Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The game that killed the football program

How did we get here?  How did the once proud University of Colorado football program fall to the point that a mid-level FCS program can completely out-play the Buffs in Folsom Field?  It's a simple question to ask.  The complete answer is much less simple.  As in many things, it is far too nebulous and complex to succinctly describe in less than a book.

What I can pinpoint, emphatically, is the first moment the train began jumping the tracks.  There is one game, above all others, that I keep recalling as the beginning of the end.  Before kickoff, CU was still a national power.  While not perfect, the program was still capable of competing with the best in the land.  After its 60 minutes, it lay broken and vulnerable.

No, not 70-3.  The real answer is CU's 30-16 loss at Iowa State on November 12th, 2005.  And I was there.

Let me take you back seven years to the scene of the crime...

The fall of 2005 was a happier time.  I was 21, having just started my final year at CU, and was mostly enjoying life to its fullest.  By early-November my White Sox had won the Word Series, the Buffs football team was a solid 7-2, and the basketball team was about to embark on a season which would lead to a post-season run and a national ranking.  Things were good.

The CU team I was traveling to watch in Ames was typical Gary Barnett quality.  Maybe not a national juggernaut, but recognized enough to be ranked, and strong enough to win games they should.  The team was even good enough that Coach Barnett openly compared them to the '91 team. The 7-2 record they held on November 11th was no joke.  While the team had been rolled in tough road trips to Miami and Texas (VY's Jesus-mode year), they had won tough road games in Stillwater and Manhattan, while sweeping the home slate.  Built on a bedrock of senior talent like QB Joel Klatt, V-back Lawrence Vickers, TE Joe Klopfenstein, and LB Brian Iwuh, they were playing the way a CU team should.
Senior QB Joel Klatt had the team rolling.
Coming into week 10, they were ranked #21 in the nation, and, with a win in Ames, they would've clinched the Big XII North title for the 3rd time in four years, and might've even been propelled into the top-15.  The previous week featured a 41-12 win over Mizzou (the last CU would ever enjoy), and I was confident enough to buy a round of beers for visiting dignitaries from the Holiday Bowl, and encourage them to pick the Buffs at season's end for a trip to San Diego.  This was the before time, the long long ago.


Being my senior year, I wanted to experience every last drop of my final football season.  I even eschewed a leadership role in marching band specifically so I could focus on enjoyment of all things fall.  Part of the deal was I wanted to reach my goal of traveling to every Big XII campus before the end of my career.  By '05, that list had been whittled to three:  Oklahoma State, Texas, and Iowa State.  OSU was knocked off as part of a designated away trip with the band, and Texas was knocked off with one of those epic road trips you see dramatized in movies.  That only left Iowa State, and, as mid-November approached, I eagerly launched one final collegiate road trip to finish the bill.

Compared to other trips I took during my collegiate years, this one was weird from the start.  I was traveling in the back of my ex-girlfriend's SUV, seated on a pile of luggage and pillows (actually quite comfortable).  Once we got to Ames, we were slated to stay with a fraternity buddy of some of my fellow travelers.  Of course, that turned out to be a little awkward as she was a week away from quitting ISU to join the Marines.  To ice the cake, we were traveling into a massive storm front, all but assured to mess with any and all plans.

Undeterred, we forged ahead, and after an overnight drive, we ended up tailgating with the only Buff fans we could find (really the only fans within a 5 mile radius), who turned out to be the family of starting safety Tom Hubbard.
And people ask me why I left the Midwest...
Overhead skies were ominously Midwestern gray, but I didn't think much of it at the time.  We were the supporters of a top-25 program, one which couldn't possibly lose to the likes of Iowa St.   We were ready to strut our stuff in front of the soon to be defeated ISU fans.  Later, the parking lots finally began to fill in as weather conditions continued to worsen.  Drinking continued.
Thankfully, more people showed up.
As gametime ticked nearer, I began to notice the skies above swirl and turn green.  Having grown up in Illinois, I quickly recognized conditions favorable to tornado production; that's when I started to worry.  Air raid sirens began to blare, and we began searching for the nearest cover.  If you haven't noticed from the pictures above, there wasn't any cover to speak of.  In fact, other than the stadium (which was being evacuated), the only structure of note was the bunker-esque basketball stadium.
Oh, so that's why it looks like a fallout shelter.
We ran for the concrete sanctuary as reports of tornado touchdowns around Ames, one even visible from the stadium, began to circulate amongst the other fans.  The massive storm cell, containing nearly 20 tornadoes, would eventually go on to claim one life, and cause nearly $20-million in damages.

