Once upon a time, college football coaches had the luxury of time to get their programs rolling.
At Colorado, three of the best coaches in program history struggled out of the gates.
Dal Ward went 3-6 and 3-7 in his first two years (1948-49). Eddie Crowder went 2-8 and 2-8 in his first two years (1963-64). And Bill McCartney opened up with 2-8-1, 4-7 and 1-10 in his first three years (1982-84).
Ward, Crowder and McCartney all wound up coaching at least 11 years at CU and left with winning records. More recently, Mike MacIntyre went 10-27 in his first three years and left with a losing mark, but led the Buffs to the Pac-12 South title in year No. 4.
In the age of social media, patience is thin and it’s tough to get a program going when the wins aren’t there to show progress.
For some CU fans, patience is thin for Karl Dorrell, who is about to complete his second season – but first full season – on the job. Only time will tell if Dorrell has a tenure that can live up to the standards set by Ward, Crowder or McCartney, but he is off to a better start than any of them, at 8-9 (and a 2020 bowl game under his belt).
This season, however, he’s 4-7 and it has been ugly at times. Some fans have already decided Dorrell isn’t the man for this job and wish CU would move on. The man in charge of the program, however, is going to give Dorrell time – as he should.
“I think we are young, I think we have had some difficult injuries that have really impacted us moving forward,” athletic director Rick George said. “But I’m very confident in what our future is going to look like and I’m very confident that coach Dorrell will be the one that will lead us there.”
In this edition of the Rewind, I caught up with George to talk about the football program and his belief in Dorrell. Also in this edition …
- Barnes’ breakout
- More from George
- Buffs of the Week
- Notes and quotes
LEADING OFF: Staying the course
For those researching the cost to buy out Dorrell’s contract or making a list of candidates to be the next head coach, just stop. At least for now.
Karl Dorrell, coming off a 20-17 win against Washington on Saturday, isn’t going anywhere this offseason, and not just because it would cost CU about $14.8 million to fire him before Dec. 31. If the buyout was $14.80, CU wouldn’t move on at this point. (Barring a total disaster in 2022, I’d be surprised if he was let go a year from now.)
When Dorrell was hired in February of 2020, he was the second head football coach hired by George in 15 months. CU elected to fire MacIntyre with one game left in 2018 and replaced him with Mel Tucker, who stuck around for one season before bolting for Michigan State.
I asked George how difficult it was to go through two coaching changes in two seasons.
“It’s extremely difficult,” he said. “It’s challenging because they have different personalities, they have different needs and different things that they think are important for their program. It is challenging, and it is difficult.”
So, you think George wants to do that again just 21 months after hiring Dorrell? Not a chance.
In essence, for a program like Colorado, which isn’t an established winner, every coaching change is a rebuild.
“It’s different (with each coach), because they have different offenses and defenses that maybe require different personnel,” George said. “Karl knows what he needs to be successful and we’re gonna support that.”
CU’s current roster is made up of players brought to Boulder by MacIntyre, Tucker and Dorrell. Three different coaches with three different philosophies – and trying to mesh that personnel is tough.
Rather than go through yet another change, George wants to give Dorrell time to build a staff and a roster the way he wants it built. It’s also important to give the players a full offseason with strength and conditioning coordinator Shannon Turley, who was hired in late January.
“It’s an important offseason. It really is,” George said. “I think Shannon Turley came in and he’s done a really good job. We’re going to try to make that program even better but two years with him in that role is going to make a significant difference. How we recruit in the coming days and weeks and months is going to be really important for us getting the right positions bolstered up that we need, so that’s going to be important.”
That recruiting element includes the transfer portal, which is going to be a big part of CU’s roster building. The Buffs are likely to lose a lot of current players to the portal, but they’ll also gain a lot of players.
“The portal’s been a good tool for some and some did better than others in it,” George said.
CU didn’t do so well in the portal this past year. The Buffs added six players from the transfer portal last offseason and none of them became starters this year. Linebackers Robert Barnes and Jack Lamb have contributed and they were both huge last Saturday, but they’ve been the only real contributors. One transfer (DL Blayne Toll) has already left the Buffs, another (QB JT Shrout) never played because of injury and another (OT Max Wray) has barely played because of health issues and it’s unclear if he’ll ever play for the Buffs again. The other transfer from backup offensive lineman Noah Fenske.
