SAN ANTONIO — In the back of Colorado’s 2016 Alamo Bowl guide is a rundown of the Buffaloes’ 28 bowl appearances, which predate Hitler’s rise to power, feature a streak of nine consecutive postseason trips and, of course, include a national championship.
The section begins with the 1938 Cotton Bowl but ends abruptly after the 2007 entry with the Buffs’ 30-24 loss to Alabama in the Independence Bowl.
That’s right, during an unprecedented era of bowl parity/mediocrity, when even 6-6 and some 5-7 teams find themselves spending the holidays at some bowl destination somewhere, eight college football seasons came and went without once-proud Colorado even becoming bowl eligible.
“When we got there, our program was really down,” CU coach Mike MacIntyre said during a Wednesday press conference. “We were the worst program in major college football.”
That was in 2013. Now, at the end of his fourth season, MacIntyre has resurrected Colorado — restored might be a better word, although the term “rise” has been used a lot in Boulder — to a 10-3 record, a No. 10 ranking, a Pac-12 South Division championship and a trip to Thursday night’s Alamo Bowl against No. 12 Oklahoma State.
The Buffs went 4-8, 2-10 and 4-9 in MacIntyre’s first three seasons — they were 2-25 in Pac-12 play — but administration and fans showed patience and restraint because MacIntyre’s teams showed progress.
“We were so bad when we got there,” MacIntyre said. “Just a little bit of improvement. They saw improvement every year. Even though we were short on the scoreboard a lot of times, you could see our team improving.
“When I first got there — ‘If you could just stay ‘til halftime’ — that’s what people asked me. We didn’t stay ‘til halftime all the time the first few years. Then we got it going.”
Colorado had always been relevant, but the Buffs became a powerhouse during the 1982-94 era under Bill McCartney, losing the 1989 national championship with an Orange Bowl loss to Notre Dame, then winning the 1990 national title with an Orange Bowl victory over the Fighting Irish. McCartney’s final season also produced the 1994 Heisman Trophy winner, running back Rashaan Salaam.
Rick Neuheisel replaced McCartney for four years with two 10-win seasons and three bowl games before heading off to Washington, and Gary Barnett spent the next seven years trying to sustain that pace. Barnett won four Big 12 North titles and in 2001 the Buffs were 10-3 and won the conference.
But NCAA sanctions in 2002 (from Neuheisel’s tenure), mediocre football (9-5, 5-7, 8-5, 7-6, the last of which was a 70-3 loss to Texas in the Big 12 title game) and scandals off the field (drugs and sex for recruits; Barnett’s insensitive comments about female kicker Katie Hnida, who claimed in 2004 she had been raped in 2000), ultimately got Barnett fired.
After then-athletic director Mike Bohn said CU was “a gold mine” and would hire the right coach, Colorado went into a tailspin. Dan Hawkins went 2-10 in his first season, and his second team went 6-7 and lost that Independence Bowl to the Crimson Tide.
From that point, the Buffs won 35 games and lost 88 and became a college football laughingstock.
Until this year.
Athletic director Rick George, who was an assistant AD for football operations for McCartney’s 1990 national title team, spearheaded the turnaround with new facilities, MacIntyre said. The keystone was a $156 million expansion of the athletics complex that broke ground in 2014, renovated and expanded Folsom Field and the Dal Ward Athletic Center, added a 212,000-square-foot Champions Center to the stadium footprint and finally added a state-of-the-art indoor practice facility.
But George also made CU great again with a more holistic approach, combining fundraising from the all-important big-money donors with broader community support, more in-depth university involvement and overall athlete well-being.
From NCAA probation to other scandals to losing games, a lot of people stopped caring about Colorado football during the previous decade, and that apathy was only exacerbated when CU left the familiar but increasingly mediocre Big 12 Conference for the unknown new world: the Pac-12.
The change of address made it almost seem natural why Colorado football had gotten so bad.
The shame is gone from Neuheisel and Barnett’s scandals. So is the embarrassment of Hawkins’ losses. People care about the Buffs again, and the football team this season gave them reason to cheer.
“Now we’re back up at the top echelon of the facility area,” MacIntyre said. “Everybody has embraced us. The fan base has come back. All of that is there.
“We just needed to, I guess, put a little bit more water on it, a little bit more fertilizer on it, it will grow again, because the history is great.”
The hope now is that the success of 2016 is the new normal in Boulder. MacIntyre said it’s imperative that current and future players embrace the past — the good and the bad.
“It’s everywhere,” he said. “You walk by the Heisman Trophy, Rashaan Salaam, who we lost this year. You walk by the national championship trophy. It’s the first thing our guys see when they walk into our new locker room every day. We have a ring room and national trophy championship sitting right there. We embrace it. It’s a great thing.
“The cool thing, I bring back a lot of players to speak to our guys from the different times. All of them, to a man, came back and said, ‘Hey, our history is great, but you need to set your own legacy and your own history.’ Our kids kept hearing that from guy after guy. They said, ‘We’re tired hearing about our past; we want to see the new future.’ That meant a lot.
“We embrace that. We’re very proud of our history. … These young men now want to make their own legacy, and they’re starting to do that.”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “Further Review with Hoover & Rew” and can be heard on The Franchise Tulsa from noon to 3 p.m. every weekday with co-host Lauren Rew and most mornings on The Franchise in Oklahoma City. Listen on fm107.9, am1270 on the 107.7 Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page.