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CU Buffs giving Karl Dorrell second shot as head coach

New Colorado coach hopes to apply lessons learned from his tenure at UCLA

Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer
BOULDER, CO – FEBRUARY 24, 2020: New CU football coach, Karl Dorrell, is introduce at a press conference in Boulder on February 24, 2020. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
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Bill Belichick and Mike Shanahan have won a combined eight Super Bowls as head coaches.

Pete Carroll has won a Super Bowl and two college football national titles.

Ed Orgeron is the reigning national coach of the year after leading LSU to a title last season.

All four have won championships at the highest levels of football, but all four have something else in common: they were fired after failing as first-time head coaches.

Karl Dorrell, introduced as Colorado’s new head coach on Monday, was also fired from his first opportunity to lead a team and actually had more success in that first go-round than any of the previously mentioned coaches.

Belichick, Carroll, Orgeron and Shanahan found later success by learning from that first head coaching opportunity. Dorrell, of course, has a long way to go to match their success, but more than 12 years after being fired from UCLA, he said he’s learned a few things, too, as he begins his second chance.

“We all learn through the process of a lot of situations and experiences that you go through,” Dorrell said Monday. “My first head coaching experience at UCLA, it was a very rewarding experience, to be honest with you. It was a challenge that I think I really embraced to overcome. There were a lot of different things that were in and around the program that were very challenging to fix, and we were able to do.”

Dorrell was hired by UCLA in December of 2002 to replace Bob Toledo, who had a winning record, but four consecutive losses to rival Southern California and a series of off-the-field issues during his tenure.

“In the final analysis, I felt it was not a healthy environment,” UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero said in 2002 after firing Toledo.

Five years later, Guerrero fired Dorrell, who took the Bruins to five consecutive bowls and cleaned up the image of the program, but could never get them out of the shadow of USC. Dorrell’s teams were 1-4 against the Carroll-led Trojans, who happened to be in the middle of a dynasty at the time, with two national titles, three title game appearances and a 59-6 record in those five years (compared to 35-27 for UCLA).

At a 2007 press conference to announce the coaching change, Guerrero said: “I hired Karl five years ago in the hopes that this program would grow and prosper under his leadership. In many ways, it did. He established stability, established a solid foundation and dealt with the infrastructure issues that had occurred in our program at that time.”

What Dorrell didn’t do, Guerrero said, was put the UCLA program in the national spotlight.

A dozen seasons and three head coaches later, UCLA still resides in USC’s shadow. Dorrell, meanwhile, has made five stops on his coaching journey since then, all as an assistant and almost all of those in the NFL.

The experience of leading UCLA for five years, however, sticks with him as he takes over at CU.

“I think from that experience alone, it told me that it’s really important that you really build your program with the right coaches and getting to know your players at an intimate level from day one,” he said. “I think that was something I didn’t do early in my career at UCLA.”

He will do it early at CU, though. During his introductory press conference, he said that along with filling out a coaching staff, a top priority will be one-on-one meetings with each player.

Of course, there are challenges Dorrell faces at CU, including re-learning how to recruit and figuring out how to do it in 2020, as opposed to 2007 or 2014 (his only season in college football since the UCLA days).

Financial resources were an issue for Dorrell’s predecessor, Mel Tucker, and it’s really a national issue as the Pac-12 continues to lag behind other Power 5 conferences.

Dorrell doesn’t believe CU’s resources will be a hindrance, however.

“I think in college football, you need some certain resources to be successful and to be able to have the ability to hire a really good staff,” he said. “With facilities, this is one of the best I’ve ever seen. … There’s enough here to kind of get your blood churning a little bit about how special this place is.”

Dorrell said he had other opportunities over the years to get back into head coaching positions and his friends have asked him why he didn’t take them.

“I just didn’t feel that that opportunity was there that had all the things that I needed to be successful,” he said. “Then this one came along, and me being fond of this area and this school, what it’s done (in the past); I’ve seen the facility. What they were expressing to me about what they want to become and to bring back, that was a no-brainer. And like I said, this was a blessing and something that I think was bound to happen.”

Now that he does have his second shot, Dorrell is eager to apply the lessons he learned at UCLA and in the 12 years since his alma mater fired him.

“My experience at UCLA, that was a great experience,” he said. “I learned quite a few things that I put in my notebook from that experience.”

Many great coaches have been better in their second chance.

Dorrell, finally, gets his.