For the Buffs to make significant strides as a team next year, they have to be better with their use of the portal this offseason.
“No question,” George said.
What CU isn’t going to do is make a change at the top.
Dorrell was hired late in the process after Tucker suddenly left. Then, three weeks after being hired, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The pandemic wiped out spring football, delayed the 2020 season and led to CU having a truncated schedule after just a few weeks of practice.
CU managed a 4-2 season and trip to the Alamo Bowl in 2020, but benefited from several games against quality teams being canceled.
Dorrell made a couple of significant staff changes last offseason – hiring Turley and Chris Wilson as defensive coordinator – and got a full offseason this year, but wasn’t able to carry the momentum from 2020. Injuries and playing a load of freshmen, including at quarterback, have impacted this season.
“We didn’t have a lot of staff here when we went through a 4-2 season and we went to a bowl game,” George said. “Now all the staff is coming back and we don’t play well and you’re seeing a lot of negative stuff out there (on social media) if you go out there and look at it. I don’t look at it anymore because it doesn’t benefit me and it doesn’t benefit our student-athletes and our coaches, for that matter, to see that kind of negativity.
“I respect people’s opinions, I respect their comments, but nobody’s more passionate, nobody’s more invested in this program and this department than I am and coach Dorrell. We’ve got the right guy, and we’ve just got to make sure that we move this in the right direction.”
There are likely to be some staff changes at the end of the year, although George said those decisions would be made when he and Dorrell talk after the season.
George is prepared to give Dorrell the support he needs to move the program forward.
“Whether it’s in salaries or if it’s in recruiting or whatever areas that are important to him,” George said. “As we sit down at the end of the year that’s what we’ll talk about, and I do that with all of our coaches. We will certainly have those discussions at the conclusion of the season.”
Asked if the salary pool for assistant football coaches needs to be increased, George said, “I think we’ve got great assistant coaches in a lot of areas. … But, if there’s something that comes up that requires a commitment financially, I want to be able to make sure that we can support that.”
Support from the university is needed, as well, but George said he has a goal of getting the athletic department to a point where it doesn’t need financial support from the school.
“At the end of the day, we’ve got to put a better football team on the field,” he said. “How do we do that? We have to generate the revenue to do that. I’d like to be self-supportive in the next three or four years where we can support all the different things that we need. That’s a goal of mine to get that done and the way we get that done is we’ve got to put really good teams out there for the public because a lot of our revenue comes from ticket sales, comes from donations and it comes from corporate partners.
“The more people you have in the stands, the more valuable your product is, all those things make a difference. … We’ve got to look at how do we generate additional money for our department that will support the programmatic needs that we have for our student-athletes?”
Through all the frustration and disappointment of this season, George was pleased to see that fans did show up and support the football team this fall. For the six games at Folsom Field, CU averaged 46,484 tickets sold. There were also 61,203 fans at Empower Field at Mile High in Denver for the Texas A&M game.
“Our fans have been great and I applaud them for that,” George said. “I applaud our students for showing up; they really have.”
There’s no secret to keeping that going, though.
“At the end of the day, we know that we’ve got to put a really good football team on that field,” George said. “What I would say to those that are frustrated and disappointed on where we are, I share that frustration and that disappointment, but I’m very confident in where we’re going and I think we’ll see the fruits of how painful this was in the coming years.”
In George’s opinion, the quickest way to get there is to support Dorrell and give him time.
BREAKTHROUGH: Barnes busts loose against Huskies
Last winter, Robert Barnes came to Colorado with an eye on starting and becoming an impact player for the Buffaloes.
In four seasons at Oklahoma, Barnes played in 34 games, starting 10. He played mostly safety but had transitioned to linebacker in his last year with the Sooners. He was hoping for a bigger role with the Buffs, especially with 2020 starting inside linebacker Akil Jones transferring and Nate Landman recovering from a ruptured Achilles’ tendon.
