Neill Woelk
Neill Woelk
With what now appears to be the imminent departure of Colorado hoops coach Jeff Bzdelik, CU officials must ask themselves a very tough question this morning:

How do they prevent CU from becoming a stepping-stone school? A destination rather than a layover?

It`s a legitimate question with no easy answers -- and the implications don`t conjure up happy thoughts.

To find a textbook example of stepping-stone school, one needs look no farther than Laramie, Wyo., where the Cowboys have served as a proving ground for a long list of coaches. Those who had a stopover in Wyoming before moving on include Bob Devaney (Nebraska), Pat Dye (Auburn), Dennis Erickson (Washington State), Fred Akers (Texas), Joe Tiller (Purdue) and Larry Shyatt (Clemson).

(In one of those lovely little twists of irony, one guy who lasted longer than most at Wyoming was hoops coach Steve McClain -- who spent nine seasons in Laramie before getting fired -- and who is now an assistant at Colorado and a candidate for the top job.)

Stepping-stone is by no means the reputation a school wants to have. It makes it difficult to build a fan base, difficult to develop anything resembling continuity, and virtually impossible to construct long-term success.

Not that one coach leaving means CU has become such a place. Fact is, before Bzdelik, the list of football or basketball coaches who have left Colorado for better college jobs in the past 50 years is a short one:

Rick Neuheisel and Rene Portland.


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(Before that, you might have to go back to the 1933-34 basketball season, when a young man by the name of Henry Iba spent a year as CU`s head coach before departing for Oklahoma A&M).

But the question about CU becoming a stepping-stonenevertheless came to mind as I listened Monday to Linda Lappe's initial press conference as CU's women's basketball coach.

For Lappe, a former Buff standout, there's no doubt Colorado is a destination.

"I can't think of another place I'd rather be," she said. "When I left here, I knew I always wanted to be back."

Lappe is a terrific hire for Colorado. If Lappe wins -- and she will, given time -- I can see her pacing the Coors Events Center bench area 10 years from now.

Now, CU officials have to find the same kind of coach to replace Bzdelik. A coach who wants to be here, a coach with roots and ties to the state -- and one who won't be lured by a few more (or a few hundred thousand more) dollars.

The money factor won't be easy to overcome. When Bill McCartney signed his new contract at CU late in his career, it put him among the nation's upper echelon in terms of salary. Then, Colorado could still pay a salary competitive with most of its peers.

That's not the case anymore. Colorado's coaches -- and administrators, for that matter -- are all among the lowest-paid in the Big 12. The bet here is that we won't see the day anytime soon that Colorado will catch Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, etc., in terms of pure salary.

It means Colorado has to close the gap in other areas.

The athletic department has made great strides in one of those areas, facilities. CU has greatly increased its commitment to the program, making it an appealing job -- maybe more appealing than ever before.

That's a start.

Another part of the equation is finding someone who appreciates the quality of life Colorado brings to the table. Not to knock many of the other stops in the Big 12 (we won't name names, but we know where you live), but Colorado in general and Boulder in particular offer benefits many other places simply can't.

CU must find someone who fully appreciates those benefits.

Then, of course, there are the other criteria every coach must fit: the ability to coach, recruit and run a clean program. The ability to navigate CU's unique obstacles when it comes to admissions.

Most of all, the ability to win at a place that has seen precious few winners in men's basketball over the years.

There are coaches who fit all those criteria. There are coaches out there who could come here, continue to build on the foundation constructed over the last three years and make it their home rather than an overnight stop. (If you're looking for someone who fits that description right down to "Colorado native who wants to be here," Northern Colorado coach Tad Boyle has the credentials.)

Honestly, nobody in Boulder ever thought Jeff Bzdelik was here to stay forever (although I think most folks were hoping for at least a couple more years). Bzdelik is a good man and a good coach, but his history strongly suggests that he will always be looking for another challenge.

That's the nature of the majority of coaches. There's always another mountain to climb.

CU's task, however, will be to find a coach in the minority: Someone who wants to be here, someone who can win and someone who will stay because this is their dream job.

Simply, someone who will make it their destination.