A lot of nervous people chanting and singing
Young fools.
Once inside Hilton Coliseum, the assembled fans, including the Cyclone Marching Band, used the situation to start an impromptu pep rally.  Those CU fans in attendance just had to bear it.

After over an hour of delay and worry, the skies cleared, and everyone was told it was safe to enter the stadium.  The stands filled, the field was prepared, and football mercifully cut the weather-related tension.

Most of the game would be marred by massive gusts of wind (40-60 mph).  During warm-ups, strong-legged CU legend Mason Crosby used the wind to abuse the ISU athletic facility on the far side of the stadium.  The reality of the wind, however, was that the first portion of the game would become entirely dependent on who had the ball with the wind at their backs.  Passing into the nearly constant gusts was foolish, and the situation allowed the Cyclones to grab a 13-0 lead at the start of the second quarter.  CU would answer in the second quarter, finally scoring with the wind on their side to bring the halftime score to 13-10.

In the second half, the Buffs managed to score against the wind, thanks to that big-leg of Crosby.  A responding field goal from ISU left the score 16-13 Cyclones with the Buffs driving late in the 3rd quarter. Things were about to get interesting.
Mason, and his leg-cannon, had no problems in the wind.
After a quick-strike 6-play, 62-yard drive, the Buffs had the ball at the ISU 10-yard line.  Usually reliable future shock jock Joel Klatt threw a painful interception, tossing away a beautiful scoring chance, and leaving an almost certain Buff lead on the field.  Opportunities are sometimes missed, but the ball had started to roll down the hill.

The Buffs defense held on 4th down, but the offense couldn't get past midfield with the resulting change of possession, leaving it up to John Torp to pin the 'Clones inside their own 10-yard line.  ISU managed to drive out of the shadow of their own goal line, but a forced fumble from Lorenzo Sims gave the Buffs the ball in ISU territory.  With the 4th quarter about to start, and the Buffs about to get the wind, CU needed to establish a lead to sit on in the final frame.  They couldn't waste another opportunity, the Buffs needed a clutch scoring drive.

That's when everything went to shit.  The great Lawrence Vickers fumbled the very first snap of that drive, and the ISU defender returned it all of the 66 painful yards left on the field for a touchdown.  The Buffs were now down 23-13.  The ball was picking up steam.
*Face palm*
A false start penalty stalled the ensuing Buffs possession, and the team had to settle for a field goal, which brought the score within a touchdown, 23-16.  CU's defense bent, but didn't break on the following 'Clone drive.  The following punt pinned CU deep in their own territory, but they at least had the ball and a chance to tie with 4:22 to go.

I remember every painful detail of the next drive.  Klatt drove the Buffs down the field, completing seven of his first eight passes and grabbing five first downs against the prevent defense.  With the ball at the ISU 27, and the ISU defense now pressing to get at the hot-passing Colorado QB, the coaching staff called for a screen pass.  The Cyclones got off the line too well, and the play was busted.  Klatt tried to force the pass anyway, but it fell into the waiting hands of fat-ass lineman Brent Curvey.  Aided by uncalled holds and blocks-in-the-back, Curvey scampered 66-yards - again with the 66 fucking yards - for the score.  The clock still had 1:30 worth of game left in it, but it didn't matter.  Desperation mishegas didn't change a thing, and the final read 30-16.  The ball had run the Buffs over.


CU coughed the ball up three times in that final half, each time preventing sure scores to go up on the board.  Just assume everything else stayed the same; if the team had only kept the ball and grabbed one field goal from any of those drives, CU would have escaped with a 19-16 win.  Not pretty, but, considering the circumstances (tornadoes landing in Ames), more than acceptable.  To lose to an also-ran opponent through three devastating turnovers, each from a senior captain, ripped the heart out of the team.

You could shrug it off at the time.  A win over a struggling Nebraska team, or a ISU loss at home against Kansas, would still secure the North title.  "Remain calm, all is well."  The staff could already tell, however, that the wound cut far deeper than originally believed.  Former BDC scribe Neill Woelk quoted a CU staffer who already recognized that "it might be one of the most damaging losses suffered by the program in several years."  (If only they had known how damaging...)