Fortunately for the Buffs, Landman was healthy enough to return and play the first seven games (he’s missed the last four with a shoulder injury). Barnes, however, wasn’t able to grab the other starting spot. That went to Quinn Perry, who has started 10 of 11 games and leads the Buffs with 73 tackles.
With Landman missing the last four games, however, Barnes has played an increased role and he’s made the most of it. In particular, he had his most impactful game as a Buff in Saturday’s 20-17 win against Washington.
Barnes finished with a career-high 10 tackles, including a tackle for loss, an interception and a fumble recovery.
“That’s all God if I’m being honest,” Barnes said. “I’ve worked on my faith for so long and I have super strong faith and I never wavered in my preparation. I prepared the same way every week and I knew my time was gonna come. I told both of these guys (tight end Matt Lynch and outside linebacker Carson Wells) before the game I was gonna give them everything I have. I’m just happy I was able to go out there and contribute and get these guys a win and send them off right.”
That performance was much needed for Barnes, who received high praise during the offseason from coaches. That didn’t translate to the field in the first seven games, though. Barnes missed the opener with an injury but averaged just 18.5 snaps played per game in the next six while recording a total of 10 tackles.
“I wouldn’t say it was frustrating (early in the year),” he said. “I think that I trusted the coaches. We have a plan and anytime you have a new guy come into a program, it’s just growing pains, it’s gonna be learning the defense, learning how to play with guys. I trusted them to put me in the right spots at the right time. I knew my time would come.”
It did come on Saturday, as he had his breakout performance.
“I just caught that momentum tonight, where I was just feeling it; felt kind of out of body was able to make those plays,” he said. “I think that just sparks my confidence going into this next game and then going into next year being that I have one more year left.”
Early in the third quarter, Washington was on the move and had the ball at the CU 36-yard line. Quarterback Dylan Morris hurried a pass and it was tipped. Barnes dove and scooped it up before it floated to the ground. The Buffs didn’t capitalize with points, but that play prevented Washington from taking the lead in a 10-10 game.
“We were in a certain coverage where my guy went away, so I was kind of a zone dropper,” Barnes said. “I saw the ball thrown, saw (safety Mark Perry) tip it and it was just kind of see ball, go get ball. It was high up there, so I knew I had a chance to go reach out and layout for it.”
Later in the third, Washington had second-and-8 from its own 12 when the Huskies had a horrible shotgun snap. Barnes, who was filling the gap between center and right guard, was right there and pounced on the ball, recovering at the 7-yard line. That set up a go-ahead field goal.
“It was a perfect play at the perfect time,” Barnes said. “It was one of those things where we called what we called, the gaps opened up, I saw the ball on the ground and ‘go get the ball.’ Those type of plays, yeah, it could be a lucky break, or you look at it as I was in the right spot at the right time doing my job and was able to come up with a big play.”
Dorrell didn’t view those as lucky breaks. Instead, he credited Barnes and other Buffs who got turnovers with playing good defense.
“We’re trying to preach that that’s how we play defense,” Dorrell said. “You have to preach for the turnover factor to work you’ve got to look for opportunities for that to work. (It’s not) the ball just falls to you. It’s got to be generated. It’s got to work out. And that was a good sign today that the defense really stepped up and made some opportunities come to existence today.”
Barnes certainly did and had his greatest impact on a game this season.
“It’s super exciting,” he said. “I wanted to come here and contribute. I wasn’t early on and all that, but I’m just super excited that I can build off of this and just keep going. Never be satisfied.
“I was playing with a different type of energy out there tonight, just because that is (the seniors’) last home game. I’m from a championship program and it’s always important that we send those guys out with a win, and I was happy we were able to do that.”
Barnes not only helped get the seniors a win, but he is gaining some confidence during the second half of the season. With Landman graduating, a starting spot will be up for grabs again, and Barnes has started to show in recent games that he could be a candidate to fill those shoes. In the last four games, he’s averaged 49 snaps and he’s got 27 tackles, including three TFLs.
“Tremendously,” he said of what the last four games have done for his confidence. “When you’re out there and you’re able to make those plays, I feel like guys trust you a little bit more and … now it’s going to be an expectation, and I’m ready for that. I worked my whole life for this and I’m just happy I’m finally here in that moment where I can go make those plays.”
