Former Colorado football coach Rick Neuheisel believes the program he coached from 1995 to 1998 can return to national prominence within four years if university leadership truly gets behind it.
Neuheisel returned to the practice fields in Boulder on Thursday in his role as an analyst for the Pac-12 Network, which had CU defensive line coach Jim Jeffcoat mic'd up for a 30-minute inside training camp look at the Buffs that will air Sunday at 8 p.m. (MDT).
Neuheisel spent 25 minutes taking questions from reporters at the start of practice and said he believes Colorado hired the right man to turn around the program in coach Mike MacIntyre, but the school also needs to invest in new facilities to catch up to the competition in the Pac-12 and around the nation.
And CU needs to do it quickly because most of its competitors in the conference have either recently completed major facilities improvements or have them underway.
"It can happen fast, but what has to happen quickly is shovels got to get into the ground," Neuheisel said. "A commitment to a renovation, a commitment to an indoor facility, the things that big time programs have and exhibit, that has to get done to have recruits come back here.
"If they can get that done, terrific. ... All I know is that has to happen for this place to take the next quantum step, but it can happen in four years."
Colorado officials have taken some baby steps toward major renovations at Folsom Field and building a permanent indoor practice facility, but the athletic department is attempting to raise at least $50 million of the estimated cost of $170 million for the project.
CU went public with the project in February but has not given any updates on how much it has raised to date. Former athletic director Mike Bohn was fired in May, in part, because his bosses were dissatisfied with the lack of major fundraising gains.
The school hired Rick George as its sixth full-time athletic director in July. His first day is Monday and the top items on his agenda are meeting with potential donors.
Neuheisel showed some of his colleagues with the Pac-12 Network around campus during his visit and said the Boulder campus remains one of the most beautiful in the nation and a major selling point. But he also said the football facilities haven't changed a great deal beyond the club seats and suites that were added to the east side of Folsom Field 10 years ago.
He said only subtle changes have been made to the Dal Ward Center since he coached in the program as the head coach and as an assistant under Bill McCartney. He said what CU has now was good enough at one point but the fact that the Buffs are struggling on the field these days is directly linked to its inability to attract top recruits the way it used to.
"In the '90s that was a phenomenal field," he said. "I remember coming from UCLA and going, 'Oh my goodness, I get to recruit to this now.' Now it's 2013 and they've got to figure out how to take that next wow factor. And not just for wow's sake, but also for the functionality of all the different sports that are here and the betterment of the student-athlete's experience."
Neuheisel surprised many in 1998 with his decision to leave CU to take over as coach at the University of Washington. Some CU fans will never forgive him for it.
Neuheisel spent time on Pearl Street on Wednesday night. It's one of a handful of times he has been beck in Boulder since his days coaching the Buffs. He said he was generally well-received by CU fans.
"Well, if you wear your hat low, no one really knows who you are," Neuheisel joked. "Most people are very friendly. Time eases all of that stuff and we won a lot of games while I was here.
Perhaps the most controversial part of Neuheisel's departure from Boulder 15 years ago were his comments about the lack of amenities in the CU program. At the point, the Dal Ward Center, the athletic department's headquarters and home of the football program, was just 8 years old.
"In some ways there were some things that I said about the program that were taken as though I was being critical," he said. "I think people understand now. I made a comment when I left that Colorado has everything that money can't buy. I was treated as this, you know. The truth of the matter is you see the arms race that is taking place around college football and see the benefactors of these proliferations.
"You can see that for Colorado to take the next step, (MacIntyre has) got to do his job on the field, which everyone has full confidence that he will. He's already proven that he can. Now Rick George has to do his job of finding and soliciting the funds that are going to finance the expectations that this program should have. Because once you've won a national championship, you want to compete for those kinds of prizes. You may not get there all the time, but you want to be in the number of schools that can."
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