How Tad Boyle built downtrodden Colorado into a Pac-12 contender
In 1994, Tad Boyle was a 31-year-old stockbroker in Boulder, Colo., earning more than $100,000 a year, and the owner of a nice home and an impressive backstory to tell potential clients. He had once been the best high school basketball player in the state -- he earned a scholarship to Kansas coming out of Greeley High in 1981 -- and on the side he coached the varsity basketball team at nearby Longmont High.
"I was happy," Boyle says. "I had wanted to be a stockbroker since I was 16 years old. I even did an internship [at a brokerage] when I was in high school. Living in Colorado, making a lot of money as a stockbroker, feeling like I was impacting young people's lives as a high school coach. I thought that was going to be my life."
But on a sunny morning, as Boyle drove his car through the intersection of McCaslin Boulevard and South Boulder Road in Louisville, Colo., a driver blinded by the sun rammed his car into the side of Boyle's vehicle. "My life was saved by the airbag," says Boyle, who suffered only a concussion. "And if I had been five feet further into the intersection I would have been killed."
Within a year, Boyle had quit his job, sold his house, and took job as a restricted-earnings assistant coach at Oregon. His starting salary was $16,000 a year.
A historically mediocre basketball program doesn't become a burgeoning power because of a single player or single event, and that is particularly true for Colorado, which prior to the 2011 season had not won a conference title since 1969 and had not won an NCAA tournament game in 15 years. In 2011-12, the Buffaloes were one of the surprises of the season, winning the Pac-12 tournament in their first year in the conference and then upsetting sixth-seeded UNLV in the NCAA tournament. Last season, Colorado returned to the NCAA tournament again, and on Saturday the Buffaloes (9-1) upset No. 6 Kansas, a team Colorado had failed to defeat in 19 previous attempts. It was the latest sign that Colorado has been transformed into a top program.
"Colorado has been a place that has had pockets of success built around great players like Chauncey Billups and David Harrison. Now, we are starting to have sustained success," Boyle says. "I think [the Kansas victory] can be a defining moment for this program. Only time will tell if that proves true."
The reason for Colorado's ascent is best imagined as a series of dominoes that fell perfectly in a line. The first domino was Boyle's near-death experience, which motivated him to try and make a career out of coaching. There was also a bold hire by the school's former athletic director, the move to a new conference, some luck and foresight on the recruiting trail, and then a star Colorado prep player learning from Boyle's greatest mistake. In total, it has positioned Colorado for a return to the NCAA tournament this season and potentially for years to come as eight of the team's top 10 players are underclassmen.
"It is amazing what is happening there and where that team is going," says Maryland coach Mark Turgeon, who played with Boyle at Kansas and coached with him at Oregon, Jacksonville State and Wichita State. "People keep talking about the future of programs like Arizona or UCLA, but Colorado is right there."
Mike Bohn got the news in April 2010 while at The Masters socializing with boosters. "I was meeting with alumni and, ironically enough, trying to raise money for the basketball program," says Bohn, Colorado's athletic director from 2005 until last May. It was then, while walking the fairways at Augusta National, that Bohn learned that Jeff Bzdelik, the coach Colorado had hired only three years earlier, was leaving for Wake Forest.
Bzdelik, the former Denver Nuggets and Air Force coach, had a richer resume the previous coaches who had tried to reverse Colorado's fortunes. Hiring him was, as Bohn says, "a sign of how committed we were to creating a winner here." Bzdelik didn't win much -- his teams were 36-58 in three seasons -- but he recruited future NBA players Cory Higgins and Alec Burks to campus and there was a sense that that the 2010-11 season would be a breakthrough.
"I was worried that with Jeff leaving we were going to lose that momentum we had worked so hard to create," Bohn says.
Bzdelik's departure was, in hindsight, the most significant contribution to Colorado's revival. When it occurred, however, it created a mess. Steve McClain, one of Bzdelik's assistants, was popular with the players and many of them gave Bohn an ultimatum: If the school didn't hire McClain they would transfer.