He’s hoping for more opportunities to make plays – and get wins – in 2022.
“I’ll be back next year,” he said. “I’m excited and I don’t plan to leave here without a Pac-12 championship.”
GEORGE WRAP UP: A few more thoughts from the AD
In addition to talking about the football program with George last week, we talked about a few other topics, including some turnover with the Buff Club and future plans for some facilities upgrades.
Why has there been so much turnover with the Buff Club recently?
George: “There has been a lot of changeover for a lot of different reasons. But I think if you look at any company in this country, you look at any athletic department in this country, everybody’s going through a lot of changes. Everybody. And that’s just a fact. But what we’ve done is we’ve hired two really good additional staff to come in there – (managing senior director of development) Beth Kuwata and (director of development) Sarah Jeno and they’re terrific. We’re in process of hiring a Buff Club director.”
CU has lost its Buff Club director twice in the past 18 months, with Ben Broussard leaving for North Carolina State in April of 2020 and Lance Gerlach leaving this fall for another opportunity.
George: “You go back to how difficult is it having two coaches in two years? Pretty much the same thing (with losing the Buff Club director twice), if you think about it. It’s been challenging and certainly, it’s been a challenge in that area to keep this a consistent staff. We feel like we’re making the changes that we need to make. We’ve been in flux, there’s no question about it. I mean, that’s a legitimate question and I answered that question when I had our call with Buff Club (members). … (Broussard and Gerlach) went for the right reasons. And all we can do is continue to try to put the right culture in place, the right environment in place, and take care of our staff.”
George reiterated that he has a goal in all sports to win championships and supports head coaches in all sports as much as he can. But, he also said there are some limitations when it comes to needed facility upgrades.
George: “There are some areas that we can’t do everything that we need, like lights at Prentup Field (where the soccer team plays). That costs money. I’d love to be able to put lights up there, but how long are we going to be there with the change in CU South? And tennis is going to leave there at some point, because that’s where their court is at. Where are we going to put an indoor and an outdoor court for them? I mean, there’s a lot of challenges that we have moving forward. But we’re going to compete, and we’re going to do everything we can to generate more revenue. That’s why we’re hiring a chief revenue officer to see if there’s ways we could still put a name on the stadium; it would still be ‘at Folsom Field.’ We can put one on the indoor facility; we can put one on the Events Center. All of that is meaningful, but we need somebody to focus on that area.”
There’s no question the west side of Folsom Field is outdated. Having been around the Pac-12, it is, by far, the most outdated and smallest press box in the conference. I asked George about a timeline for that renovation.
George: “We need to address it. I don’t know how close we are, but we need to address it sooner rather than later. We are going to address the speaker system (before the 2022 season). That’s been something that’s been out there for years that we needed to do.”
I followed up and asked George if it’s possible to get the facility upgrades done in three to five years.
George: “I’ve got about five years left (on his contract) and I’d like to get all this done before I leave. That’s the west side, that’s improving the Events Center. We’ve got to find a better home for our lacrosse team. We’ve got stuff to do over at Prentup. We’ve got a tennis facility that we know we’re going to lose that we’ve got to enhance. We’ve got to upgrade our track and all that. So we’ve got a lot to do. This is the time to support us and I get it. I understand the frustration (with football). I understand the disappointment. I share in that too. But I’m really focused on us getting better and improving our facilities and providing great opportunities for our student-athletes.”
BEST OF THE BUFFS
Here’s my take on the best of the Buffs against Washington:
LB Robert Barnes: Played his best game as a Buff, with an interception, fumble recovery, 10 tackles and a tackle for loss.
PK Cole Becker: Another solid day for Becker, who hit both of his field goal attempts – from 35 and 22 yards – and both of his extra points.
CB Mekhi Blackmon: Had a good day in coverage, including a pass breakup in the end zone. He added three tackles.
LB Jack Lamb: His 88-yard fumble return for touchdown set the tone for the Buffs. He also had three tackles and a QB hurry.
QB Brendon Lewis: Not his best game, but he did enough to help the Buffs win, including scoring what amounted to the game-winning touchdown. Ran for 30 yards and threw for 112.
LB Quinn Perry: Posted 10 tackles, including a tackle for loss.
