While sitting there in Section 119 of Folsom Field watching the CU offense flop around repeatedly, and then seeing a CU defense thought to be improved collapse yet again in the face of a Missouri offense, one couldn't help but feel the last bit of air escaping from the deflated possibility of a successful football season. Despite the valiant efforts of too few young Buffalo players, Missouri blitzed Colorado 36-17 to effectively end any glimmer of hope that the Buffs would achieve any of the overall goals set for the 2009 football season.
So you might have noticed that Hits & Myths is coming to you late this week. There are (at least) a couple of reasons: 1) It was difficult deciding how to write this column and still make it relevant as CU sits at 2-6 (especially after seeing no comments made to the last Hits & Myths), and 2) everything that could be written about CU football was superseded when word came along that Darrell Scott was leaving CU. This season's "losses" place the CU Football program squarely at the crossroads once again.
There comes a time in a season like this one that optimism must give way not to pessimism but to realism. As a true Buff fan, I refuse to abandon the Buffs or give in to the pure negativity that consumes me and many others in the hours, sometimes days, following the most difficult-to-absorb losses. Thus, I will approach the remainder of the season, starting with this week's home game against Texas A&M, with very different expectations, holding out hope all along the way that the Buffs will at the very least find a way to rise to the occasion of a visit from the hated Huskers in their last game of 2009.
Therefore, this week, in the interest of realism, the format of this column changes, addressing Coach Hawkins and the program as a whole. Things have changed, but not for the better, and it is time to look at where CU Football stands as we near the end of the first full decade of Big XII play.
1. Honor Restored - I have never believed that Gary Barnett was responsible for bringing CU's football program down, but thanks to a very few truly bad apples in the football program at the time and some overzealous and lazy journalism, the team's reputation was brought to perhaps an all-time low. Coach Hawkins was a breath of fresh air when hired to replace Barnett, and since then the program has been able to ride through more bad-apple situations and come out relatively unscathed because the coaches and the university as a whole have worked together to set high standards and reinforce strong moral and academic standards. When things have gone wrong, they've acted quickly and presented a united front. The vast majority of football players on CU's teams in the Hawkins era are true student-athlete-citizens, and Coach Hawkins and his staff can take much of the credit for that.
2. Talent Level has Risen - Perhaps the main reason that many were ready for a change in coaches in 2005 was because the talent level had decreased to such a low point that we could not stay in the stadium with teams like Texas that we had been able to beat just four years prior. CU was not even getting the best athletes from its own state, which soon meant that an automatic win every year against CSU was turned into a hotly-contested in-state rivalry. When Hawkins arrived, he immediately recruited the top players in Colorado, and some of the best elsewhere as well. After four years of excellent recruiting by Hawkins and his staff, CU started out this season with talent that could compare with any school in the Big XII.
3. Buffs Play Big in Most Big Games - Every year in the Hawkins era, there have been at least two games that showed the nation that CU could play with anybody. In 2006, CU came within a few seconds and one point of a huge upset over Georgia, then knocked off Texas Tech. In 2007, CU not only rose to a huge upset of #2 OU, but also beat CSU, Texas Tech and Nebraska in the same season, putting up 65 pts on the Huskers. In 2008, CU upset West Virginia & would have upset the Huskers in Lincoln if not for an all-time Husker record FG. In 2009, the Buffs were ahead of Texas at halftime, then followed up the next week with an upset of a rated Kansas team. In the Hawkins era, the best CU opponents usually get the Buffs' best game.
1. Youth Just Needs to Grow Up - Perhaps the most frequent phrase uttered by Hawkins and Mike Bohn to explain the failures this season has been along the lines that youth and inexperience on this Buffalo team mean it will just take a little longer than expected to get the wins CU fans are used to, that the young Buffs just need to grow up. The problem is that we've heard this excuse for four years now. The phrase rings more hollow when CU continues to get beat by other teams whose rosters are chock-full of first- or second-year players, including the two teams that just got through beating CU, as well as the first two teams who beat CU this year. It's an excuse that doesn't ring true.
