Is this going to be the year?
By Larry Zimmer
As Coach Mike MacIntyre enters his fourth year, Colorado fans wonder: Is this finally going to be the year?
MacIntyre’s evaluation? “We are climbing out of a deep hole and the ladder is poking out of the hole. Now we have to get out of the hole.” The “hole” is 10 straight losing seasons. MacIntyre’s three-year totals are 10-27 overall and 2-25 in the Pac-12 Conference.
“Honestly, I didn’t know until I got here how far the program had fallen down and how good the Pac-12 was,” MacIntyre admits. “The Pac-12 had elevated itself. We had fallen, and there was a big chasm—not just a gap. We felt that we had to build a bridge across that chasm and close the space dramatically. It’s been a process. We didn’t have to just build a football team; we had to build a whole program. We had to build a culture and a reputation, not only within the team and the university, but outside as well. Visually you can see our progress on the field. Visually you can see it in our facilities. Visually you can see it in our recruiting. Visually you can see it in the academic progress and our retention rate. We have more juniors and seniors on scholarship still in the program—I think the most in the history of the school. The Academic Progress Rate is also the highest in the history of CU.”
With all of that being said, the Buffaloes have to get more wins. Athletic Director Rick George says, “My expectation is that we win six or seven games, maybe eight, and go to a bowl game. We won four games last year and were very close in several others.”
Is that pressure on MacIntyre? “The pressure is what I put on myself,” MacIntyre says. “I expect us to win all 12 games. If I don’t expect that, nobody will. That’s my job. That’s my players’ job. We’re not just shooting for mediocrity. It’s been extremely frustrating for our players, our staff, myself, our fans too. Competitive as I am, growing up a coach’s son, it’s ingrained in the family. The progress I see every day keeps me motivated. Eventually it’s going to burst wide open. We’re getting close to that point.”
‘Everything Is in Place to Be Successful’
George is satisfied with MacIntyre’s first three years. “He inherited a program that wasn’t at its best. We know how great this program can be,” George says. “We have improved, but it all comes down to learning how to win football games. We made a leap from year two to three. In year two we had some bad losses; we got beaten by a lot. Last year we were pretty much in every contest, but now we have to shift from a close loss to a close win.”
MacIntyre was hired in December 2012 by Athletic Director Mike Bohn, but before MacIntyre coached his first game, Bohn was replaced by George in July 2013. George and MacIntyre had never met. “The first time I met him was the day they announced me as the AD,” George says. “I knew of him, because I worked at Vanderbilt and his dad, George MacIntyre, was one of the most successful coaches at Vanderbilt. I was also in Dallas when he was on the Dallas Cowboys staff.”
MacIntyre also points to those connections at Vanderbilt and Dallas. He adds, “I was very fortunate to recruit Eli Manning to Ole Miss when I was on that staff. I became close to the Manning family. Eli’s dad, Archie, and Rick are good friends. There were other mutual friends who knew our character and work ethic. Rick has done a phenomenal job and our working relationship has been super.”
George agrees. “Mike is a high-character guy. He knows his football. He has a great pedigree. He’s a good family man and the players seem to like to play for him.”
For too many years, improvements to the athletic facilities remained on the drawing boards. That became a priority with George, and he designed a business plan that got it done. Both he and MacIntyre credit the support of President Bruce Benson, Chancellor Phil DiStefano and the Board of Regents for getting the Champions Center built. “They were all in line with Rick’s passion,” MacIntyre says. “Any of those people along the way could have been a chink in the armor and voted no. Then it would have never happened. It was exciting for me to see. Everything is in place to be successful.”
“There are times when you have to make changes that are best for the program and for the individual. These are hard decisions all the way around.”
—Coach Mike MacIntyre
The administration’s support has led to better recruiting. MacIntyre says, “There was a bad opinion of our program out there. I know our fans don’t want to hear that, but dating back to the mess in 2000”—allegations of sex and alcohol used to lure recruits that led to a media frenzy—“we didn’t keep up with facilities, we moved from a good conference to an elite conference, but we were behind in everything. I had many people ask if we were really committed to being a championship football program. Now they see that we are. They see it in the facilities and in the commitment of the whole university. When I first got here, we needed to build an entire recruiting network. The landscape of recruiting has changed—the calendar is all set up with early commitments. About 18 months ago, we were able to get the money we needed to set up a recruiting office. We went from one recruiting coordinator to a whole department and we’re seeing the fruits of our labor. We have been gaining people’s trust.”
Coaching the ‘Me’ Generation
Each of MacIntyre’s recruiting classes has gotten better. The 2017 class already looks promising. Because of NCAA rules, MacIntyre cannot comment on it, but the players use social media to talk about their commitments. At least 14 high school seniors have announced a commitment to the Buffs. Two of them have a four-star ranking and eight have a three-star ranking.