McClain, now an assistant at Indiana, was a qualified candidate, and many athletic directors would have hired him for continuity. But Bohn liked someone else for the job. Months earlier he had attended a game between Northern Colorado and Denver. Northern Colorado had only been a Division I school since 2003 and in 2006-07 had the lowest RPI of the 327 Division I teams. The Bears were, literally, the worst team in college basketball that year. But they had improved dramatically since then and routed Denver by 15 as Bohn looked on. The Bears would finish the 2009-10 season at 25-8, a remarkable turnaround orchestrated by Tad Boyle, then 47. "I was watching Tad coach, seeing how hard his guys played and how fundamentally sound they were," Bohn says, "and I thought: If ever have to hire another coach, Tad is the guy."
Boyle will concede that some days he doubted he could be "the guy" anywhere. At Oregon, he carved out a niche as the sort of operations manager of the program, doing all the clerical work so the other coaches could focus on recruiting. After a season in Eugene, he followed Jerry Green to Tennessee, then hooked up with Turgeon, his old friend, at Jacksonville (Ala.) State. "Tad was married then and in his late 30s and had the first [of his three children] and was making $34,000 a year," Turgeon says. "There were days he worried he'd made the wrong choice."
Boyle followed Turgeon to Wichita State in 2000, and Turgeon tried to get the school to agree in writing that Boyle would succeed him when he left. But Wichita State officials wouldn't do it, so, in 2006, when Northern Colorado, located in Greeley, offered Boyle the opportunity to move back home to his home state, he took over one of the worst programs in Division I.
"They took on a chance on me and I took a chance on them," Boyle says. "It was a tough situation, but it was my shot to see if I could do it at this level."
Boyle won four games his first season, 13 his second and then came a disappointing third year marked by close losses and a 14-18 record. Boyle called Turgeon that season and said: "I don't know if I'm head coach material." Turgeon responded: "You took over the worse program in Division I and are competitive and winning some games. I don't want to hear that out of your mouth again."
The next season (2009-10) the Bears set a school record with 25 victories, Bohn watched Boyle's team defeat Denver, and Bzdelik left for Wake Forest.
"You want to talk about dominoes. If [Bzdelik] had left one year earlier, I'm not an attractive candidate to Colorado," Boyle says. "I won 14 games that year. [Bohn] can't sell that to alumni. If Jeff doesn't leave right when he did, I don't get the job."
Boyle's staff was built to recruit Texas, the closest hotbed to Boulder. But a few months after they took over, Colorado announced it was leaving the Big 12 for the Pac-12. It was an unsettling development at first but would become key to the team's success, second in importance only to Boyle's hiring. "One reason I came to Colorado was because it was in the Big 12 and I'd get to go back to Texas and stick it to the schools that passed on me," says Andre Roberson, a small forward who played three seasons for Boyle before being the No. 26 pick in the 2013 NBA Draft. "I hear we are going to the Pac-12 and I'm not happy. But now I know it was big. It got us the L.A guys."
The first wave of L.A. guys came from the Class of 2011 and consisted of guards Spencer Dinwiddie and Askia Booker, who both dreamed of going to UCLA. The Bruins lagged in offering a scholarship to Dinwiddie, a versatile, 6-foot-6 guard from Woodland Hills (Calif.) Taft High, and Booker received no other offers from Pac-12 schools.
Dinwiddie's recruitment was stressful for the Colorado coaches, as they had made him their No. 1 priority; Boyle viewed him as the lead guard the team would revolve around. On the last day coaches could contact prospects before the November signing period, then-UCLA coach Ben Howland visited Dinwiddie's home. "We're thinking that if UCLA offers him we are done," says Buffs assistant coach Jean Prioleau.
UCLA offered, but Dinwiddie passed. "[Howland] never had a vision for me like Coach Boyle did," Dinwiddie says. "He kept saying I was a piece, where for Colorado I was the piece."
Booker, who hit the game winning three-pointer against Kansas, was not big (only 6-foot-1) and an inconsistent shooter. He also played on a Price High team loaded with talent, and jumped around to different AAU teams, which made it difficult to gauge his abilities. But the Colorado coaches saw value where others didn't.
"I went to a practice at Price High and a coach from every Pac-12 team was in the gym scouting some of Ski's teammates," Prioleau says. "To me, he was the best player in the gym. I was probably the only one who thought that."
