Optimism is generally in large supply for football teams during the opening days of preseason camp.
Right now, every team in the country has a clean slate. For the Colorado Buffaloes, that’s important, because the last time they played a game, they completed an epic collapse that left them on the outside of the postseason yet again.
On Saturday, first-year head coach Mel Tucker and several players unofficially kicked off the new season with CU’s annual media day inside the Dal Ward Center.
Naturally, the disastrous finish of last year came up.
Under the direction of former head coach Mike MacIntyre, CU started last season at 5-0. They were the last unbeaten team in the Pac-12 and vaulted to No. 19 in the Associated Press rankings. That was followed by a seven-game losing streak that cost not only the Buffs (5-7, 2-7 Pac-12) a bowl game, but MacIntyre his job.
“I told the players a couple days ago in a team meeting that I wouldn’t mention the 5-0 and losing seven straight, but obviously they’ll probably hear it again,” Tucker said Saturday when asked about last year’s slide.
Tucker, of course, wasn’t a part of what happened last year. He was hired on Dec. 5 and the change has perhaps made it easier for the Buffs to view this season as a fresh start. Yet, it is no doubt motivating.
“I take last year as a learning experience to not repeat how last year went,” quarterback Steven Montez said. “We can learn something from every single one of those games that we dropped at the end of the season. Hopefully with that knowledge we won’t do the same thing this year.”
Following a full offseason and three days of preseason camp, the Buffs are optimistic that they are in better shape – physically and mentally – than they were at the end of last season. The players give Tucker much of the credit, as he has given the Buffs a jolt of energy.
“What resonates for me is the championship mindset and setting bars as high as they can go,” linebacker Nate Landman said of Tucker’s message this offseason. “We want to be a championship contending team. That’s my biggest take away from him. As a new coach, people expect you get the one buffer year, but that’s not what his mindset is. He instilled that in us.”
During the past few weeks, Montez, Landman, receiver Laviska Shenault and others have landed on preseason award watch lists, or preseason All-Pac-12 and All-American teams. But, it’s the desire to erase the memory of back-to-back 5-7 seasons that motivates the Buffs’ top players.
“Watch lists are all just chatter,” Montez said. “We’re not focused on winning individual accolades; we’re trying to go win football games. Winning awards is cool and all, but winning a whole lot of games this year is a lot better – worlds better.”
Tucker’s energy isn’t resonating only in the locker room. Athletic director Rick George said on Saturday that ticket sales for home football games are “going really well.” Part of that is an attractive home slate that includes dates with Nebraska, Air Force, Arizona, Southern California, Stanford and Washington. But, Tucker’s positivity has certainly sparked the fans.
“We’re going to have big crowds this year in all the games we play at home,” George said. “We anticipated that, but I think the enthusiasm that coach Tucker and the energy he’s brought to our community is really outstanding. I think people are anxious, as I am, for the start of this football season.”
So far, Tucker has been upbeat after each of the Buffs’ three practices. He’s seeing the Buffs’ become mentally tougher in the weight room, on the field and off the field, and he’s seeing his team respond to the demands of the staff.
“They know that we care about them, they know that we have their best interests in heart,” Tucker said. “However, when they don’t perform up to the standard, when something is not done properly, we confront them right away and we demand that they do it right. That’s a cultural accountability.”
CU didn’t have that last year when the season began to go sour.
“What fell off was the leadership and I think that’s what we learned most from that situation,” Landman said.
Tucker, his staff and the players are striving to lay a stronger foundation this year.
“When you have discipline and you’re accountable and you do things right and you know how to strain, you can get comfortable being uncomfortable,” Tucker said. “Then you can handle adversity in games and in seasons and you can prevent slides like (last year).”