2. Players "Coached Up and Loved Up" - A pair of words that have always made me a little queasy are "Hawk Love". I want my coach to care about his team as a whole and his players individually, especially at the college level where kids are leaving home to go somewhere and learn how to become men. I guess I just get a bit wary when the vocabulary becomes a little too lovey-dovey in the context of football. The game is a contest of strength, will and strategy. Football in both practice and game is more gladiatorial, a lot more like combat and a lot less like those corporate-world touchy-feely trust- or team-building exercises that CU football has resembled in the last few years. Football requires toughness, physically and mentally, and that means more "tough love" than we've seen in a while. There has been very little "coaching up", as players who have had great promise coming out of high school and have initially displayed their talents in pre-season scrimmages or their first few games end up getting worse instead of better. And they don't seem so "loved up" when those same promising players start missing games or leaving the program altogether because of "personal issues ". Yes, players leaving college programs is not unique to Colorado; loyalty aint what it used to be at the college or pro level. Player exoduses have simply become too common in the last couple of years at CU. It almost seems like our coaches misunderstand the phrase "When the going gets tough, the tough get going!"
3. Program Headed in the Right Direction - Another phrase we hear from CU's Head Coach, Athletic Director and even President DiStefano is that things may seem rough right now, but the program is "headed in the right direction". It is true that there is more to an athletic program than wins and losses. The problem is that it's not just whether CU wins, it's how they play the game. In more than 3 1/2 years, a CU team that historically was a beast away from home has won two games on the road. In every game this year, CU has come out of the locker room in one half or the other acting like they got a nap instead of a pep talk. In 32 quarters played in 2009, Colorado has scored less than 7 points in 16 quarters - half the time. In only two quarters has CU scored two touchdowns or more. Preparedness and motivation are two hallmarks of good coaching, and the Buffs seem to lack both. The one direction the program definitely has headed so far is down to the cellar of a weak Big XII North.
1. Change Course - Despite too many terrible starts in too many halves of games this year, it is true that a few plays going in a different direction might have changed the outcome of many games. It is absolute fact that change is just around the corner; what kind of change hinges on these last four games. If Colorado is to alter the course of the season, Coach Hawkins must pull a buffalo out of a hat and win 3 or 4 of these games. Four would put the Buffs in a bowl game and on a winning streak that hasn't been seen in the Hawkins era. It would suggest that Colorado and Hawkins were back to their winning ways. Three wins could work as long as one of them was a victory over Nebraska, and another really needs to be Iowa State. Coach Hawkins can probably afford a loss to A & M this week if he upsets a very good Oklahoma State team, but either way he must come up with one win over a South Division team and one road win. He then would need to follow it up with a successful recruiting class that included at least one four- or five-star recruit, preferably at running back, to overcome the other loss that occurred between games this week.
2. Change Coach - Anything less than 3 more victories this year means 2-4 Ws and 8-10 Ls, leaving Colorado with one of its two worst seasons out of four losing seasons in a row. If Coach Hawkins can't alter the course of the 2009 season, he unfortunately will have altered the course of his career. It would put Mike Bohn and the CU Administration in an untenable position. While buying out Coach Hawkins' contract would be expensive, the losses in ticket and tv revenues as well as in donations that would likely result if he stayed would make the option of keeping the coach more expensive. Maintaining the status quo would cause the overall support of the University, and Colorado's standing in the Big XII and in the eyes of the nation, to diminish more than it already has. No true CU fan really wants to see this happen. It would mean starting everything over again, hoping against hope that this time the change would turn things around more quickly. Players' lives and careers would be disrupted and would have to be patched together again. Yet, in the face of too many "losses", the alternative seems worse.
I would much rather see Coach Hawkins and the Buffaloes succeed than fail. This much is certain: the University of Colorado football team can't continue on its present course. Tomorrow, many Buff fans will approach the Colorado - Texas A & M game feeling "blue", and only if a Buffalo of a different color shows up at Folsom Field will they feel compelled to change their moods and their colors to Black and Gold again. Otherwise, they and the "powers that be" will feel compelled to change their head coach.