The Rise: The Resurgent Hopes of the Colorado Buffaloes

AS I SAT DOWN to my word processing software today to decide the random topic that would be covered in my ridiculous weekly ramblings, there was much deliberation and consideration.

I could write about the fact that in the last few days an individual who has roughly a fifty percent shot at becoming the most powerful person on the planet decided, early one morning, to use Twitter like an intoxicated, jilted and jealous boyfriend calling out his ex because she traded up. I could, but I’m a follower of Jesus. Jesus teaches us that we should love our neighbor, even if our neighbor is a person vying for the American presidency who says things that are so chauvinistic and bigoted that they would make Archie Bunker flinch, a person with the unique ability to dangerously defame a former beauty contestant before breakfast. So I will use all of my rather limited self-control to, for at least one more week, avoid crawling through the endless field of mud present on our current political theater.

Instead I will write about something positive, something good. Ladies and gentlemen, we may have a football team in Boulder, Colorado. I repeat, we may have a football team in Boulder, Colorado.

THE UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO AT BOULDER boasts one of the most beautiful campuses on Planet Earth. It is well known for its April 20th festivities as well as for briefly employing a professor who published his irrational belief that essentially America deserved what it got on September 11th, 2001.

The college is a melting pot of intellectual thought and regularly hosts world leaders such as the Dalai Lama. This year it even held a Grand Old Party debate (which considering Boulder’s collective political leaning, is a bit like the Jedi Council hosting their annual convention inside the Death Star).

CU-Boulder has engineering and physics departments that are among the best in the world. It boasts twelve Nobel Laureates and, among its alumni, 18 people who have left earth’s atmosphere and traveled into space. The creators of the popular television show South Park were nurtured in the shadow of the flatirons. So too was bandleader Glenn Miller, and each for a brief period, thespians Robert Redford and Jonah Hill (who both had to leave CU because of over-indulgence). Hill, who spent a semester in Boulder, apparently enjoyed his time there a little too much telling The CU Independent, “I had fun at CU. That was the issue, I had too much fun.”

CU alumni also include legendary sports journalists Jim Gray, Rick Reilly, Solomon Wilcots, and the current faces of ESPN’s college football coverage (Chris Fowler) and Fox’s college football coverage (Joel Klatt). In short, the University of Colorado at Boulder is an extremely impressive institution of higher education. But, seriously, enough of this, let’s get to the important stuff, the stuff that really matters. We may have a football team in Boulder, Colorado. I repeat, we may have a football team in Boulder, Colorado.

As a member of the CU alumni (regardless of whether or not the school will claim any association to me), it is difficult to vocalize what it means to see a Colorado football team today in the Top 25. I would imagine it’s a bit like watching your child, maybe one who hasn’t always been the most engaged student, walk across the Coors Event Center in his cap and gown to receive his diploma. He may have cost you some financial and emotional capital while delivering you a whole lot of heartburn but, at this very moment, you are a darn proud papa.

On this beautiful, golden, God-kissed, Sunday afternoon Colorado fans around the world can bask in the sight of their beloved Buffaloes in the Top 25 in both the AP (#21) and Coaches (#23) Polls. For the first time, in what seems like a lifetime, the Colorado football team is not just those guys getting beat up for thirty minutes surrounding the interval when Ralphie the Buffalo freely tramples his circle around Folsom Field. This year, they’re actually worth watching, or worth writing about, or crying tears of joy over. In fact it has been eleven years since Colorado cracked the Top 25.

THE BUFFALOES, who have appropriately termed their 2016 campaign “The Rise”, have opened the season 4-1 and an impressive, nay historic (at least for the CU program) 2-0 in Pac-12 Conference play. Their lone blemish, thus far, came at the hands of unbeaten and fourth-ranked Michigan at the Big House. While there was no “miracle” unlike that one time Colorado traveled to the land of the Wolverine; it was a competitive game until Michigan’s talent overwhelmed Colorado in the second half.

