Separation time has arrived in the Pac-12 Conference South Division.
If all goes well on Saturday and coach Mike MacIntyre’s Buffaloes post their second consecutive win against one of the splashy new coaching hires in the Pac-12 Conference, the CU football team will have begun the most demanding stretch of its schedule on the right foot.
Win or lose, Buffs fans should have plenty to look forward to, this season and beyond. The arrival of ASU’s Herman Edwards one week after Chip Kelly and his extensive UCLA rebuilding project rolled through town got me wondering about the allure of big-name coaches compared to what MacIntyre has built in Boulder. Slowly, no doubt, and with many a growing pain along the way. Yet with the Buffs seemingly on their way to a second winning year and bowl berth in three seasons — a glut of riches compared to the decade-plus of misery fans endured previously — and the recent inroads achieved on the recruiting trail starting to pay dividends on the field, it is easy to compare the patient approach to building a winner out of a loser witnessed at CU to the light-up-the marquee approach at turning around programs currently going on at ASU and UCLA.
I’ll take CU’s approach any day, growing pains and all.
Edwards, who played at Folsom Field in 1972 with Cal, will have an easier time building a consistent winner in Tempe than Kelly at UCLA, if only because the situation he inherited at ASU hasn’t required a complete rebuild. Still, a program that won 10 games as recently as 2014 and reached the Sun Bowl last year turned to a man who hasn’t coached at the college level in three decades and hasn’t coached anywhere in 10 years.
Kelly, of course, is widely regarded as the architect of an Oregon program that won 12 games in each of his final three seasons (2010-12) and reached the 2010 national championship game. That narrative overlooks the fact much of those pieces were in place when Kelly was promoted from offensive coordinator to head coach after Mike Bellotti moved to the athletic director office. It also conveniently ignores how Kelly absconded to the NFL one step ahead of the three-year probation the Ducks were hit with for NCAA infractions incurred under his watch.
Kelly’s four-season NFL excursion was as mixed bag, as he inherited a 4-12 Philadelphia Eagles team that went 10-6 the next two seasons. However, Kelly’s final year in Philly and one year in San Francisco ended with an 8-23 mark, prompting a year on the sideline before returning to the college game well after his 18-month show-cause penalty from the Oregon infractions expired.
That is not to say Edwards and Kelly can’t, or won’t, build consistent winners at their new jobs. Edwards has a foundation to work with, and it will be interesting to see how Kelly’s work on the recruiting trail pans out as he attempts to reverse a UCLA downward spiral that more closely resembles what MacIntyre inherited in Boulder.
Certainly the splashy hires at ASU and UCLA generated a bigger buzz around programs desperate for the attention, but fan bases don’t necessarily need to see big names taking the reins to have their enthusiasm stoked. Remember how fired up Buff Nation was one of its own, Jon Embree, took over at CU?
It is easy to wonder if either coach, particularly Kelly, will be shown the patience given to MacIntyre while he rebuilt the CU program. The Buffs went 2-25 in the Pac-12 in MacIntyre’s first three seasons before the run to the 2016 conference title game. He survived a down year in 2017 and the fallout from his mishandling of the domestic abuse charges against former assistant Joe Tumpkin to keep the Buffs program on an upward trajectory. Regardless of how this fall’s 4-0 start plays out the rest of the way, CU is in much better shape for sustained success than they were following the 2016 season with a junior quarterback that is lighting it up, youth taking over along the offensive line, and only five seniors among the 11 spots atop this week’s defensive depth chart.
Herman Edwards and Chip Kelly are rock star coaches. MacIntyre simply is rock-solid, yet his big-name rivals will be challenged to replicate what he has achieved into his sixth season at CU.