IT WAS A DIRECT QUESTION asked by Fox Sports sideline reporter Jenny Taft. It was one that a nation of people who are just beginning to learn the name Sefo Liufau might want to know. Taft, in the middle of a throng of jubilant Colorado football fans celebrating a monumental and quite fresh Saturday night win over Utah, yelled both into her microphone and into the ear of Colorado’s senior quarterback so that both her television audience and the subject of her interview might hear the question over the sound of the raucous mob of Colorado football fans surrounding them both: “What does it mean to you? You’ve seen how hard your team has worked to go from worst to first.”
An indiscriminate hand reached out and slammed it against the number 13 on Liufau’s jersey, the one resting above his shoulder pads. Liufau used the palm of his left hand to rub his forehead. Around him stood a large number of the 52,301 human beings who had packed Folsom Field, while countless University of Colorado alumni and Buffaloes football fans around the world proudly beamed in front of their television sets and college football nation stood, mouth agape, watching Colorado accomplish what, even only a few months ago, was nearly unthinkable: win the Pac-12 South and earn a berth to the Pac-12 Championship Game.
“It means the world to me. I’m so proud of this team,” Liufau responded over chants of SEFO! SEFO! “I didn’t play very well tonight. My teammates picked me up. They picked up the slack.”
Colorado’s veteran signal caller had just capped one of the most improbable regular seasons in the recent memory of college football. On this Saturday night, he had helped earn his Buffaloes a 27-22 win over nationally ranked Utah in the biggest Colorado football game in a decade and a half. CU, a team that was picked to scrape the bottom of the Pac-12 South, a team that had finished dead last in the division each of the last four years, had just won the division. Yet, there was Liufau, a young man whose grit and determination has come to personify the 2016 Colorado Buffaloes, admitting to the world that he didn’t play very well and that was unacceptable.
When the passes have all been thrown, the game clock strikes zero, the confetti lies motionless on the Folsom Field grass, and the echoes of adulation from fans and pundits bounce off the flatirons and disappear into a Rocky Mountain evening, what remains is that: the resolve of a leader to play better, to work harder, and to leave everything he can on the field.
Indeed Colorado would not have beat Utah without the robust performance of its stingy defense. Colorado’s D forced four Utes turnovers, including a fourth quarter fumble return for a touchdown by senior linebacker Kenneth Olugbode; senior defensive back Tedric Thompson had a pair of interceptions and senior defensive back Chidobe Awuzie recovered a fumble and made a crucial touchdown saving tackle. In four goal-to-go situations, Utah walked away with only three field goals and a touchdown.
Colorado finds its strength in its experience. The Buffaloes senior class has certainly had a unique experience in Boulder, and you could probably point to this as a major impetus for the team’s current triumph. It has been said that in our failures we find our successes. There has been a lot of failure in Boulder in the last four years; I think it’s fair to say that Colorado is now a win over Washington away from a Pac-12 Championship directly because of the growth that has resulted from this failure.
Let’s circle back to 2013. This was head coach Mike MacIntyre’s first year at the helm of the Buffaloes. He had inherited a team that was entering its third year in the Pac-12 Conference. In its first two seasons in the conference, under head coach Jon Embree, the Buffaloes had gone 4-21 overall and 3-15 in Pac-12 play. A 1-8 campaign in 2012, which lead to Embree’s termination, ended with seven straight loses by an average of nearly 40 points a game. In that season, Colorado was outscored a whopping 552-214.
MacIntyre inherited a program that had not had a winning season in seven years (including the entire head coaching tenures of both Embree and Dan Hawkins) and had pivoted from an elite college football program to one that was at best mediocre and at worst downright awful.
When MacIntyre took the job at Colorado, he knew he faced an uphill battle. But he said at his announcement presser that the key was not patience, but perseverance and the ultimate belief that you can accomplish anything:
“You know how when you go swimming you kind of stick your toe in the water you either think it’s good and you jump in or your think it’s cold and you don’t. When you walk out onto the football field, sometimes football teams do that. They stick their toe in and go, ‘Oh, I don’t know if I can play with them.’ We’re not going to do that. We’re going to dive in and go play. If we do that, eventually we’re going to win more than we lose. They better believe they can win. That’s what I’m trying to tell them.”
In year one, CU won all three of its non-conference games but garnered only one conference win in nine tries. In 2014, year two of the Mike MacIntyre era, the Buffaloes went 2-10 and winless in conference play. However a young quarterback named Sefo Liufau emerged to throw for 3,200 yards and 28 touchdowns (granted that number came along with a noteworthy 15 interceptions).
2015 saw Colorado go 4-9 and 1-8 in conference play. You had to look past the scoreboard, which is difficult for many fans and prognosticators, but signs of improvement were there. For one, the defense, under new coordinator Jim Leavitt, allowed 27.5 points per game, which was the lowest Colorado had allowed since 2006. Rick Gamboa, Olugbode, Thompson, and Awuzie showed growing maturity on that side of the ball.
