Karl Dorrell was in a pretty good position in his career in February.
Shortly after his first season as the receivers coach with the Miami Dolphins, Dorrell was promoted to assistant head coach and he was preparing for the 2020 NFL draft.
It’s been well documented what happened next. Dorrell got an unexpected call from the University of Colorado to interview for its head coaching vacancy and within just a few days, he was standing at the podium in the Dal Ward Center talking about his new job.
Ten months later, Dorrell is the Pac-12 coach of the year and a candidate for national honors. Navigating the Buffs (4-1) through the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic, he’s taking them to San Antonio to face Texas (6-3) in the Valero Alamo Bowl on Tuesday.
“I don’t think there was a more perfect coach for us than Karl Dorrell this past year,” CU athletic director Rick George said this week.
That was hardly the sentiment from outsiders when Dorrell was introduced as head coach on Feb. 23.
It was the 24th and final coaching change in the Football Bowl Subdivision last winter, and it was widely viewed as one of the worst. In grading the coaching changes of last winter, Lindy’s magazine ranked CU’s choice 23rd – above only Colorado State’s choice of Steve Addazio.
Dorrell had been fired from his only other head coaching stint (2003-07 at UCLA) and had spent 11 of the last 12 seasons as an NFL position coach. The only exception came in 2014, when he was the offensive coordinator at Vanderbilt University; he was fired at the end of that season.
Despite the critics, Dorrell has been the best man for CU, and CU was the right fit for Dorrell.
“I’ve always felt that college football was the most, I think, impactful parts of my career,” Dorrell said this week, “because you’re developing young players.”
Dorrell had 17 years of college coaching experience before this year, including six as an assistant at CU (1992-93, 1995-98).
“You get them from high school, then they graduate and become young men by the time they graduate from college,” he said. “So I’ve always felt like this is the best time, in my career on this level, to impact young people.”
CU needed someone to make a positive impact on its players after former head coach Mel Tucker bolted for Michigan State on Feb. 11.
Many of the players had already been through one coaching change, when Mike MacIntyre was fired with one game to play in 2018. Tucker was hired in December of 2018, bringing a promise of tough, physical football in his first opportunity to be a head coach.
Tucker delivered, too, bringing an attitude to the Buffs and re-energizing the fan base. The sudden departure of Midnight Mel after only 14 months stunned the Buffs, though. He publicly stated he was committed to CU, even as he was negotiating his deal with Michigan State.
The players felt betrayed. It wasn’t Dorrell’s fault, but he was going to have to earn respect from a wounded bunch.
“He didn’t just say, ‘I need you to trust me,’” senior receiver KD Nixon said. “He said, I’m going to earn it.’ That’s just more respectful because you can see that coach Dorrell is really with us.”
It began with Dorrell’s first meeting with the Buffs, who were coming off three consecutive 5-7 season. They told Dorrell they just wanted to win.
“They thought that they were better than what people thought they were, and we just rode that type of mindset of we’re gonna have to outwork people and have to really work on getting ourselves to be, I guess, rewarded for good play by how we play,” he said. “We just went to work.”
Just a couple of weeks after Dorrell was hired, the coronavirus pandemic caused a cancellation of spring ball, drastically altered the offseason workout program and led to the Pac-12 season being canceled all together, on Aug. 11. About six weeks later, the Pac-12 decided to play a delayed, shortened season.
Through it all, Dorrell has made no excuses and operated with the players’ desires to win at the forefront of his mind.
“I didn’t want to let those guys down because of what they wanted to achieve in their first year and my first year of being here,” he said.
It hasn’t always been easy.
“I think the hardest thing for me is I’m expecting excellence a lot of the time,” he said. “The (assistant) coaches keep reeling me in about, ‘You’ve got to remember you just came from the NFL. This is what it is in college.’ So I’ve been reminded a time or two throughout the season about my expectations are a lot higher in terms of what it should look like versus what the NFL expectations are, so that’s been my biggest struggle, because I am always shooting to be the best we can be.
“(In college), they’re developing, they’re going to make mistakes and sometimes I have to be reminded that, ‘Remember you’re back in college and you’re not in the NFL.’”
That’s a good thing, as the timing of his return to college football could not have been much better.
During the most difficult season in recent memory, with more built-in excuses than ever, Dorrell has earned the respect of his players, while collecting coach of the year honors along the way.
“He’s been resilient in really just keeping all of us focused, keeping all of us accountable and on track,” tackle William Sherman said. “As you can see, the first four games it really paid off. So, it was awesome to see him earn that award that he really deserved.”
It’s an honor few projected 10 months ago, but George knew back then he was getting a coach that fit the program.
“There’s not a lot that gets him fired up and I like that about him,” George said. “As we went through the process and hiring, he was exactly what we needed. We needed that calm presence, stability and he has that. Everything we threw at him, I’d tell him and he’d say, ‘OK, we’ll do what we’ve got to do.’”