Boulder and the publication certainly was not a proponent of the idea of locating to Colorado which makes sense since it is s Portland business magazine. Was there another opportunity?

        1. Actually, this information is correct. I worked for W+K. It was corporate headquarters to Boulder, Nike had decided Boulder better represented the brand. Actually, one of the things that broke the deal was Nike wanted the tennis courts, but both publications are not correct. In regards to 2am posting, not everyone that is a Buff lives in the mountain time zone or for that matter in North America. London Buffs exist

  2. That’s a good description of the evolution of CU athletics and the headwinds involved. It doesn’t help that the city of Denver has no lost love for CU athletics and is really just a Broncos town only. Then you have the “liberal elite-ism” undercurrent throughout faculty and regents, and it’s no wonder we even have football at all. It seems clear now that Mr. DiStefano and Mr. Saliman need to be bluntly asked (repeatedly hammered) if they can somehow engineer some changes to the academic infrastructure, or at least give the perception that they care, and acknowledge that the current environment is not conducive to success on the football field. I sent an email to those two – everybody who cares should. I always figured the 2004 issues that led to Barnett being fired triggered some stuff that has lead us to today. Who has some more insight on that?

  3. My email was an aggressive position on the failure of Colorado football because of the lack of CU Boulder administration. By Name.

    Color me not happy

  4. This email response from the Pres.

    Thank you for your email. I am as disappointed as you with the way football season has gone and think the recent changes made with the leadership of the program were necessary. I have high expectations for the Buffs. We must do better. I expect leadership on the campus and in the athletic department to bring forward ideas and actions on how we can improve. You and many others have shared your thoughts on the program, which I appreciate. I hear you. Clearly, our fans are passionate, which is a significant asset to CU. We are focused on improving and I am confident we will do so. In the meantime, I intend to continue to support our student-athletes.

    Sincerely,

    Todd Saliman, President

  5. Pretty good summary. Looking forward to seeing the next installment.

    I saw a piece about a linebacker for Army this morning. Maybe this time, they should talk to Jeff Monken? It touched on their recruiting process. Largely relationship driven, it seems, but the interesting piece was they apparently evaluate like 10,000 kids. That seems amazing to me.

    The story is here: https://www.espn.com/college-football/story/_/id/34741531/how-army-landed-andre-carter-ii-one-best-players-college-football

    Go Buffs

  6. Yep, that about sums it up. Full circle…suffice it to say, CU will never be the academic juggernaut arrogant, elitist academics desperately want. Let’s face it, getting into CU is about as tough as fogging a mirror. Until real world mentalities take significant roles at the top, over fantasies and
    wannabees, this could be a long quagmire.

  7. Richard, great information. And sad.
    Do you happen to have, or have access to, Colorado’s university rankings (USNWR, etc) especially beginning in the late 80s/early 90s. I felt like it was a lot more prestigious back then than it is now.

  8. Great article Richard. Good insight from a number of perspectives.

    I believe the lack of support/hostile relationship between the City of Boulder, (somewhat Boulder County too) and the school is a real problem. CU is sort of landlocked given the City’s unrelenting opposition to East Campus. The City really does nothing to promote the CU AD at all. They feel the Friday night Pearl Street Stampede is a monumental contribution, but in practice it is really the FB team/AD team making the true contribution by bringing everyone down to Pearl Street.

    In other campuses/college towns, the City is a partner that opens its arms up to the team and fans in a multitude of ways. They are a valuable partner. Unfortunately, in CU’s case the City is an impediment.

    1. It is amazing. The woke liberals that harbor themselves in the stone walls of conservatism of CU Boulder do have those imaginations, and visions, beliefs and live lies about the power they personally have and more important to the mind what they have brought to Ole CU.

      Disgusting.

      Go Buffs…………..up the woke crowd

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