Five star recruits don't come here anymore. National rankings are a thing of the past. United States presidents are elected more often than the Colorado football program earns road wins. ESPN's GameDay crew hasn't booked a trip to Boulder since 1996, the Buffs' first season in their former conference.
What happened to Colorado football?
The program is one of just 24 in the nation to win a national championship and also produce a Heisman Trophy winner. It was ranked in one of the major polls at some point in every season between 1988 and 2003. Throughout much of the 1990s it could be accurately described as a powerhouse, playing in 10 bowl games and producing 56 NFL draft picks in the decade.
Those glory days seem like ancient history in 2011. The Buffs are 1-9 overall and 0-6 in the Pac-12 Conference. They have been blown out in five straight games, giving up more than 40 points and 500 yards of total offense in each of those contests.
The reality is there aren't many other teams in the conversation these days when talk turns to the worst programs in the nation from Bowl Championship Series conferences.
Colorado, Minnesota, Indiana, Duke.
Recruiting is the answer
Ask just about anyone associated with the program how it got so bad and the focus turns quickly to recruiting.
"I think there are a lot of factors," longtime KOA radio play-by-play man and analyst Larry Zimmer said. "I don't think anybody realized the recruiting was not that great the last three or four years. It appeared to be, but you don't have sophomores on this team, you don't have juniors. I'm not sure why, but it all goes back to recruiting."
The coming week brings the first of several looming inauspicious anniversaries of key events in the downfall of black, silver and gold. Each helps tell the story of how the Buffs reached this deep, dark hole at the bottom of the Pac-12.
One year ago today, the Buffs surrendered a 28-point fourth-quarter lead at Kansas by giving up 35 unanswered points in 15 minutes of football to lose 52-45. It proved to be the final twist in the coaching tenure of Dan Hawkins in Boulder, five years filled with many such enigmatic moments. Hawkins was fired three days later on Nov. 9 after compiling a 19-39 overall record.
The demise of the program can't be laid completely at Hawkins' feet no matter how desperately some might want to.
Hawkins certainly didn't do himself any favors by shunning some of the program's proudest traditions, thereby turning former players against him. His decision to bring his son, Cody, here to play quarterback played a big role in the program's inability to recruit a blue-chip signal caller and his refusal to play some of the best players he did successfully recruit ultimately doomed him.
"I think from a recruiting standpoint we weren't being as competitive as we could have been," CU chancellor Phil DiStefano said. "I think we have really good students. It's difficult for the student-athletes and I'm not going to blame them. They were recruited to come here. But I think now that Jon Embree is here with his staff with people like Kanavis McGhee, I think we will be more in the Texas and California areas and we will be much more competitive in recruiting."
It's not that Hawkins and his staff or Gary Barnett and his assistants didn't do their best in recruiting. Both men, particularly Hawkins, finished second or third with a lot of good players. Key players at Auburn and Oregon, the two teams that played in last season's national title game, nearly became Buffs before choosing their current programs.
But those decisions have created a wide talent gap that has shown itself mercilessly this season.
The past eight years might qualify as the toughest period in CU history to recruit and two crucial blunders in leadership by school officials contributed to the challenge.
News broke in late 2003 of allegations the Colorado program, then under the direction of former coach Gary Barnett, was using sex and alcohol during recruiting visits to help bring players to the school.
Those charges were never proved beyond the court of public opinion, but they tarnished the reputation of the program and of Barnett and contributed to recruits choosing to go elsewhere in the 2004, 2005 and 2006 cycles. Those three recruiting classes were ranked 49th, 43rd and 48th in the nation by Rivals.com.
Former CU president Betsy Hoffman made a key decision in February 2004 that likely prolonged the problem.
She chose to suspend Barnett after he made controversial remarks about the place-kicking ability of former walk-on Katie Hnida, who alleged she was raped during her time in the program by a former teammate. Had Hoffman fired Barnett instead, it might have brought an end to the controversy much sooner and lessened the overall impact on recruiting.
Barnett returned from suspension later that spring and survived until the end of the 2005 season, but the controversy surrounding his program lingered and led to new recruiting rules that no other program in the nation had to abide by, such as midnight curfews and very little unsupervised time with current players. Some of the rules remain in place today.
