Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Game at a glance
Matchup: No. 9 AP Colorado Buffaloes (10-2) vs. No. 4 AP Washington Huskies (11-1)
Kickoff: 7 p.m. MST
Where: Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. Capacity: 68,500; Turf: Grass
Radio: KOA (850 AM & 94.1 FM).
Odds: Washington by 8
Coaches: Colorado – Mike MacIntyre (20-29, 4th season; 36-50 career); Washington – Chris Petersen (26-13, 3rd season; 118-25 career).
Series: Washington leads 9-5-1; the teams have split their two meetings at neutral sites
Colorado head coach Mike MacIntyre sat in a chair in his office and, with conviction, spoke about his team being ready to win.
“I’ve felt like we would definitely be the best team we’ve had in the four years (since coming to CU), and I think we’ll have another good team next year,” he said. “I’m excited about where this team is.”
That was in August, when the glorious Flatirons were the only things rising around Folsom Field.
Just three months later, it’s the rise of MacIntyre’s Buffaloes that has everybody talking.
On Friday night, CU (10-2, 8-1 Pac-12) — ranked No. 8 by the College Football Playoff committee and No. 9 in the Associated Press and Amway Coaches’ polls — will play No. 4 Washington (11-1, 8-1) for the Pac-12 championship at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.
MacIntyre, named this week as the Walter Camp national coach of the year, is overseeing one of the most improbable success stories in the history of sports in this region. The Colorado Rockies’ magical run to the 2007 World Series might be the only accomplishment comparable to what the Buffs have done this year.
The Rockies had played six consecutive seasons of losing baseball before coming out of nowhere to reach the World Series. Like those Rockies, CU is enjoying success that nobody saw coming.
Well, almost nobody.
Before the Buffs played a single game this season, MacIntyre told anyone who would listen that his team was going to be different this year.
The Buffs had posted 10 consecutive losing seasons, had finished last or tied for last in the Pac-12’s South division every year since joining the conference in 2011, and they had a dreadful 10-27 record under MacIntyre’s tutelage.
Yet, in July, he went to Hollywood and sat in front of the Pac-12 media — which had picked his Buffs to finish last in the South division again — and warned them to watch out for Colorado.
“You work hard and eventually it happens, and you get the achievement and rewards,” he said then. “I think … I don’t think; I know they’re right there at that step to take that next step to do that.”
Given CU’s past results, MacIntyre’s words came across as cliché coach speak.
Last Saturday, after the Buffs knocked off Utah, 27-22, to clinch the South title, MacIntyre was reminded that people probably laughed at him over the summer. With a smile, he asked, “Did you believe me?”
Nobody outside of the CU locker room believed him, but all that mattered was getting the guys in the locker room to believe. Somehow, he did.
“He’s the leader of our team,” linebacker Jimmie Gilbert said. “He’s the head coach, he’s the guy up front. If you don’t believe in the guy in front of you, who are you supposed to believe in? He’s the guy who decides to step into the spotlight. For us to have his back and him to have ours, it’s very important.”
Ultimately, the rise of the Buffaloes began when MacIntyre was hired in December of 2012, but it was a slow start.
After taking San Jose State from the ashes to the top 25 rankings in three seasons, MacIntyre came to Boulder with a load of energy to turn around the Buffs.
Colorado had a broken program that was arguably the worst in the country after previous coaches Dan Hawkins and Jon Embree failed to find success.
Was MacIntyre really the guy to turn it around?
“As a whole, we didn’t buy in,” said quarterback Sefo Liufau, who was a freshman during MacIntyre’s first season in Boulder, in 2013. “I don’t know how fast I bought in, either. It takes time, especially with me. I’m really about connections and I’m not the most open person. It’s all about gaining trust from someone.”
That first year, MacIntyre threw a bunch of true freshmen to the wolves. Players like Liufau, Michael Adkins, Chidobe Awuzie, Addison Gillam, Tedric Thompson and Gilbert took their lumps.
That group has been working hard and playing regularly ever since, but three seasons in, the Buffs had very little to show for their efforts.
On the scoreboard, MacIntyre’s greatest accomplishment in his first three years was going 2-1 against rival Colorado State. He was 5-13 at Folsom Field (with three wins against FCS teams). He was 2-25 in the Pac-12, with both wins coming against teams that finished winless in the conference (Cal in 2013, Oregon State in 2015).
Despite the lack of results, MacIntyre and the rest of the coaching staff kept earning respect and gaining trust from the players.
The staff also evolved. Hiring defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt and safeties coach Joe Tumpkin in 2015, and co-offensive coordinator Darrin Chiaverini this year were program-changing moves for MacIntyre.
Through it all, MacIntyre kept expressing his belief in the players.
“Just to see him continually trying to reach us in any way possible and help build the camaraderie of the team really meant a lot to these guys,” Liufau said. “I think we’ve built a really strong foundation and it’s really helped us this year to be very successful.”
Changing the culture and the mindset was critical to the turnaround of the program. So was hard work.
Several players said last offseason was the best offseason they’ve had since coming to CU. Led by 27 seniors, the Buffs made a commitment to improve, held each other accountable for their actions on and off the field, and had confidence that this was going to be a better season.
When MacIntyre stood in front his players during a team meeting in May, however, and told them that they could win the Pac-12 championship, the team went to a new level.
“From that time in May, we had that goal, we had that mindset and we always believed it,” Gilbert said.
Slowly, they made everybody else believe, too.
Stomping Colorado State, 44-7, in the opener raised some eyebrows. Standing toe-to-toe with mighty Michigan on the road, despite losing, earned some respect from the college football world. Winning at Oregon in dramatic fashion caused everybody to notice the Buffs again.
As far as MacIntyre is concerned, a 40-16 whipping of Arizona State on Oct. 15 was the breakthrough moment. The Buffs haven’t lost since.
Before the season, MacIntyre knew that with the schedule CU plays, just winning games would completely change the perception of the program.
“We play one of the top 10 to 15 schedules in America,” he said in August. “That’s why we play in the Pac-12. We want to play against the best, so when we beat the best, we’ll jump quickly from everybody thinks we’re terrible to everybody thinks, ‘They’re really good.'”
Sure enough, now the Buffs are really good, and the rise is real because the head coach and his staff believed in a group of young men. In turn, those young, inspired by that belief, pursued a goal nobody else thought was possible.
“We weren’t ever sure that we were going to reach our goals,” tackle Jeromy Irwin said, “but one thing that never left our mind is the fact that we were going to keep worrying about each day, one at a time, so we could reach our goals.”
They aren’t done yet, either. Guided by the seniors, the Buffs are determined to win the Pac-12 championship and, potentially, get a shot at the national title or a trip to the Rose Bowl.
Regardless of what happens from here on out, however, the man who inspired this team is left in awe of what the players – and especially the senior class – have accomplished.
“They’re my heroes; that’s probably the best way to say it,” MacIntyre said of the seniors after the win against Utah. “A hero goes beyond and above what you think they can do.
“I think some of these (players) should be CU legends for what they’ve come through and for what they’ve done for the University of Colorado and the University of Colorado football program.”
From the bleachers in Folsom Field, the view of the Flatirons is as breathtaking as ever.
The sight of fans packing the Folsom Field seats and then pouring out of those seats to celebrate a division championship last Saturday was equally impressive.
For the first time in a decade, the Buffs have drawn attention to the field, rather than the beauty that surrounds it.
Brian Howell: firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter: @BrianHowell33.