Dinwiddie and Booker averaged a combined 19 points a game as freshmen, 27 as sophomores and the same through 10 games this season. "Getting Spencer and Ski was big," Prioleau says. "And they helped us get other California players." One of those players is sophomore Xavier Johnson, a 6-6 forward from Santa Ana Mater Dei, who snubbed UCLA and USC and is averaging nearly 10 points and five rebounds a game.
Turgeon says Boyle greatest attribute is his ability to identify guard talent and then develop it, as he's done with Dinwiddie and Booker. But good guards will only take a team so far. Colorado needed an elite post player or there was a limit to what it could achieve. Says Boyle: "And that is the hardest type of player for a program like ours to land because they are so in demand. With a player like that you are always going up against a Kansas or Kentucky or a program like that. And most of the time we lose that [recruiting] battle."
During his four years as a player at Kansas from 1981-85, Boyle did little to distinguish himself, to put his stamp on that storied program. He was a captain his senior year, but he was nothing more than a role player, and he spent his college years and some years after wishing he had gone to Colorado instead. It wasn't that he didn't enjoy Lawrence; he is grateful for the basketball education he got under Ted Owens and Larry Brown. "It is just very rare to have the opportunity to make a huge difference in a program and at a school, and to do that as a homegrown kid," Boyle says. "That is something very special that as a high school kid you don't often understand. I know I didn't understand that then and if I could have gone back in time I would have gone to Colorado."
Boyle isn't one to wallow in that regret, but he doesn't shy away from it, and it became part of the most important sales pitch he would make as Buffs coach. The Class of 2012 included, as luck would have it, a skilled 6-10 forward/center from Monument, Colo. Josh Scott was ranked among the top 40 players in the country, the kind of recruit who traditionally chose to play for, say, Kansas, over the struggling in-state program.
Scott's recruitment coincided with the 2011-12 season, however, when Boyle led Colorado to the NCAA tournament and upset UNLV in the first round. Boyle's vision for where the program was headed and how Scott fit in intrigued the young big man, and Boyle's sharing of his regrets about leaving Colorado when he was in Scott's situation helped seal the deal.
"We talked about that," Scott says. "It wasn't why I made the decision to come here but it did make me think about coming here and being part of building this program, about doing something important here."
Scott and Johnson were part of the first top 25 recruiting class in Colorado history and provided a jolt of ability to the frontline that Dinwiddie and Booker previously brought to the backcourt. The Buffs have gone from struggling with team's with large frontlines -- as they did against Baylor in the 2012 NCAA tournament -- to holding their own, as they against Kansas, when Scott and Johnson combined for 28 points.
While it is apparent Scott is still developing, his upside, like the program as a whole, seems limitless. "Tad kept telling me how good [Scott] was, but I was thinking: He's from Colorado. He can't be that good," Turgeon says. "But then I saw him play. Man, he's that good."
Boyle and his staff have continued to find recruiting success, including locking up Class of 2014 point guard Dominique Collier, a top 75 recruit from Denver that the Buffs have been courting for more than two years. Like with Dinwiddie, Collier was targeted early on and the Buffs coaches went all in on him and got their man.
"We have five freshmen in our 10-man rotation and three sophomores," Boyle says. "And then you add in the freshmen we have coming in, including [Collier], and you can see that we are building this for sustained success."
Seemingly the only reason to bet against that would be if Boyle were to leave. It seems inevitable that an elite program is going to make a run at him. He turned down earlier offers from Texas A&M and Nebraska, but what will happen when one of college basketball's top programs has him atop their short list?
"The smartest guy in our profession is Mark Few," says Boyle. "He has stayed at Gonzaga because he understands that it comes down to what you value. I have three children, and I can't imagine raising them anywhere else."
Coaches have professed such devotion before and then left, chasing more money or because they don't truly believe they can win consistently where they are. "And that is why I see Tad coaching Colorado for the rest of his career," Turgeon says. "He's proven he doesn't do things for money. And with the players he is getting, he can have as much success [at Colorado] as anywhere else. I'd be shocked to see him leave."
Shocked because, in a way, it would be Boyle making the same mistake he made coming out of high school more than 30 years ago.
"At Colorado, I can make huge difference," Boyle says. "Why would I go somewhere else when we are building something here that has never been done before? Why would I leave when we have everything we need to do something really special right here?"