Iowa State had the Big 12 North championship in its grasp.

Going into the final day of the 2005 regular season, all the Cyclones had to do to win the division and reach the Big 12 title game was go into Lawrence, Kan., and knock off the Kansas Jayhawks.

Instead, the Cyclones gave up a late lead and lost on a field goal in overtime.

Nearly 11 years later, Gary Barnett wonders if that game somehow changed the course of the Colorado football program.

"We had been told that our contracts were going to be extended," Barnett said. "If Iowa State doesn't lose to Kansas and they go play in (the Big 12 championship) game, we never play in the game against Texas. Am I still extended? Does our whole staff remain intact? How much longer would I have continued to be the head football coach? I don't know that."

Dan Hawkins led the Buffs to a bowl game in 2007 but struggled after that season.
Dan Hawkins led the Buffs to a bowl game in 2007 but struggled after that season. (Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer)

Nobody will ever know, because after Iowa State's loss, Colorado more or less backed into the Big 12 championship game. After losing two in a row to close the regular season, the Buffaloes went to Houston and got crushed by Texas, 70-3, in that title game.

Less than a week later, Barnett was fired, despite going 49-38 over seven seasons and taking the Buffs to five bowl games.

"That game (against Texas), I think, provided an excuse for someone to make a decision that they wanted to make," Barnett said. "I think there were a lot of things in the works at that time and that game just created the opportunity for someone to go in a different direction."


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The 2005 Buffs finished 7-6 and CU hasn't had a winning season since, playing 10 consecutive years of losing football and appearing in just one bowl game over that time period. Prior to this past decade, CU had never posted more than six straight losing seasons.

A far cry from the national power CU became under Bill McCartney, Rick Neuheisel and Barnett, the Buffs are still trying to figure out how to stop the bleeding as they enter the 2016 season.

Exactly how this decade of losing began is not easy to explain.

Surely, the recruiting scandal in the early 2000s when Barnett was coach played a significant role. The scandal wound up producing a lot of allegations of sex and alcohol being used to lure recruits, and two women claimed they had been raped by CU players.

What followed was a series of investigations, but no players or coaches were ever found guilty of wrongdoing. In the wake of the scandal, however, CU's president, chancellor and athletic director all departed. Eventually, so did Barnett.

Barnett doesn't believe the scandal in itself sent CU into a tailspin, because after the dust settled, CU put together a winning season in 2005.

"I think there was some fallout from it, but I don't think it was a huge thing," Barnett said.

What did hurt the program was the perception people had of the Buffaloes in light of that scandal.

"Right, wrong or indifferent, there became a perception that this was a broken program, and I think that was used very effectively against that program," said Mark Johnson, the play-by-play announcer for CU games on KOA radio since 2004. "That's where this thing started to go wrong, and then continued down the path for, sadly enough, 10 years."

CU might have been fine on the field had it not made the decision to fire Barnett after the 2005 season, but that decision sparked a whole other set of negatives.

"It's really been a fascinating study and something that's been amazing to sit and watch for over a decade on how a program of phenomenal success took a number of wrong turns, went the wrong direction," Johnson said.

Athletic director Mike Bohn replaced Barnett with Dan Hawkins, who had gone 53-11 in five seasons at Boise State and was coveted by several big-time programs. Hawkins was doomed from the start, however.

"He walked into a team that really didn't want a coaching change," said Barnett, who will join Johnson on KOA broadcasts this season. "Then, his particular personality and what he wanted to do with it, I think was probably a lot different from mine and our staff. It really presented a tough situation for the players that were still there."

While Hawkins did take the Buffs to a bowl game in 2007, he operated with a divided locker room for several seasons. Quarterback Tyler Hansen came to the Buffs in 2008, Hawkins' third season. The Buffs were fresh off their appearance in the Independence Bowl, but Hansen said there was still division on the team.

"There was the Hawkins guys and then there was the Barnett guys," Hansen said. "The Barnett guys were very upset with the reasoning why Barnett was fired and they felt that Hawkins unfairly got rid of some Barnett guys. There was definitely a weird feeling around that and some uncomfortable situations that the Hawk guys and the Barnett guys were in."

With an unhealthy environment in the locker room, CU went 5-7 in 2008, and then started the 2009 season at 1-4.

"Now, you get kind of the losing mentality and that's cancerous to a team and it's tough to break away from that," Hansen said. "That was kind of, I think, where it started for a lot of guys; not the whole team, but a lot of guys, and that is a little bit contagious, especially when you're dealing with 19 year olds."

After a 3-9 finish in 2009 and a 3-6 start to 2010, Hawkins was fired.

Bohn hired former CU player Jon Embree, who had no head coaching experience, to take over in 2011.

"He comes in, the talent is down, the facilities aren't very good, this thing is spiraling and he comes in almost to a no-win situation," Johnson said. "At some point in time, this thing had to have a synergy change, an energy change in some form or fashion."

Hansen said when Embree came in, he needed to change the culture and in doing so, "He got rid of a couple players that would have been (good) players for us. That just affected our depth, so now those games that are maybe a touchdown difference are now a three touchdown difference. We were fighting an uphill battle from the start of every game."

Embree's arrival coincided with CU joining the Pac-12 Conference, which made the rebuilding job even tougher.

"They jumped into the Pac-12 because they needed to, but nothing was built, nothing was ready to compete at a Pac-12 level," current head coach Mike MacIntyre said. "We put ourselves a little bit behind the eight ball, and to overcome getting over the eight ball in Pac-12 competition, it's not the same as it is in some other conferences. It's just not."

After going just 4-21 in two seasons, Embree was fired and replaced by MacIntyre. So far, the results haven't been there for MacIntyre, who has gone 10-27 in three seasons, including 2-25 against Pac-12 foes.

Those who have been through or followed the past decade, however, get a sense that things are about to change.

"I believe we're at that point where we're going to start getting some notches in our belt, so to speak," MacIntyre said.

CU has brand-new, state of the art facilities that allow players better opportunities to train and get healthy. Those facilities are already making an impact in recruiting.

"Now there's no excuse not to win games, because you have all the tools to your disposal," Hansen said.

Barnett, who turned around a losing program at Northwestern before coming to CU in 1999, said it's difficult to overcome a losing mentality, but sees signs that the current Buffs are doing it.

"We'll see what they do, but all the indicators are that they're doing the right thing, they're saying the right thing," he said, "but you know where it really has to be said and done is in the locker room and on the field."

It's also important to be done at the top, and that's where Johnson sees hope for a turnaround on the horizon.

"You can go back to the late 1980s and you've got Bill McCartney and Bill Marolt and Gordon Gee and all the people that were involved," Johnson said. "I think there was a synergy from top to bottom that made it successful."

That synergy hasn't been there throughout the past decade, but it appears to be there now with chancellor Phil DiStefano, athletic director Rick George and MacIntyre.

"There's a sense of order, there's a sense of synergy in the right direction," Johnson said. "There's a sense of everyone's in lockstep with one another and rolling in the same direction. That's what feels different about this."

Buffs past and present sure hope it's different. Hansen said there's excitement among former players about the direction of the program. MacIntyre believes the Buffs now have the facilities in place to compete.

For Barnett, who has watched the program both rise and fall over the years, a winning season would be "a big relief."

"Everybody is just waiting for it to happen," Barnett said. "It would be a big sigh of relief, and it would mean that the arrow is maybe pointing up again. Then there's hope. Then you're going to get people catching on."

Brian Howell: howellb@dailycamera.com, on Twitter: @BrianHowell33.