Colorado’s four wins have come against in-state rival CSU, Idaho State, and conference wins over Oregon and Oregon State. It’s these conference wins over the two teams from The Beaver State that has Buffaloes fans buzzing and the rest of the nation taking note of the happenings inside the Dal Ward Athletic Center.

Colorado came into Eugene, Oregon on September 24th with its veteran quarterback, and emotional leader, Sefo Liufau sidelined with a sprained right ankle. Making his first career start was redshirt freshman Steven Montez, and he didn’t disappoint. Montez threw for 333 yards and three touchdowns in the 41-38 victory, Colorado’s first ever conference win over the Ducks. Next week, back home in Boulder, the Buffaloes cruised to a 47-6 win over Oregon State behind junior wideout Shay Fields, who amassed 169 yards receiving and three touchdowns, in a silky performance reminiscent of Buffaloes longtime radio announcer Larry Zimmer’s voice.

Legendary Colorado head coach Bill McCartney used to extoll Boulder to recruits around the country, believing that the Colorado campus’ breathtaking beauty could and should be a distinct recruiting advantage for the program. Yet Colorado, since its sole national championship in 1990, has not been able to emerge as a preeminent program in college football, in spite of the advantageous recruiting tool of Boulder’s unquestionable splendor.

Since that 1990 national championship, the Buffs have appeared in 13 bowl games; that’s nothing to sneeze at. However, their last bowl appearance was in 2007.

In 1994, Rashaan Salaam took home the Heisman trophy for Colorado.

In 2001, Colorado shocked rival Nebraska (then #2 in the nation) in a game in which all Buffaloes fans can recite the final score from memory (62-36) and a thrilling win over Texas in the Big 12 Championship Game before losing to Oregon in the Fiesta Bowl.

In the last decade, however the Colorado program sunk into a deep valley of mediocrity, or at times, downright painful collapse. The Buffaloes haven’t had a season with over six wins since Gary Barnett’s final year at the helm of Colorado in 2005. Barnett’s final years at the school were marred by allegations of recruiting misconduct within the program, a well-publicized comment he made about the talent level of a female kicker on his squad who had accused a teammate of rape, and a 70-3 loss to Texas in the 2005 Big 12 title game (Barnett’s final game as Colorado head coach).

This season, Barnett has joined the Colorado Football Radio Network as its color analyst alongside Mark Johnson, suggesting any hard feelings between Barnett and the Buffaloes have certainly healed.

Barnett was replaced by then Boise State Head Coach Dan Hawkins. Hawkins’ greatest gift to the Colorado football program may not have been on the field but off of it when, in response to a player’s mother complaining that her son didn’t get enough time away from football, Hawkins famously, and rather emphatically, countered: “It ain’t intramurals brother! It’s Division I Football.” Hawkins, who never really fit with the tradition of McCartney-era Colorado football, was fired after five seasons. He was briefly replaced by former Buffaloes player Jon Embree in 2011, who was let go after two seasons (including his 1-11 campaign in 2012, his final year). 2011 also happened to be the year Colorado transitioned from the Big 12 Conference to the Pac-12 Conference. The transition has not been an easy one.

Colorado brought in current head coach Mike McIntyre from San Jose State in 2013. In his first three years, Colorado went 2-26 in conference play, scraping the barrel of the Pac-12 South. Last year, though, it wasn’t necessarily visible in the win-loss column, but you could tell Colorado, as a team, was making strides of improvement. Conference loses to Arizona, UCLA, USC, and Utah were all within eight points.

Next weekend, the Buffaloes will travel to the Rose Bowl to take on USC. Colorado is a daunting 0-10 versus the mighty Trojans of USC. This will be a real test for Colorado. The eyes of the nation will be looking to see if this Colorado rise is indeed legitimate. As a life-long Colorado Buffaloes fan, I’ve certainly seen my share of both triumph and disappointment. I’m not going to prognosticate. You should never put your money where you lay your honey. But at least for today, on this fine Sunday afternoon, I don’t have to be fully clear-eyed. Instead, I can allow for my eyes to get a little misty with joy.

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