That same source then laid out the famous "nightmare scenario" where CU loses to Nebraska, but still wins the Big XII North, goes on to lose to Texas in the Big XII title game, and finishes the season with a loss in the eventual bowl game.  "That would leave CU with a 7-6 record and a four-game losing streak to end the season."  How prescient, as that's exactly what happened.  A 30-3 loss to a struggling Husker team was followed by an absolute garroting by eventual national champion Texas in the Big XII title game.  The 70-3 loss in Houston was it's own dance with disaster, and left the program soulless, the senior captain QB in the hospital, and recruiting gutted.
This may be the final time I ever mention that game.
Left with a spiraling program, and with the memories of the recruiting "scandal" fresh on everyone's minds, newly installed Athletic Director Mike Bohn, backed by an interim president, decided to fire Coach Barnett.  It was a decision I think born out of panic, made by men without sound footing in their positions, and without a full sense of the long-lasting implications.
I miss Coach Barnett.
The team would partially rebel against the decision, and in-fighting dominated the following offseason.  Further, the $3-million owed to GB as a result of the dismissal left the Board of Regents wringing their hands over the rising cost of the football program for years to come, and probably played a role in Hawk's lame-duck 2010 season.

The bitch of it is that Coach Barnett had been mulling an extension offer before the ISU game; the loss gave both sides pause.  Even with losses to NU and UT, "Barney" probably survives the winter if only the team had gotten that 8th win in Ames.  I would argue that every disaster that followed - the 30-3 loss to the Huskers on Senior Day, the 70-3 dismantling by Texas, the Joel Klatt concussion, Gary Barnett's firing, the imploding loss to Clemson in the Champs Sports Bowl, and even the eventual dismantling of the Big XII - is the direct result of the collapse in Ames. I'm not saying that the team automatically beats either Nebraska or Texas, I'm just saying that the team doesn't lose to them by a total of 100-6.  That ISU gut-punch started it all, leaving a demoralized team incapable of getting up off the mat.

Since that day, the program is 24-55, having been outscored over those 79 games by a total of 2,344 to 1,688.  Prior to the loss in Ames, the program had beaten Big XII North opponents to the tune of a 20-3 record since 2000.  After, they went 7-20 before the move to the Pac-12 called the fight.  The program has yet to see a winning season in the wake of that loss, and I doubt very much that that will change in '12.  While not necessarily mortal, the wound suffered in Ames in November of '05 has proven to be critical.  The Buffs are almost unrecognizable seven years later, more akin to some zombie husk than the program I used to know.
We can argue why the program is in the state it's in.  We can even argue about how best to fix it.  We can't argue, however, about where it all started to go wrong: Ames, Iowa.


Unknown said...

God damn tornados. What an omen!

Aaron Jordan said...

Hindsight is always 20/20, but let's roll back to 2005, CU has just lost 70-3 to Texas and the recruiting scandal is fresh in everyone's mind.

It's easy to justify firing Barnett, but how would an AD justify keeping him?

I think most ADs in Bohn's position would have fired him, which is rough because overall I think Barnett was a good coach and was somewhat of a fall-guy in that recruiting scandal.

RumblinBuff said...

Just weeks prior they had offered Gary an extension, but both sides agreed to table discussion to the offseason. The point I was trying to make is that an AD with a more solid footing in his position may have tried to stick with his original decision. Mike was new to the job, and quickly came to the "let's just move on" option after 70-3. He's proven to be much more cautious with his hiring/firing procedures over the course of his career. (Patton/K-Mac allowed to stay well past their expiration dates, etc)

Additionally, while I name checked the scandal, I'm not sure how much it had to do with the final decision. If Gary wins either of those final two games, he's probably allowed to stay the following year, if not granted the outright extension. The scandal was a convenient bone to throw to concerned parties after the firing.

Anonymous said...

Barnett snapped at a reporter Tuesday who asked him about her abilities. "It was obvious Katie was not very good. She was awful," he said. "Katie was not only a girl, she was terrible. OK? There's no other way to say it."

RumblinBuff said...

*dismissive wanking motion*

Commish CH said...

Damn. We were there that day too. I remember flying out of Omaha the next morning and the airline check in guy saying "don't sweat it, the Huskers suck, you'll work them"

Flash fwd to the next week: that damn d-bag Mike Tirico imploring the sideline reporter to get out of the CU student section like it was Beirut. "get out of there, Suzy, get out!"

Aaron Jordan said...

I think the whole recruiting scandal and how Barnett handled both that and the Katie Hnida situation are difficult topics to discuss. Not because of their nature, but because of how much mis-information and mis-quoting there is regarding it. Barnett said and did a lot of dumb things during that time, but the media also took a lot of comments out of context to make things work. There is a really interesting book called Buffaloed that goes into detail about the situation, and how crazy things got. (

@Rumblinbuff, I am kinda curious what you would have done if you were Mike Bohn just stepping into the program?