By the time Hawkins reached his second season in 2007, there were enough remnants around from Barnett's more successful days to get the Buffs to a bowl game. Players like Jordon Dizon, Hugh Charles, George Hypolite and Terrence Wheatley led the way. Hawkins parlayed that bowl season into a top-15 ranked recruiting class in the 2008 cycle and seemed to have turned things around.
The 2008 and 2009 seasons featured players cobbled together late in Barnett's tenure and many young players Hawkins had added. Both seasons went poorly, setting up the second leadership blunder.
Athletic director Mike Bohn left for Hawaii to watch the men's basketball team play in a preseason tournament in late November 2009. He was planning to fire Hawkins and was already privately considering coaching candidates.
He returned to Boulder a few days later and took the unusual step of announcing on Thanksgiving Day that Hawkins would be retained. The decision never has been fully explained. At the time, Bohn said it was a decision made jointly by himself, president Bruce Benson and chancellor Phil DiStefano.
Sources have told the Camera in the years since that Benson forced the school to keep Hawkins because CU was gearing up for a push for more funding from the state legislature in the spring of 2010, and Benson believed a multi-million dollar buyout paid to a football coach would sabotage the plea for greater funding.
Perhaps the closest anyone in a leadership position has come to taking responsibility for the decision to hang on to a lame duck coach for an extra year came when Embree was hired in December 2010. DiStefano told the Camera he supported the idea of keeping Hawkins after the 2009 season.
"I believe in second chances and wanted to give coach Hawkins a second chance to see with a more experienced team what he could do," DiStefano said.
In a more recent interview last month, DiStefano said he is committed to getting the football program turned around. He said the results the Buffs are producing frustrate him as they do every other Buffs fan.
"The faculty are competitive, I'm competitive and I want the athletic program to be competitive as well," he said. "I want to make sure we do everything the right way. I think we have a coach now that I'm very high on, given Jon's background and his tradition with CU.
"I want to get us back on track, similar to what we did when we brought in Bill McCartney. I want to be extremely competitive in the Pac-12."
While recruiting has lagged for years now. It's not the full story of CU's demise.
Colorado has struggled to keep the players it does recruit in the program. A total of 62 recruits from 2004 through 2011 either failed to ever make it to CU after signing with the program or left the program before completing their eligibility. That is an average of nearly eight per recruiting class.
While player attrition is not unique to CU, having that many unsuccessful players in eight seasons has led to depth and talent deficiencies that have hampered Barnett's, Hawkins' and Embree's ability to be successful.
The program also hasn't successfully recruited a blue-chip prospect at quarterback since landing Koy Detmer from Texas in the mid-1990s. The only other highly ranked prospect at the position to come to CU was former Fairview High School standout Craig Ochs, who transferred in 2002 after battling concussion issues and a falling out with Barnett.
CU has landed quality playmakers at other important positions such as running back and wide receiver, but in recent years, those players also have failed to complete their eligibility in the program either because they were unhappy with how they were being used or because of disciplinary issues.
Former five-star recruit Darrell Scott spent most of two seasons with the Buffs in 2008 and 2009, but Hawkins played him sparingly.
Scott reported for his first fall camp overweight and out of shape in August 2008 and battled knee and ankle problems with the Buffs, but he also spent some games watching mostly from the sidelines while completely healthy or close to 100 percent.
Scott is a junior at South Florida this season where he leads the Bulls in rushing and is second in all-purpose yardage.
Scott's cousin, Josh Smith, was, perhaps, the team's best weapon in 2007 and 2008. He transferred following his sophomore season and will likely play against the Buffs later this month as a senior receiver and kick returner for UCLA.
Other players such as four-star wide receiver Markques Simas, four-star offensive lineman Bryce Givens and five-star linebacker Lynn Katoa all were kicked out of the program following arrests for separate incidents.
All three of those players, along with Scott, were members of the celebrated 2008 class assembled by Hawkins. Players from that class would be seniors or fourth-year juniors this season. Eight of the 21 players signed in that class failed to complete their eligibility in Boulder.
Many other programs around the nation compensate for attrition by signing junior college players. Colorado's attrition problems in recent years are tailor made to be addressed by recruiting junior colleges.
