Today's letter is focused on what the fixable problems are at CU that have allowed a once-dominant football program to regress to being the worst BCS program in the nation. Of the 5 problems discussed, the first 4 are things that must be addressed at the administrative and university level in order to create an environment where CU's natural advantages can shine through and this becomes a place where even a bad football coach wins more games than he loses. Only in the fifth point do I address the need to change coaches and what I believe CU needs to be looking for with the new hire.
5-Point Plan for CU Football
Football at the university of Colorado has a proud history with numerous seasons ranked in the final Top 20 polls: 1930s (1), 1950s (1), 1960s (4), 1970s (5), 1980s (1), 1990s (7) and 2000s (2). Buff football is among a handful of elite programs that can claim a Heisman winner, a National Championship and standing among the programs in the Top 25 for all-time Division 1 wins. Within the Pac-12 conference, only USC could claim more wins than CU at the end of 2011, although Washington passed CU this season. Coupled with the number of consensus All-Americans, national award winners, Academic All-Americans and members of the College Football Hall of Fame, a strong case can be made that CU Football is historically the 2nd most prestigious program in the western United States behind only Southern Cal.
Despite that lofty history, CU Football has regressed to being the absolute worst in Division 1 football over the past several years. This is dramatically hurting the CU brand locally and nationally, negatively impacting donor support and undergraduate applications, undermining interest in alumni functions, and creating apathy among what used to be an extremely passionate fan base. This grand tradition should be a source of pride among CU alumni and Colorado residents, a rallying point for bringing together supporters of the University. An opportunity that is lost when performance on the field leads to apathy or embarrassment among those potential supporters. The following will highlight some of the recent problems that have led to this decline and propose solutions.
Problem 1: CU has never adequately built a donor culture. In any endeavor, resources are a main driver of success. Peer institutions are able to supplement the revenues of the athletic department with a consistent donor base and then rally this base for improvement projects or coaching changes.
Solution: Comprehensive approach of connecting with existing donors, cultivating relationships with wealthy alumni, Colorado businesses, and the wealthiest Coloradoans along with a grassroots effort to build a donor culture among young graduates through securing small, automatic monthly donations that they can easily manage within their finances. The grassroots approach will build a foundational revenue stream while also cultivating a donor culture that will pay significant dividends as these loyal CU supporters progress in their careers and net worth.
Problem 2: CU lacks key facilities and organizational support. Peer programs have indoor practice and training facilities, athletic dormitories (51% non-athletes to avoid NCAA restrictions on athletic dorms), a fully-staffed academic support building for athletes, a position in the AD to direct the football operations similar to a General Manager in professional sports leagues, and a staff of recruiting assistants.
Solution: CU must invest in all of these items. Quickly fix what can be quickly fixed and work toward a clear vision that will lead to CU having all of these vital supports constructed.
Problem 3: CU has a stadium that is significantly behind peers. Folsom Field, one of the most beloved stadium environments in the nation, has been allowed to deteriorate. Sound system, seating capacity, premium seating options, bleacher seats instead of chair back seats, inadequate concessions, inadequate restrooms, old-fashioned televisions in corridors, a dilapidated Balch Field House, an old press box, etc., etc.
Solution: A major upgrade and refurbishing of Folsom Field is needed to not only attract recruits, but also to make it a much more attractive option for a fan to want to bring his family or a business client. CU Football is a great value for the entertainment dollar and a viable option for a lot of folks who have been priced out of NFL season tickets, but it will require a competitive team and a fan stadium experience similar to the NFL experience in order to attract them in this Denver metro market.
Problem 4: CU academic policies hamper recruiting. CU offers significantly fewer majors of study than peer institutions and this especially limits the potential to attract Junior College and other transfers who could help a coach effect a fast turnaround with an infusion of veteran talent.
Solution: At the least, CU must look at adding a “General Studies” major such as Cal-Berkeley has. If CU is proud of all its academic programs, it stands to reason that a student should have the option to design an interdisciplinary course of study with a faculty advisor. Ideally, Physical Education would be added as a major of study so that those credits would not be lost for potential transfers. Given the issues with obesity in the US, CU being a state university in a state that leads on this (located in the city that leads on this), and the importance of PE to state public school education, it makes sense for CU to commit to becoming a leader in Physical Education. Greater academic opportunities to take courses from other CU campuses would be another boon and new technologies make this a viable option. I am not advocating a lowering of standards or the creation of “athlete track” majors. Rather, I am advocating CU maximizing some of its innate advantages to increase its academic prestige and desirability to undergraduate applicants, which will also have the benefit of supporting the CU athletic programs.
Problem 5: CU needs to invest in its football coach. Many of the above issues will take time to correct and some may never get done. However, a great coach can overcome a lot of challenges as we have seen in Men’s Basketball. First, a former NBA head coach who had built a smaller program was brought in and laid the foundation (Jeff Bzdelik). Then, Tad Boyle was brought in with a resume of working at BCS programs and being a head coach who built a small school program. In football, Jon Embree was hired as head coach despite not even having any experience as a coordinator at any level of football. This hire, as well as the choice of the majority of his coaching staff, was based primarily on a history of having played football at CU in the 1980's and 90's, or having other ties to the CU program. It is, in reality, a staff of 10 position coaches with nobody with the experience to lead or coordinate their efforts. That CU history, unfortunately, means nothing to potential recruits who were not even born at that time, or to the population in general outside the state of Colorado. And even in the state of Colorado, this history has not translated into any form of recruiting advantage, as the staff has been unable or unwilling to successfully attract interest from high school players and coaches within the state of Colorado. Out of state recruits, seeing dismal on-field results and a staff whose credentials consist largely consist of a playing history unknown to them, have also been predictably unwilling to make a commitment to the program under the current conditions.
Solution: Show the college football world that CU Football is serious about winning. Before the precipitous recruiting decline seen with the 2013 class digs the program into a deep hole, hire a coach with name recognition in CU’s recruiting geography and provide the resources for that coach to hire top coordinators. Embree has fixed some cultural issues and did bring in a solid 2012 recruiting class that can be a foundation for success, but CU Football needs a coach who has a resume that shows he is capable of building something from that foundation before this window closes. Use the model that was used when McCartney was hired from Michigan to import that culture to CU. In short, hire a top coordinator from a program that shares CU’s athletic and academic priorities. A few names, for example, are Bob Diaco from Notre Dame, Dave Doeren from Wisconsin who is showing his talent as head coach at Northern Illinois, and Derek Mason at Stanford. Or use the basketball model and target a successful lower-level head coach such as Willie Taggert at Western Kentucky or Mike MacIntyre at San Jose State. Or if the money’s there, make a big play for someone like Louisville’s Charlie Strong. Regardless of the specific approach, get someone qualified for the job who will also turn heads and send a message about CU’s commitment to winning football.