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CU at a Crossroads

The bad news is time flies. The good news is you’re the pilot.” — author Michael Altshuler

We all knew that the 2024 season was going to be an important one for Coach Prime and the Colorado football program. First round NFL draft pick Shedeur Sanders and generational talent Travis Hunter are in their last season playing college football, and it would be a shame to waste their talents on another losing season.

That being said, to me – at least until this past week – the 2025 season was going to be the pivotal season for the future of the program. Would Coach Prime stick around without having his sons on the roster? Would CU be able to improve on its 2024 success (which is hopefully an upgrade on the 2023 season)? Would CU be able to demonstrate that the Coach Prime method for building a program is a sound model?

As it turns out, CU doesn’t have until the 2025 season to prove it is relevant, and that it is a viable candidate to remain among the elite schools of the nation.

With the announcement of the settlement of the House case, the future is now for the Colorado football program.

The NCAA and its leagues are moving forward with a multibillion-dollar agreement to settle three pending federal antitrust cases. The NCAA will pay more than $2.7 billion in damages over 10 years to past and current athletes. Sources said the parties also have agreed to a revenue-sharing plan allowing each school to share 22% of the average Power Four  revenue, or roughly $20 million per year, with its athletes.

“The five autonomy conferences and the NCAA agreeing to settlement terms is an important step in the continuing reform of college sports that will provide benefits to student-athletes and provide clarity in college athletics across all divisions for years to come,” NCAA president Charlie Baker and the five power conference commissioners said in a joint statement this past Thursday.

“This settlement is also a road map for college sports leaders and Congress to ensure this uniquely American institution can continue to provide unmatched opportunity for millions of students. All of Division I made today’s progress possible, and we all have work to do to implement the terms of the agreement as the legal process continues. We look forward to working with our various student-athlete leadership groups to write the next chapter of college sports.”

After the announcement, Colorado Rick George felt compelled to send out an email to the Buff Nation:

Essentially, the settlement will require back payment for Name, Image, and Likeness while also setting up a revenue-sharing model for the future, both of which could have significant budget ramifications for the University of Colorado Athletic Department.  

Make no mistake, this agreement will forever transform how collegiate athletics operates but I’m confident that together, we will navigate these changes for the benefit of our student-athletes. Despite the challenges and uncertainty that lie ahead, Colorado Athletics, our programs, and our student-athletes will emerge stronger than ever. 

Significant budget ramifications? That’s putting it mildly.

For fiscal year 2023, the CU athletic department had an operating budget of $136.1 million, which put Colorado in the middle of the pack in the Pac-12 conference.

Now, carve out of that approximately $20 million per year as CU’s share of paying off the House settlement over each of the next ten years, and then add in another $20 million or so for the “revenue sharing model” (read: paying players) which schools will be expected to come up with in order to play with the big boys.

That’s $20 million not coming in, with an extra $20 million expected to go out … a $40 million change to the budget.

Yes, those are some significant budget ramifications.

It’s too early to try and figure out how the new world order will affect collectives and NIL incentives. Collectives may go in house, and be controlled by the University, but they are not likely to go away entirely. NIL payments are likely to continue, with players supplementing their base pay from the University with outside money.

There is also the very unresolved issue of how Title IX will come into play. Will schools have to set aside $10 million for men’s teams and $10 million for women? Will they be sued if they don’t?

Roster sizes and non-revenue sports will also be affected. Will schools be cutting the size of their rosters? Will walk-ons be eliminated? (See: Cormani McClain playing as a “walk-on” at Florida). Will schools cut non-revenue sports, particularly non-revenue men’s sports, in order to try and balance their budgets?

Schools will also have to cut facilities projects (Nebraska has already announced it is scaling back its stadium renovation). CU fans will enjoy a new scoreboard in the south end zone this fall, but don’t look for any improvements to Balch Fieldhouse anytime soon.

While there are way too many unanswered questions at this point in the process, it is clear that the gap between the haves  and the have nots is only going to widen. Big Ten and SEC schools, with their significantly better television revenue deals, can far better absorb the shock of the new financial burdens which are on the horizon than are schools in the Big 12 and the ACC.

And the Group of Five schools? Forget about it.

There will still be competition, and there will still be fans supporting G5 programs. The hope, however, of fielding nationally competitive teams for these programs will grow more and more dim over the next few seasons, as Power Four schools implement pay scales which the G5 schools won’t have a dream of matching.

Which brings us back to dear ol’ CU and its immediate future. The culling of programs who are unable – or perhaps unwilling, as may be the case with schools like Cal and Stanford – is no longer a reality which will resolve itself at the end of the decade, when the current television contracts start running out, but may start as early as next season, when the financial realities of House case are implemented.

So, Colorado and Coach Prime don’t have time to build back the reputation of CU football program. The Buffs need to be successful this fall. It won’t be enough for Colorado to be an interesting side show – a team of interest early in the year, until roster deficiencies are exposed and the losses start piling up.

Coach Prime needs to prove his model can be successful in 2024, and then have a strong carryover in the roster for 2025 to demonstrate he can not only win at the Power Four level – which he has yet to do – but that he can sustain that success. The brand needs to be well established, enough so that the coaching staff, and particularly the roster, doesn’t have to be redone next offseason.

If Colorado can get to a bowl game this fall, and Coach Prime can demonstrate he can bring in solid replacements for his sons and Travis Hunter, then Buff fans (including wealthy boosters) can make the argument that Colorado can and should be a part of the national discussion in the era of (legally) paid players.

If Coach Prime falters this fall, and he can’t prove he can win by way of the Transfer Portal instead of recruiting high school stars, or if Coach Prime doesn’t live up to his pledge to stay in Boulder for ten years to build a consistent winner, then there will be cause for Buff fans (including wealthy boosters) to make the argument that the CU program should take a step back from the maniacal frenzy of the newly forming elite class of college football, and be content to be a Tier Two program going forward.

As Rick George put in in his statement this week: Make no mistake, this agreement will forever transform how collegiate athletics operates.

Coach Prime and Colorado football are at a crossroads in the history of the program.

There isn’t time to build back the battered reputation of CU football over the next few seasons.

It has to happen in 2024.


10 Replies to “CU at a Crossroads”

  1. How does the ruling impact FCS/D2 (or whatever they call it now) schools? Are they absolved? Can and how do other schools drop down?

    1. All of the NCAA schools are affected. In fact, the lower division schools will actually pay a greater total amount of the judgment than the bigger schools (since there are so many more of them out there). “Taxation without representation” has been the cry of more than a few lower division schools over the settlement.

  2. Just a step closer to a minor/developmental NFL league…NFL has been standing off to the side out of respect (and fear of being branded the grim reaper of CFB), but the reaper came already so it’s clear sailing. Makes too much sense, they have the $$ to invest and create the beast for the benefit of the entire league.

  3. I don’t think it’s that dire.

    And if private equity gets involved, they will spread the wealth like the major leagues and the ncaa tourney, as they understand parity = hope = eyeballs = money.

    Go Buffs

  4. In your poll it looks like 90% of us believe Prime can get six wins or more, if you say seven wins or more, would that number still be around 75%?

    Before Coach Prime, many of us thought that CU could be left behind in the arms race and may end up left out of the expansion of the seemingly inevitable super conference, and then Prime was hired. Win eight or more and successfully build a winner for a couple of years in a row and CU has it’s best chance to end up in a network driven super conference.

    Before Prime that seemed like a pipe dream and many of us were preparing mentally for CU and many others to form a more “college” oriented conference while the big dogs became a pro development conference. While all this was going on, NIL & the transfer portal rules changed drastically and RG hired Prime. If Prime can turn the Buffs into a winner this year, and the next, the Buffs have a chance to be included at the table.

    The Prime effect has brought eyes on and money into Boulder… And the level of talent is so much better too with NFL potential on the roster including a QB for a change.

    That’s a whole lot better than where CU was standing at the end of the 1-11 season, so I’ll take that.

  5. Someone please explain to me how Prime was supposed to build a roster of “high school stars” that would be even remotely competitive after that disastrous Dorrell era and the 1-11 blot on CU history? That narrative always conveniently overlooks the historically bad season that was just one season ago. Prime is on his second year. It is such a tired and lazy narrative that when I read it or hear it, even in a pro CU source like this one, it makes me angry. Without the transfer portal, CU probably would not have even won 4 games last year and been within a TD or less in 5 other games. Plus consider that Prime is recruiting many second year or third year transfers with redshirts available. So instead of a true freshman CU is getting a sophomore/junior with 2 or 3 year left. Plus he does get the top notch HS kids like Seaton and McClain and Hunter at Jackson State. Plus CU has a legitimate shot at the top freshman QB recruit, JuJu Lewis. Finally, almost every article also asks if Prime is leaving because Sheduer, Travis and Shilo are gone after this year. Well, he has repeatedly said he is not leaving. Stating his sons follow him not the other way around. One thing Prime isn’t and that is a liar. So believe him.

    1. “Someone please explain to me how Prime was supposed to build a roster of “high school stars” that would be even remotely competitive after that disastrous Dorrell era and the 1-11 blot on CU history? ”

      He’s not, and that’s what they want. “They” don’t want to see a coach come in and succeed in 1-11 program. “They” want their teams or the big dogs to stay on top. Prime turning CU around in record time by bringing on players who are ready to play is beyond their comprehension and kills their stake in the game. They don’t want to see it work because they want their teams to stay on top.

      But that’s how the NFL now works so well, parity, and the ten teams still in the hunt at the end near the playoff means ten cities who’s fans are still watching.

  6. Fortunately the Buffs have Coach Prime… could you imagine navigating these heady times with the previous coaching staff???

    At least we’ve got a chance

  7. I think it’s a little early to be a do or die season, albeit I believe that a bowl game is all but guaranteed this year. JMHO.

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