Mike MacIntyre may be out as Colorado Buffaloes head coach at the season, as reported by Troy Renck of Denver Channel 7, although that report has since been called into question. If Colorado has indeed decided to part ways with the former National Coach of the Year, it would be the right move for the program’s future.
Colorado originally hired MacIntyre to lead the Buffaloes out of the deep, cavernous basement that had been dug by Dan Hawkins and Jon Embree. What had once been one of the top football programs in the nation had collapsed amid coaching incompetence, woeful recruiting and a program-wide feeling of hopelessness. MacIntyre had turned around the San Jose State Spartans and was expected to do the same at Colorado. The dream was for MacIntyre to bring the Buffs back into contention, but so much as being competitive would be welcomed, at least for some time.
MacIntyre took a while to escape the cellar, but once he built a base for himself in Boulder and had his own recruits as upperclassmen, the Buffaloes emphatically announced themselves into the college football discussion. You know the story: led by Sefo Liufau, Phillip Lindsay and a star-studded defense, MacIntyre coached the Buffaloes to a 10-2 regular season and a Pac-12 South division crown. CU was crushed in the Pac-12 Championship and in the Alamo Bowl, but they had come back from the depths and built the foundation for the next era of Colorado football.
But the momentum didn’t continue. Colorado lost 8 of 11 starters from what had been an elite defense, including Chidobe Awuzie, Tedric Thompson and Ahkello Witherspoon (all future NFL starters). Jim Leavitt, the mastermind of the defense and apparent emotional backbone of the team, took the defensive coordinator job at Oregon. Isaiah Oliver and other promising defenders remained, but with so much overhaul on the defensive side, 2017 would have to be carried by the vaunted offense.
The offense had lost Sefo Liufau, but the talented Steven Montez was ready to step up with Lindsay and a prolific receiving corps at his disposal. There were going to be scoreboards broken and CU was going to win a good amount of those shootouts. You know this story too. The 2017 Buffaloes played with zero consistency or passion, apart from Lindsay. The coaching staff struggled to adapt to opponents (hello, Khalil Tate) and favored under-performing and uninterested veterans over hungry underclassmen (e.g. Laviska Shenault Jr. and his 7 catches). There were rumors that MacIntyre had been disgruntled after the Joe Tumpkin scandal and that he was perhaps eyeing an SEC job, likely with Ole Miss. It seemed as if he was ready to leave Boulder behind, and that the team’s struggles came from his being disinterested.
MacIntyre never left Boulder and seemed more content to be leading the Buffaloes. He had made staff changes, moving on from Brian Lindgren, promoting Darrin Chiaverini and ShaDon Brown, and bringing in Kurt Roper and Kwahn Drake. And though this 2018 team was young, they had the recruiting success to infuse the roster with instant-impact talents such as Shenault, K.D. Nixon, Mustafa Johnson and Delrick Abrams. Add in a more focused Steven Montez and transfer running back Travon McMillian, and the Buffs were looking promising not just for 2018, but for the future as well. With so much talent on hand, reaching a bowl game was the bare-minimum expectation. To reach or surpass that modest goal, the coaching staff just needed to craft creative gameplans, adapt in-game and keep the team focused. And, of course, you know this story as well.
The Buffs got off to a roaring start in 2018 as they started 5-0 and climbed to 19th in the AP Poll. Their opponents were all trash, more or less, but it was impressive that such a young team could blow out the teams they needed to and stick with it should things get tough. The coaching itself looked fine, with Chiv creatively getting the ball to Viska and D.J. Eliot making heady second half adjustments for the defense. But that hot start ended with a road game at USC. In that game, the defense had made every play to put the team in position for an upset, but tentative game-planning and scared playcalling doomed the offense. In order to win big games, you have to call winning plays, but those were never made. Similar issues led to a frustrating loss at Washington a week later.
It hadn’t been since 2015 that fans called for MacIntyre’s job, but those calls came crashing in once Colorado blew a 28-point halftime lead to the 1-7 Oregon State Beavers. Losing to OSU was a disaster in itself — even Beavers fans didn’t think they would win another game in 2018 — but to collapse as they did made it one of the worst losses in program history. MacIntyre’s second half playcalling seemed like he didn’t want to embarrass his opponents, but in not going for the kill, OSU crawled back and eventually won in overtime. This screen capture says it all.
The away loss to Arizona wasn’t necessarily an indictment of MacIntyre as it was of the injuries plighting the team. It was disappointing but not really surprising to see Khalil Tate throw for 5 touchdowns on just 22 passes. If anything, it was somewhat encouraging to see the offense keep up with Zona’s without Shenault, KD Nixon or a functioning offensive line.
With that defensive performance coming a week before CU was hosting #8 Washington State, it was fair to wonder just how bad it could get against the prolific Gardner Minshew. Much to everyone’s surprise, the defense held up just fine against Wazzu. Abrams and Mekhi Blackmon were excellent in pass defense and the defense held the Cougars to just 10 points in the first half. But the Buffs were apparently disinterested in a top-10 upset as their playcalling was beyond conservative. They constantly found themselves in 3rd-and-long and opted to throw short of the sticks. Even including McMillian’s 64-yard run that led to their sole touchdown, the Buffs had more first half punts (5) than 10+ yard gains (4).
On Twitter, the second half discourse consisted of many a fan calling for Mac’s job. Some of these fans were the same ones who booed Sefo Liufau (so, bad fans), but some, such as Ted Chalfen, saw this as the straw that broke the camel’s back. It seemed that MacIntyre didn’t even want to win the game. This criticism ringed especially clear when the Buffs were down 10 points late in the third quarter and punted from the Wazzu 36-yard-line, only to see Minshew carve up the defense and score in under three minutes. We have learned throughout the season that it’s difficult to win if you don’t aggressively seize your opportunities. MacIntyre blamed injuries for the team’s five-game losing streak. That claim certainly has merit, but it’s not the only reason, and a head coach certainly shouldn’t be shying away from responsibility if he wants his team to have a culture of accountability.
The Buffs can still salvage the season and MacIntyre could possibly save his job. Colorado has two games left — at home against Utah and on the road against California — that are toss-ups. Should they win out, 7-5 with a chance at 8-5 doesn’t sound so bad. It would probably be enough to see MacIntyre remain in 2019, maybe even longer. But that’s very likely not going to happen; according to S&P+ projections, CU is the underdog in both games and is just as likely to lose both as they are to win just one. 6-6 with a bowl game isn’t enough, not with this much talent on the field.
MacIntyre did a terrific job in leading the program out of the basement, but he appears to have a hard ceiling to how effective he can be as game-planner and motivator. Someone more aggressive and creative should be here to lead the Buffs to the next step.