But doing so is a near impossibility at CU because the school doesn't accept physical education credits or general studies credits, which generally dominate the transcripts of junior college athletes. The school also doesn't accept any class in which a player received a D as a final grade.
"It's not an approach where the university says, 'We don't want community college students to come here,'" CU director of academics Kris Livingston said. "That's not true at all. If students are qualified, if they prove they can do the work in a community college or a four-year college, then it's very much so that they are accepted here and admitted. That's what they're looking for.
"There have been cases of student athletes who have gone to community college and have come here and have been successful. Typically, if they're a qualifier out of high school the odds are better for them because they are not as high risk."
Livingston said she has worked with CU coaches and junior college players early in the process in the past to make sure they are scheduling the right classes so that they can eventually transfer to Boulder.
She said another significant factor in the process is junior college coaches who sometimes steer players away from tougher classes so that they have more time to focus on football.
Joining the Pac-12 at least puts CU in a conference where more of its partners share similar standards when it comes to junior college athletes.
Embree spent three years as an assistant at UCLA and he said it was at least as difficult to recruit the junior colleges there.
"To get a JC guy there was a rarity," Embree said. "I think we took two while we were there and both were very unique situations."
Does it make Embree's rebuilding job in Boulder a more difficult and lengthy process with junior college players largely off the table?
"It affects you," he said. "Obviously you would like to grab some D-Linemen JC guys. Usually that is the commodity that is the position, especially inside guys, that you would like full grown men. Playing young guys, you will get some growing pains there, you would like to be able to do that.
"When I took the job, I understood what the JC piece was all about. To me, if you always have to chase a kid to go to class and if you are worrying about him being eligible, if the academics are such that it becomes a distraction to the kid, then he is not going to be productive on the field either. You have to have the kids that can do the work academically so when it is time to focus on football, they are not worried about other things."
Associate athletic director Jim Senter recently took over day-to-day oversight of the football program at CU. He is a man with deep roots in the sport and an understanding of the steep climb Embree is facing.
Senter, who turns 50 Wednesday, coached college football at three different schools over 16 years, moving into athletic administration in 1998.
During his career on the field, Senter said it wasn't always the most talented teams he coached that proved to be the most successful. He said some teams had an intangible "winning quotient." Regardless of the opponent, the odds, the venue, the weather, those teams found a way to win. They believed they were going to win.
Senter said the CU program has lacked that winning quotient in recent years and again this season.
As an assistant coach at Idaho, Senter had a front row seat to the early stages of the rise of Boise State.
Idaho dominated the series with the Broncos but administrators at Boise State began to slowly invest in the program while going through a series of coaches in the 1990s.
The Broncos began to develop a winning quotient in 1998 when Dirk Koetter was hired. At about that same time, the school began making consistent and significant investments in the program. It has grown to become one of the most successful programs in the nation over the past decade and its players take the field believing they can beat any team they face.
Senter said CU has invested in its program in recent seasons with the addition of the practice bubble, a new locker room, meeting rooms, varsity room and coaches offices. Upgrades have been made to the weight room, and the recruiting budget has more than doubled since Barnett was the coach.
When Embree was hired, the school took a new approach to trying to retain better assistant coaches by upgrading the coaching salary pool by $857,109 compared to what Hawkins assistants were paid.
Attrition among assistant coaches also has plagued the program over the years with a complete coaching staff returning from one year to the next only one time since the late 1980s.
Senter believes the CU program can rebound and begin another era of sustained success as long as investment in the program continues while coaches cultivate the missing winning quotient through recruiting and coaching.
Athletic director Mike Bohn says he is committed to making it happen.
"I have a complete and full understanding of the complexities associated with restoring our football program to the standard that our alumni, donors and fans expect," Bohn said. "From Day One, we have worked to provide a fundamentally strong base of widespread support, resources and facilities to meet that expectation.
"I recognize that we have made progress on numerous fronts, but we also have a long way to go. We implemented years ago critical initiatives to meet our goal. The weight of responsibility that I bring to the office each and every day is immense and the leadership in the department and on campus shares the passion we have to meet this challenge. We are fortunate to have the move to the Pac-12 and an ever growing fan base to help us be successful for the long term."