Skip to content

Rooney: CU Buffs’ three in-season coaches deserve credit for weathering turbulence

In profession marked by stress and judged by wins, CU leaders staying the course

BOULDER, CO – October 17, 2020:  Head coach Karl Dorrell during a Colorado football scrimmage. (Courtesy photo/University of Colorado)
CU Athletics
BOULDER, CO – October 17, 2020: Head coach Karl Dorrell during a Colorado football scrimmage. (Courtesy photo/University of Colorado)

The job, as designed, is plenty stressful enough and not for the faint of heart, or the thin-skinned.

Success, fairly or not, is measured for collegiate head coaches in wins and losses. Revenue, recruiting, the ability to mesh the various personalities on a given roster — all of those things matter to Division I football and basketball coaches. Just not as much as winning. Winning is the one thing that almost always ensures job security.

So imagine the ongoing stress, each and every morning, for Colorado leaders like Karl Dorrell, Tad Boyle, and JR Payne. Stress is an inherent part of the occupation, from the strategic competitive standpoint to hoping their players will do the right things away from the team to the constant specter of a critical injury that can derail an entire season.

Those stressors, and much more, still exist for Dorrell, Boyle and Payne, all of whom are now charged with collecting those wins amid a pandemic during which the ability to play games hangs by a frayed thread every single day.

It was supposed to be a unique weekend in CU Buffs athletics history, with the football team and basketball teams all scheduled for Pac-12 competition within 24 hours of one another. Inevitably, though, 2020 stepped in, with the CU men’s basketball home opener, scheduled for Saturday against Washington State, postponed due to COVID-19 issues.

As this column went to press, the CU women’s team had tipped off successfully (though not victoriously) at No. 10 Oregon. And the football team was in Tucson preparing for its Saturday evening showdown against Arizona. But stay tuned. The men’s basketball team wasn’t as fortunate. Again.

Each and every morning, on top of everything else that could go wrong in a normal season, Dorrell, Boyle and Payne cross their collective fingers hoping it isn’t the day COVID-19 testing scuttles everything. All while trying to win games with the focus required of a competitive season.

“Every day I’m nervous as all get out figuring that something’s going to happen at some point,” Dorrell said this week. “But so far we’ve been very, very fortunate.”

Coaches are programmed to roll with the punches, to overcome adversity when unexpected setbacks rock a team, but there is nothing in the coaching handbook for the Buffs’ current in-season trio to look to for reference. They’re trying to tread water in turbulent currents.

Dorrell’s ability to keep his team on course health-wise while their peers around the Pac-12 have struggled is as impressive as every other button he has pressed in the football team’s 3-0 start. Boyle hasn’t been as lucky. CU played its first two games last week without D’Shawn Schwartz, who made it to game day before posting the first positive coronavirus test by a men’s basketball scholarship player since the pandemic began. The Buffs played both games without one of their senior leaders, and the second game without freshmen Keeshawn Barthelemy and Tristan da Silva, who were sidelined via contact tracing protocols from Schwartz’s positive test.

The headaches worsened for Boyle this week, as another positive test forced a two-day, program-wide shutdown and the postponement of CU’s scheduled Pac-12 opener at Arizona. The Buffs returned to the practice floor on Thursday, but on Friday they learned Saturday’s home date against Washington State also was off the ledger after the Cougars were struck with their own coronavirus issues.

Typically, December finds the Buffs trying to round into form during the final few weeks of nonconference play in order to hit the Pac-12 slate running. Instead of drawing up Xs and Os, Boyle spent the bulk of this early December week dealing with scheduling headaches. Normally that’s a July problem, not one that’s tackled while game-planning for league foes.

“From what we went through in Manhattan (Kansas) with D’Shawn and the contact tracing, it has really hit home to our players how serious this deal and how random it can be,” Boyle said earlier this week. “I say it all the time — there’s nobody probably on our team that has been as conservative and diligent with dealing with this virus and pandemic as D’Shawn Schwartz. And ironically, he’s the one that tests positive and gets it. There’s nothing he did wrong. No carelessness from his standpoint. That’s just the deal. I think our players understand that now because it hit home.”

The football team and two basketball teams entered Friday with a combined record of 7-0. A small collective sample size for certain, but one that looms larger given the daily hurdles endured by each team. Thanksgiving may be over, but Buffs fans should be grateful for the effort.