MacIntyre understands the young men he’s coaching today differ from the young men of the last 30 to 40 years. He says, “With the social media, the instant gratification of cell phones and games, it’s more of a ‘me’ generation than a ‘team’ generation. You used to tell a kid ‘Go do that,’ and he would say ‘Yes, sir’ and go do it. Now you have to explain to him not only how it’s going to benefit the team, but how it’s going to help him and benefit him.”
“I look at these young men as my own children,” MacIntyre says. “Parents put them in my charge. Sometimes your own children break your heart, but you have to deal with it. You don’t just throw them to the side, but sometimes kids make decisions that give me no choice. They are out of the program with no chance to come back.” On the other side, nose tackle Josh Tupou was suspended for a year and was given criteria to meet for reinstatement. “Josh is back,” says the coach. “He’s doing what he’s supposed to and doing well. He will graduate. I’m excited for him.”
A football coaching staff spends countless hours together. They become close like a family, and it’s difficult when the head coach has to break up that family. MacIntyre hasn’t shied away from doing that. He says, “There are times when you have to make changes that are best for the program and for the individual. These are hard decisions all the way around.”
The defense showed marked improvement in 2015 under new coordinator Jim Leavitt, and this season the offense has undergone some changes with the addition of Darrin Chiaverini (a former Buffs wide receiver) as co-offensive coordinator, and CU icon Darian Hagan as running backs coach. The strength and conditioning department has been revamped.
As for climbing out of that hole. The return of senior quarterback Sefo Liufau from a season-ending Lisfranc injury to his left foot last fall has boosted the Buff spirits. Of the 6-4, 230-pound Liufau, MacIntyre says, “He’s streamlined. He can run the football, he can throw it. He’s broken 75 records at our school. Now he has more tools around him, he doesn’t have to make all the plays. We want to be more accurate and more precise in our passing game. We need to get the ball out of the quarterback’s hands quicker.”
The Buffs return a lot of starters and backups who have seen significant playing time. The offensive line is deep and talented, anchored by senior center Alex Kelley along with guards Gerrad Kough, Tim Lynott Jr., Shane Callahan and Jonathan Huckins; tackles Jeromy Irwin, Sam Kronshage, John Lisella II and Isaac Miller; and veteran receivers Shay Fields, Devin Ross, Jay MacIntyre, Lee Walker and Bryce Bobo, joined by newcomers Kabion Ento and Justin Jan. Along with tight ends Sean Irwin, George Frazier and Dylan Keeney, the quarterbacks have many targets. Phillip Lindsay, Donovan Lee, Michael Adkins II and Kyle Evans lead a stable of running backs.
Defensively, senior cornerback Chidobe Awuzie is getting deserved national attention. He is joined in the secondary by Isaiah Oliver, Ahkello Witherspoon, Tedric Thompson, Ryan Moeller, Nick Fisher and Alfolabi Laguda. This is an experienced crew, as are the linebackers Derek McCartney, Kenneth Olugbode, Addison Gillam, Ryan Severson, Jimmie Gilbert, Rick Gamboa and Terran Hasselbach. Tupou will anchor the defensive front flanked by Jordan Carrell, Leo Jackson III, Timothy Coleman and Michael Mathewes.
Kicker Diego Gonzalez and punter Alex Kinney provide experience on the special teams.
The ingredients appear to be there, but then reality sets in. The coach and athletic director agree that the Buffs have one of the toughest schedules in America, opening with Colorado State and then playing Michigan and Oregon on the road in games three and four.
In summary, George says that beyond winning, the university and Boulder communities have to get behind the program. “Our student athletes gave 2,600 hours of service back to the community this past year,” he says. “I think that is significant. Our product is better on the field, but we’re trying to do a better job reaching out and engaging the community. We need the people in the community to come out and support what we’re doing. We’ve got great men and women in all of our sports. They are worth supporting.”
MacIntyre? He wants to join his players outside that hole. “They put in a lot of hard work and effort. They want to be successful. I want them to taste success so they can see the fruits of their labor.”
Larry Zimmer retired last year after 50 consecutive years of broadcasting college football. In addition to 42 years as the “Voice of the Buffs,” Zimmer was play announcer for the Michigan Wolverines and Colorado State Rams. He also broadcast Denver Broncos football for 26 years. Winner of the 2009 Chris Schenkel Award, Zimmer has been inducted into the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame, the CU Athletic Hall of Fame, the Broadcast Professionals of Colorado Hall of Fame, and the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame.