Let’s start with a message of hope: The Colorado Buffaloes can be winners in football. It won’t take a miracle, or even require throwing millions of dollars at CU alum Eric Bieniemy. Athletic director Rick George is a rock star, and he is far more important to future success than Mel Tucker ever was.
But the first steps toward a victory parade for Ralphie are forgiveness and humility.
Hey, CU. Are you ready to do these hard things?
Rather than curse Tucker for slipping out of Boulder under the cover of darkness to cash a lottery ticket at Michigan State, the Buffs should kiss him on the cheek and offer humble thanks.
Without saying a word, Tucker’s departure shouted that CU must change its football calculus or be doomed to repeat the same failures that have made this job a coach killer.
Tucker is a good man. He’s as smart, decent and hardworking as Dan Hawkins, Jon Embree and Mike MacIntyre, fine coaches who all got chewed up and spit out before him. The main difference? Tucker ran before the unrealistic expectations ate him alive.
Anybody who listened closely to Tucker, from a brilliant administrator like George to a knucklehead like me, heard the warning signs that foreshadowed his midnight flight from Boulder. He told truths CU should heed, unless maintaining foolish pride is more important than earning bowl berths.
Membership in the Pac-12 has put the Buffs in both financial and competitive disadvantages against truly elite programs from Oklahoma to Ohio State to Georgia. The Big 12 provides a much clearer path to a playoff berth than the league in which Colorado now plays. It’s easier to sell a prospect from the hardscrabble West Texas plains on the wonders of Boulder than lure a quarterback away from the beaches of California. What’s more, this picture is worth 1,000 words: Tucker jumped to the flush-with-TV-cash Big Ten while on tour to raise funds from CU boosters.
So blast Tucker for his lack of commitment to a rebuild of a program that has enjoyed only five winning seasons since 2000. I don’t blame you. Venting can be cathartic. But Tucker left behind a talented recruiting class that can be an effective tool in prying open the door to dominance in a weak Pac-12 division that is begging USC, Utah, Arizona State or the Buffs to take over.
So who’s the right coach to guide the Buffaloes back to glory? It’s going to be a tricky road, requiring an experienced cowboy.
Although Bieniemy has appeal as enduring as the 1990 national championship, his temperament is far better suited to the NFL practice field than a college campus. Air Force coach Troy Calhoun knows X’s and O’s but hates the gladhanding required of any CU coach to excel. Darrin Chiaverini bleeds silver, black and gold, but success on a campus that has always been ambivalent about big-time football requires more than being a Buff for life.
Colorado has been burned by giving the job to a second-tier star (Hawkins) and the elite coordinator from an elite team (Tucker). So while I understand the appeal of somebody like Blake Anderson of Arkansas State or Oregon assistant Andy Avalos, something Bill McCartney told me prior to CU’s failed experiment with Embree in 2011-12 has stuck with me all these years.
The Buffs need a head coach with the resume and gravitas to endure the inevitable pressures of rebuilding a program, without being distracted by the lure of the next big job should he succeed. While CU alums are loathe to admit any bright idea could ever be stolen from Colorado State, the golden age of Rams football was the work of Sonny Lubick, but its foundation was laid by former Ohio State coach Earle Bruce, who guided the Rams to their first bowl appearance in 42 seasons in 1990.
When Bruce accepted the CSU job, he was 57 years old, itching to prove he wasn’t done winning. So here’s hoping George’s list of candidates includes proven coaches who believe life on the sideline can have a successful second act.
Yes, hiring a coach with gray in his beard would invite questions about the hunger in the belly of a retread. An experienced coach would not only have to be open to the newest offensive technology but also be willing to turn over the play-calling to a bright young mind eager for his first shot at being a coordinator.
Here are just three possibilities: 59-year-old Bob Stoops put 190 victories on his resume at Oklahoma; 58-year-old Jim L. Mora won NFL playoff games for Atlanta and bowl games at UCLA; 57-year-old Jim McElwain had a 2-1 record against the Buffs during his three seasons at CSU. Could any of these proven winners be the answer for the Buffs?
There’s only way for CU to find out.
Pick up the phone.