Taylor Horowitz was a newly committed University of Colorado student when he watched his first Buffs football game -- and the Longhorns gave CU a Texas-sized 70-3 whooping that day.
That game, on Dec. 3, 2005, ended Gary Barnett's coaching career in Boulder. And it began Horowitz's long-term commitment as a Buffs fan.
A season ticket holder since 2006, Horowitz -- a CU graduate with a business degree -- has witnessed two coaching turnovers with the firing of Dan Hawkins in 2010 and Jon Embree a week ago. Horowitz has the attitude that even when the Buffs are getting trounced, it's a magical feeling to be sitting in the shadow of Colorado's foothills at Folsom Field and watching traditions like the running of Ralphie.
Athletic and university leaders acknowledge CU football is dependent on a strong fan base. As CU begins to rebuild its football team, fans, donors and alumni will be needed to help with some of the heavy lifting, especially if the Athletic Department ups the salary to $2.5 million for its next coach and considers a clause in its coaching contract that promises to upgrade football facilities -- possibly to a tune of $220 million.
Horowitz, a 2010 CU graduate, is the model fan for the football program. But many boosters have become disillusioned by a program that last season registered zero home wins and has gone down in school history for having the worst-ever record at 1-11. The homecoming crowd even booed the CU football team off the field at halftime during the Buffs' loss to Stanford this season.
"I think there is kind of two distinct classes of football fans at CU," Horowitz said. "There's the older generation of football fans who remember the glory days of Bill McCartney, and going to the national championship, and winning a Heisman in 1993. The folks who are my age haven't seen a winning season yet. The older group is a lot more willing to weather the storm and still attend games. For those who are my age, they're discouraged."
CU football also is somewhat unique in that it's competing for entertainment dollars from transplants who come to Colorado with no allegiances to the university, for those who could spend their money at pro sports games down the road in Denver or those who are lured to the mountains when there's fresh powder.
"I would never characterize our fans as 'fair weather,'" CU Athletic Director Mike Bohn said. "We've got to earn their respect and do a great job with customer service. The Colorado football fan has so many options for entertainment."
The Athletic Department may look inward at how it successfully turned around its basketball program over the past 71/2 years, with the men's team winning the first-ever Pac-12 title last year and, this season, currently ranked No. 19 in the nation.
Home field advantage
CU sports information director Dave Plati recalls a historical moment when football fans literally helped determine the outcome of a game.
On Sept. 16, 1989, fans' cheers reverberating in Folsom were the loudest ever, Plati recalled. The first quarter against Illinois took an hour to play because the away team's quarterback, Jeff George, kept pulling out from center, begging the referee to quiet the crowd, Plati said. Students and fans were relentless.
Illinois came in ranked No. 10 in the country and CU won 38-7.
"The fans can play a direct role in the outcome of a game," Plati said.
When it's at its best, Folsom Stadium, he said, can be an intimidating place for opposing teams and the energy of the crowd can excite potential recruits, Plati said.
Horowitz, who said he pays $185 for season tickets in the north end zone, said he'll continue to be a season ticket holder. He expects his tickets will go up some next year, but he also expects that for a higher price, the Buffs should improve.
"I like the game day atmosphere and take pride in my school," Horowitz said. "Of course I hope that they win."
Filling up Folsom
In CU's entire football history, never has an entire football season sold out.
The peak year for CU's fan base was the 1972 season with Eddie Crowder at the helm as coach and when five out of six home games sold out, according to Plati. At the time, the Buffs opened the year with the highest preseason ranking in their history, and the win over No. 2 Oklahoma was the first time CU defeated a team ranked in the nation's top three.
Folsom Field can seat 53,613 people.
Since 1970, the lowest average attendance at Folsom registered at 34,871 during the 1981-82 season, according to university statistics. Over the past decade, average attendance has fluctuated from a low of 45,881 during the 2006-07 season when the Buffs went 2-10 during Hawkins' first year as coach to a high of 50,509 in the 2007-08 season, with Hawkins still coach and a 6-7 record that year.
This past season, average attendance dipped to 46,893. But some games saw dismal attendance, such the Nov. 19 game against Washington when 38,600 fans attended -- many of them not trickling in until the second quarter, leaving a sea of empty seats at kickoff.
Non-student season ticket sales trailed off some -- dropping to 22,991 from 25,172 the previous year and 27,664 from the start of the decade.
Still, Plati said, after the Denver Broncos, CU football has the second strongest season ticket base in the state.
"I think we have a good core of fans," Plati said. "But we know with the pro teams in Denver, there's so much competition for the sports dollar."
In Nebraska -- where there are no major professional sports teams -- the Cornhuskers have sold out every game since 1962 in Memorial Stadium. The streak has lasted for more than 300 games.
Boulder's outdoor activities also have the potential to draw fans away, Plati said. Some people will opt to go skiing or rock climbing or mountain biking if the Buffs aren't faring well. Still, that's not necessarily unique to Boulder -- there's hunting season in midwest plains and good surf out west.
Hooking transplants to Colorado
CU Regent Michael Carrigan, D-Denver, and a graduate of the law school, said that on any given Saturday in the fall in his Stapleton neighborhood, his neighbors are flying flags for colleges such as Michigan, Indiana, Nebraska, Notre Dame and Ohio State.
It's evidence of Colorado being a transplant state. But CU officials said there's still an opportunity to convert transplants into Colorado fans -- for instance, by running sports camps on campus for their kids with CU athletes helping coach.