Also, the offense became slightly less one-sided. Tailback Phillip Lindsay displayed flashes of what would make him arguably the Buffaloes biggest offensive threat this season. Liufau was also a little more judicious with the football, throwing only six interceptions. He also indicated he was as dangerous with his legs as he was with his arm.
Most importantly, Colorado got a sense that it was getting better, although the wins weren’t necessarily coming. After starting the season 3-1, the Buffs would go 1-8. Yet, five of their losses came by eight points or less. That included a four point loss at UCLA and a heartbreaking three point defeat at the hands of USC in Boulder, a game CU lead 17-3.
In the midst of the 2015 season, MacIntyre’s mother-in-law died of ovarian cancer. MacIntyre’s father, after suffering a long battle with multiple sclerosis, passed away following that season as well.
Meanwhile, the 2015 season brought some grumblings surrounding Mike MacIntyre’s job performance. A good indication of how people outside of CU football felt about the direction of the program could be heard in a conversation about MacIntyre’s job security that took place between broadcasters Mark Kiszla and Les Shapiro on The Denver Post Sports Show on October 21st of that year that went something like this:
“I don’t think he’s very secure. The one overriding factor is the athletic director is Rick George, and Rick George did not hire Mike MacIntyre [MacIntyre was hired by former CU Athletic Director Mike Bohn]. Recruiting class after recruiting class is ranked very, very low since Mike MacIntyre has come through…The win-loss record is very poor; there is no buzz around this program, people are down on it. They’re making a little bit of progress. They seem to be a little more competitive, but I don’t think it’s happening fast enough.”
MacIntyre got through this dark period by relying on his family and his faith. He told The Denver Post:
“When you know it’s a rebuild, you dig in the trenches, you start walking and you take a step every day. The way my family and I have been able to do it is through our relationship with Jesus Christ and our faith and to be able to stay positive and realize there’s hope.
“There were a lot of ‘double-tough’ days, not only losing games but situations with young men, situations with their families, situations with my family that made days even longer and tougher. At the same time I always had hope of the future, where we were headed. I knew it was a building process.”
Heading into this season, there was cautious optimism among the CU faithful. Certain Denver media, however, was already reaching for pitchfork sharpeners. While CU senior linebacker Jimmie Gilbert had high aspirations: “Our expectations are always the Pac-12 championship. It’s what we’ve been preached. It’s what we preach. That’s what we wholeheartedly believe. We have to believe we can get there. We go game by game. Each week is a one-game season.”
Kiszla responded to that statement in a column in The Denver Post published on August 31, just prior to Colorado’s opener versus Colorado State, writing, ”As the parent of two ambitious children in their 20s, nobody admires the relentless optimism of youth more than I do. But CU expects to win the conference championship? What are the Buffs smoking?”
Kiszla may now be wondering what goes well on the side of crow.
One can see MacIntyre’s faith, fierce loyalty to his players, and his desire to be near them in one pretty lovable postgame press conference. After Colorado’s impressive win at Stanford, MacIntyre told the Pac 12 Network’s Jill Savage, “I tell you what, our kids have been through so much blankety-blank” (his words not mine), then proceeded to thank his prayer group, and finally cut the interview off mid-question so he could celebrate with his team.
No words may sum up this Colorado season more than Coach Mac’s speech to his team following a gutsy 41-38 win over Oregon in Eugene. MacIntyre, who is becoming known for his emotional postgame addresses, effectively summed up his entire tenure at Colorado:
“Now what got us through that game was your uncommon character, your uncommon ‘never say die’ attitude. Because, you’ve been to hell and back. You got me? Remember, God’s always with you when it’s tough and God’s always with you when it’s good. He carries you through, and you just keep stepping. Does everybody understand that? Learn a life lesson today. But what is our goal?”
“Pac 12 Champs,” responded his team.
“On and off the field,” continues MacIntyre. “This is just one game. This is just one game, but boy was that one game fun!”
Immediately following the Buffaloes’ win over Utah, its single biggest victory since 2001 (when Colorado defeated Nebraska 62-36 to win the Big 12 North and then defeated Texas 39-37 to win the Big 12 Championship), CU’s on-the-field general was focused entirely, not on celebration, but improvement. I believe they call this character. I wouldn’t know anything about that. However, it appears Sefo Liufau does. That’s maybe an example of why those invested in the Colorado football program might be satisfied by more than just wins. Could it be Colorado’s resolve may be building more than just tallies in a win column or notches up the college football rankings? Could it also be building men of character and a program to be proud of as well? I don’t know. But from what I’ve seen so far, I have reason to be optimistic.