CB Nikko Reed: Has proven to be a good young player for the Buffs. He had a huge interception in the fourth quarter and added two tackles.
DL Jalen Sami: Had a nice game against the run, posting four tackles and a tackle for loss.
OLB Carson Wells: Great game in his final contest at Folsom Field. He had eight tackles – six solo – two sacks, three tackles for loss, a forced fumble, two pass breakups and two QB hurries.
LT Jake Wiley: It’s been a tough year at times for Wiley, but, for what it’s worth, he was graded as CU’s best offensive player by Pro Football Focus.
NOTES AND STATS
- Looking for some positive out of this season? During their first nine years in the Pac-12, the Buffs won at least three conference games just twice – in 2016 and 2019. Dorrell has done it twice in two seasons on the job, going 3-1 last year and 3-5 so far this year. And, yeah, I know that’s a low bar, but given the state of the CU program during the 11 years in the Pac-12, it’s something! Conference winning percentage by coach during the Pac-12 era:
- Karl Dorrell: .500 (6-6)
- Mel Tucker: .333 (3-6)
- Mike MacIntyre: .259 (14-40)
- Jon Embree: .167 (3-15)
- Although Quinn Perry hasn’t had the overall impact that Nate Landman has had at inside linebacker, he’s been a highly productive tackler this season. Perry has a team-high 74 tackles in 416 snaps played (one tackle for every 5.62 snaps). Landman has 71 tackles in 400 snaps (one tackle for every 5.63 snaps). Perry has four tackles for loss, just two shy of Landman’s six.
- Receiver Brenden Rice won’t play in the finale, so his season is over. While the offense struggled, he still managed to be explosive, especially as a returner. He finished the season with a 27.6-yard average on his 17 kickoff returns. That’s the best average for a CU kick returner (for those with three or more returns) since Ben Kelly’s 28.8-yard average in 1999. (Rice’s numbers, 469 yards on 17 returns, are almost identical to Roderick Sneed – 468 on 17 returns – in 2002). As a receiver, Rice finishes the year with 21 catches for 299 yards and three touchdowns.
QUOTES OF THE WEEK
LB Nate Landman on getting into the game late for his last home game: “It’s a huge honor. I love the school and they’ve done so much for me. I try to repeat and repay that favor on the football field. It was crazy to experience running out there in front of the crowd one last time. Hugging my family, seeing my family and then going through the crazy emotional game and coming out with the win. I’m super thankful for Coach Dorrell, for letting me go on for those last couple of snaps. That’s a great experience and I wouldn’t change how it all went down. It was amazing.”
Landman on comparing his first home game (in 2017) to his last: “It’s super emotional. Both times have different kinds of emotions. The first time you’re excited. Nervous? Yeah. And then last time, you’re kind of reminiscing on all the great memories you’ve had, great games you’ve played in that stadium, the plays you’ve made, the people you’ve met and people you’ve played with. So many different experiences. It was super emotional both times.”
OLB Carson Wells on whether a solid finish to the season (CU is 2-1 in November) can carry over to next year: “Yeah, definitely. We had a lot of young guys playing tonight, getting some experience. That’s crucial moving forward for the program.”
TE Matt Lynch on what has changed for CU in the past month: “That’s kind of just going back to practice and the mindset we have a practice every single day. We had a couple more periods that kind of focused on good versus good to give our quarterback and offensive line good looks against a defense that kind of helped (Brendon Lewis) progress and that was something that we’ve seen.”
LB Robert Barnes on the defense needing a good performance against Washington: “I think it was awesome. I think that it just makes our bond that much tighter. Before every drive you could just look in everybody’s eyes and I mean we wanted to win that game and we were going to win that game. I think that just builds so much momentum going into Utah knowing the task we have at hand there. I’m so proud of these guys that we just were able to go out there and put on the performance that we did.”
Senior DL Mustafa Johnson on saying goodbye to Folsom Field: “I really appreciated it, actually getting to have my family out there and having everybody there to support me. I really appreciate it. I appreciate my friends coming out and my teammates fighting to the end to get us this win.”
Wrapping it up. The Buffs head to Salt Lake City for the season finale on Friday.