In fact, the majority of donors to CU athletics -- 59 percent -- are not alumni of the school, according to Jeremy Simon, spokesman for the CU Foundation. A successful fundraising year for CU athletics depends on both alumni and those with no ties to CU but who live in the state, Simon said.
"We need support from both cohorts," he said.
CU will consider paying its next coach $2 million to $2.5 million, a big leap from the $742,000 contract for Embree. Carrigan said it's going to take donors pitching in to get a top-notch coach. To generate, say, an extra $1 million to help land a coach to get CU more in line with the Pac-12 average, 2,000 fans could give $500 a year to the Athletic Department, Carrigan suggested.
"I think our fans and alumni need to recognize that our success in the classroom and on the field is directly related to their level of engagement," Carrigan said.
Still, the regent said, he can understand the struggle to get them back on board with CU football.
"Fans are grumpy this season, and they have every right to be," he said. "From game-to-game, there wasn't the level of improvement that anyone expected in what we all knew was a building year."
Including the $15.78 million distribution from the Pac-12, CU budgeted for a $28.54 million revenue stream from football this year. But CU officials estimate ticket sales fell short by about $2.6 million this season. The football team is still operating in the black, however, because it only has a $14.68 million projected expense budget.
But a revenue shortfall still concerns Athletic Department officials because football funds other non-revenue generating sports.
The department's entire fiscal year budget is $56.25 million.
CU's Athletic Department will receive its third loan from the campus in the past seven years to cover the costs of firing Embree and possibly parting ways with offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy. The $2.4 million loan is roughly the cost of the buyouts for the three years remaining on Embree's contract and the three years on Bieniemy's deal.
"A really successful football program can be an incredible godsend or it can be a big curse and cause a financial burden -- like it is now," Carrigan said.
Engaging alumni and donors
Donations to the CU Athletic Department totaled $11.8 million in the past fiscal year -- a 50 percent increase over the previous year and among the highest in recent years, according to Simon.
A $4 million gift in 2009 skewed the fundraising numbers that year.
University officials credit part of the most recent fundraising success to the move to Pac-12. CU officials say athletics often can be a path for the university to reach out to alumni-donors because it's a way they stay connected. According the CU Alumni Association, there are 36,000 CU alumni living in the Pac-12 states, compared to 11,000 in states from CU's previous conference, the Big 12.
Simon said the CU Foundation is in the process of hiring a West Coast fundraiser and the university also contracted with a philanthropic consulting firm for $380,000 to work with the CU Foundation to explore how to bring in even more money. Part of that examination will be how to increase fundraising for athletics, Simon said.
"There's always work in athletics for growing the size of donations and expanding the base and the number of people who make donations," Simon said.
The Athletic Department has received less than 10 gifts in its history of $1 million or more -- an obstacle as university leaders study whether it would be financially feasible to upgrade athletic facilities, including enclosing the north end of Folsom Field, adding suites, a second level of seats and a new press box on the west side.
Other upgrades could include a permanent indoor practice facility attached to the football stadium with a track for the track and field programs and an expansion of the Dal Ward Center. It's possible those renovations and construction could cost between $175 million and $220 million and be heavily dependent on donors.
Tori Peglar, with the CU Alumni Association, said the university is doing more to engage fans and build traditions.
She said the Alumni Association is starting by building a stronger Homecoming weekend. This year, the association recorded 1,168 attendees at 13 "Back to Boulder" events that included auditing classes, taking campus tours and attending a pre-game party.
"Are our alums the Midwestern Big 12-type fans who eat, drink and sleep their university's football program 24-7 year round? No," she said. "CU-Boulder is a strong community with diverse interests that doesn't galvanize around any one thing, and that makes it an interesting and fun challenge to build affinity and engage our alums. Some might mistake that dynamic for 'fair-weather fans,' but we wouldn't."
Basketball as a success story
For the first time in CU history, the men's basketball team is generating a profit, according to Bohn, CU's athletic director.
Quietly, university and athletic department officials have been making investments in the fan experience for years.
CU hired former men's basketball coach Jeff Bzdelik away from Air Force in 2007 by including a clause in his contract promising to break ground on facilities improvements at the Coors Events Center by the start of the fourth year of Bzdelik's deal. Now, head basketball coach Tad Boyle is reaping the rewards of the roughly $12 million spent to two new practice courts and a volleyball locker room at the Events Center.
Before games, basketball fans and donors are invited to gather at the practice facility to socialize, watch sports on big-screen TVs and eat. With the emergence of the "C-Unit" fan section made up of students, Bohn moved the student section from the northwest corner of the events center to the south side.
Bohn said small changes also are giving basketball momentum -- ranging from paying for a new drum set for the pep band to replace an aged one duct-taped together to getting live singers for the national anthem, like campus a cappela performers.
He's also pleased that newspapers are covering the recruiting class as early as the summer, months before basketball season.
Now, Bohn is impressed with the return on investment: enthusiastic fans and the 11,064-seat Coors Events Center drawing sell-out crowds.
"The basketball model is exactly what we're trying to duplicate on a larger scale for football," Bohn said.
Last season, CU used $67,000 worth of donations to pick up the tab to send the most loyal hoops fans to the Pac-12 Tournament in Los Angeles and then go dancing with the Buffs in the NCAA tourney in Albuquerque, N.M.
This year, the men's basketball team is projected to bring in $4.75 million in revenue with expenses totaling $4.51 million, according to the Athletic Department budget.
"I understand our fans are wary," Bohn said. "I think in many ways the basketball piece has been a wonderful augmentation helping them have a sport to be a part of as the football program continues to rebuild."
Contact Camera Staff Writer Brittany Anas at 303-473-1132 or firstname.lastname@example.org.