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CU Buffs put trust in head coach Karl Dorrell

Coach, players feel a strong foundation being built in Boulder

Head coach, Karl Dorrell, talks to ...
Head coach, Karl Dorrell, talks to the team after the spring showcase on April 30, 2021.
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After an offseason filled with Zoom meetings in 2020, Colorado running back Alex Fontenot discovered something about his new coach last fall.

“He’s the same coach that we saw on Zoom,” Fontenot said. “He never faked anything. He stays true to who he is and that’s what a lot of us like about him.”

Karl Dorrell had a difficult task in 2020. Hired as CU’s head coach on Feb. 23 – about two months after most coaching changes – he then had to navigate the Buffs through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite being hired late, not having spring practices, having the season delayed until November and then shortened, Dorrell led the Buffs to a 4-2 record and he won Pac-12 coach of the year honors. Along the way, however, he won something more important: the trust of his players.

“I like how honest he is, I like how serious he is,” quarterback Brendon Lewis said. “He wants to win and he’s here to win and I want to win. He cares about his players. I like that a lot about him.”

About 18 months ago, the Buffs were skeptical and maybe a little leery about putting their trust in Dorrell.

For many players on the team, Dorrell is their third head coach (for some, who may have started at another school, he is their fourth). There are 31 players still on the team that were recruited to CU by Mike MacIntyre, who was fired with one game to play in the 2018 season.

Colorado head coach Karl Dorrell during practice on Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021. (Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)

Then, in 2019, they were asked to buy into the message delivered by MacIntyre’s replacement, Mel Tucker. The energy generated by Tucker was contagious and players felt he had them on the right track. Then, Tucker turned his back on those players and bolted for Michigan State.

Players leaned on each other, as yet another head coach was brought in.

“The leadership had to step up and I’m one of those leadership guys, one of the captains on the team and one of those people who teammates have to look up to,” senior linebacker Nate Landman said this summer. “I have to reassure them and lead them through the difficult situations, like a new coach and all that. We would have player meetings all the time just talking about stuff going on and if anybody had concerns.”

The 2020 recruiting class had similar discussions. They signed on with CU to play for Tucker and his sudden departure had many of them rethinking their decision.

“I think we all had that question at first,” Lewis said. “We were all debating, what do we do? What should we do? We were like, ‘Let’s just hear coach Dorrell out and see what he has to say. We’re here for a reason.’

“We all love him now. So, it worked out well.”

A winning season – just the second at CU in the last 15 years – certainly helped, but as Dorrell now enters his second season with the Buffs, he’s got a team that has bought into his mission for the program.

“His culture is (about) working hard and just playing football the way the game is supposed to be played,” Landman said. “I think that foundation that was built last year is going to be brought up a lot this year.”

Building the program is a long, never-ending process, but Dorrell believes he has set a solid foundation and that he has the Buffs headed in the right direction.

“We’ve made (the foundation) as strong as possible and it’s a good foundation in our team and in our program,” Dorrell said. “There’s great comfort in knowing that they know what the expectations are, they know how we handle ourselves within our program and the expectations of that. It’s very comforting to see that they’ve kind of bought into that, but more importantly, they bought into each other.

“They’ve got to ultimately become and meld themselves to being a great football team. I’m just trying to guide them in the process.”

Due in part to the leadership provided by Dorrell, that process is further along than it was a year ago.

“The team should be player-led,” tight end Brady Russell said. “I think we’re learning that process and we’re getting better at it and we’re pushing each other and we’re holding each other to a higher standard, rather than in the past where it’s just coaches yelling at players and there are no older guys bringing younger guys and teaching them what to do. Now we have a lot more of that.”

Under Dorrell’s direction, the Buffs tasted success in 2020. Now, the Buffs are settled into Dorrell’s program, player leaders are emerging and there’s a belief that more success is on the way.

“I feel like coach Dorrell has the right staff here and everything’s different from what I’ve had from the past,” defensive lineman Jalen Sami said. “I’m excited for what we have now.”