Rooney: Polarizing views on CU Buffs’ Tad Boyle perplexing

Boyle’s 10th CU team could be his best…or most disappointing

Jeremy Papasso/ Staff Photographer
Colorado head coach Tad Boyle watched his son’s Boulder High team get eliminated from the 5A playoffs by Columbine, which received a huge game from Buffs recruit Luke O’Brien. (Photo by Jeremy Papasso/Staff Photographer)

Here is a slight confession. There is one aspect of Colorado Buffaloes fandom I just don’t get. Just one thing — the polarizing fan views of men’s basketball coach Tad Boyle.

For the anti-Tad crowd, please take a breath. Relax. The following column isn’t meant as a glowing review of all things Boyle. The man, and his program, have their faults. The last eight minutes against Oregon State will remain a season-long reminder, regardless of how the year plays out. Yet the math doesn’t add up.

If a Colorado football coach were to produce a comparative, sustained level of success as what Boyle has achieved with the men’s basketball program over the past decade, the clamor to erect multiple statues around Folsom Field, or even renaming the joint in said coach’s honor, would be deafening. Heck, I’ve gotten emails explaining to me how football coach Mel Tucker, after a lone 5-7 season, is the superior coach to Boyle by leaps and bounds. Maybe someday that will ring true. Right now, that claim hovers somewhere between hope and delusion.

And yet Boyle received a bigger ovation at Kansas’ Allen Fieldhouse than he does on any given night at the CU Events Center.

Before the more frustrated of basketball fans start bombarding my inbox, I get your pain. Going to four NCAA Tournaments and netting a lone victory is a blemish, sort of. And I say sort of, because prior to that run, one had to trail back 39 years to count four other CU NCAA tourney teams. There have been disappointing seasons, no doubt, particularly in 2016-17 when the lone season of Derrick White in a Buffs uniform was ruined by dysfunction and disappointment. And when that motion offense is stagnant, it’s an unsightly form of college basketball.

Not making it back to the NCAA Tournament since 2016 certainly is another blemish. There is a popular coaching theory that states if a coach has been leading a program for 10 years, but has yet to exceed or even repeat the greatest level of success from the first five years over the next five years, it’s time for a change. That last tourney appearance in 2016 was the first year of the second half of Boyle’s decade in charge. Admittedly, that feels like ancient history. And that first-round ouster certainly didn’t exceed or even match the success of the 2012 team, which won the Pac-12 Conference tournament and won a game in the NCAA Tournament.

Still, the current Buffs are on track to end that tourney drought, and there remains a chance Boyle’s 10th team will be the most successful of his tenure. If the Buffs happen to lose a key home game Saturday night against Washington, no doubt this column won’t age gracefully. And if CU ultimately falls short of a top-four spot in the conference and fails to reach the NCAA Tournament, this season will surpass that 2016-17 bunch as the most disappointing of the Boyle era.

Yet Boyle’s sustained success is probably the football equivalent of competing for 7-5 to 9-3 regular-season records on an annual basis. Again, statues would be forged and parades held for that sort of gridiron glory. And still a contingent of Buffs Nation, and maybe it’s a vocal minority, wants to move on from Boyle. Yet just look at the numbers.

There have been 10 20-win seasons in program history. Six have occurred under Boyle’s watch, with a seventh almost certainly on the way. In nine full seasons, the Buffs have reached five NCAA Tournaments and three NITs. Dismiss those NIT appearances if you will, but those who do so likely would be tripping over themselves to celebrate the football equivalent of a mid-December, 6-6 bowl berth. (A friendly reminder it is much more difficult to reach the NCAA Tournament than it is to reach a bowl game.)

A lengthy list of individual top-10 seasons in numerous categories have occurred in the Boyle era, and during that time five Buffs have been selected in the NBA draft, with Tyler Bey having the potential to eventually make it six. It’s fair to debate the merits of including Alec Burks, a player Boyle inherited, in that total, but in the 22 drafts between 1989, when the NBA adopted its current two-round draft format, and Burks’ selection in 2011, only five CU players heard their name called on draft day. He went to bat for his team publicly when Pac-12 rivals Arizona and USC were outed in the FBI corruption scandal while most of his peers meekly stayed silent. Who wouldn’t want to get behind that guy’s team?

I get it. Fans want to taste some of that March Madness in Boulder, and every single one of those tournament losses was a gut-punch that left a scar. Falling short this year would rip open those wounds. But what I don’t get is the inability to sit back and enjoy this hoops ride, warts and all, with a little more appreciation, particularly with a 23rd-ranked team that is both competitive and likeable. Chances are the rest of Boyle’s 10th season is going to be a fun one.