Coming off its worst season in school history, Colorado hopes this is the bottom. For the last decade, it seems, Buffs' fans have been promised progress -- if only in small, incremental steps -- each year. It's rarely happened. Now, following a 1-11 campaign and the addition of a first-year head coach, this fall seems poised to bring more of the same.
Colorado last finished above .500 eight years ago and hasn't won 10 games in a season since 2001. After coach Gary Barnett and his staff were forced out in December 2005, Dan Hawkins and Jon Embree took their respective cracks at the head-coaching gig. Neither one ever settled in as the man for the job. Hawkins was abrasive with the media, guilty of nepotism (his son, Cody, played in 45 games at quarterback, which alienated more than a few teammates) and responsible for causing some of his most talented players to transfer. He went 19-39 -- including an embarrassing 2-23 on the road -- and was fired in November of his fifth season at the helm. Embree was never fully given a chance to succeed, though it should be noted that his teams ranked among the least competitive in the 111-year history of the program. In late May, Colorado ousted AD Mike Bohn, who'd held his position since 2005.
So here we are. The Buffs must start over. Again.
New head coach Mike MacIntyre, the 48-year-old offensive virtuoso plucked from San Jose State last December, has a monumental task ahead of him: rescuing a once-proud program (Colorado finished the 1990 season ranked No. 1 in the AP Poll) from the deepest, darkest dwellings of college football. He appears well conditioned for the job. Before coming to Boulder, MacIntyre turned a Spartans team that went 1-11 in 2010 into an 11-2 Military Bowl winner in 2012. "The first thing you have to do is get the young men to understand the culture of what you want," MacIntyre said in May of revamping a downtrodden program. "You have to have an attitude change. ... I feel we've made some good progress in that area."
But this isn't the WAC, and since joining the Pac-12 in 2011, Colorado has gone 3-15 in league play. Last year, it was outscored by an average of 30.6 points per game. The Buffs had the 121st-ranked defense in the nation and surrendered an FBS-worst 39 passing touchdowns. The offense wasn't much better. Colorado allowed the third most sacks (50) in the country, scored the fewest points (17.8 points per game) in the conference and finished with a -19 turnover margin, 119th in Division I.
There are a few bright spots heading into the fall, headlined by wide receiver Paul Richardson, who is a year removed from knee surgery after tearing his ACL on April 9, 2012. Richardson showed glimpses of his potential while racking up 555 receiving yards and five touchdowns as a sophomore, but injured himself while trying to reverse directions on a kick return drill during last year's spring practice. "I tried not to overreact," Richardson said of his injury. "But about 45 minutes later I was having an MRI and about an hour after that I had my results."
Richardson says he feels close to 100 percent now and that his 40 time is even better than it was before he went down. In fact, coaches say it's hard to notice Richardson underwent major knee surgery less than 12 months ago.
"He's got a whole other gear on the field than [anyone] else I've coached," said new wide receivers coach Troy Walters, who won the Biletnikoff Award as a senior at Stanford in 1999. "He kind of reminds me of Marvin Harrison. He has good feet, good hips, good at getting in and out of his breaks, and if you want to sit on his routes, he's going to run by you."
Still, Richardson may be one of the few reasons for optimism. Junior Connor Wood is undisputed starter at quarterback following Nick Hirschman's transfer to Akron and Jordan Webb's ACL injury, but Wood will line up behind a painfully thin offensive line; center Gus Handler is the only returning starter. The defense brings back sophomore cornerbacks Kenneth Crowley and Greg Henderson, but many holes remain, and conditioning and poor tackling remain major issues. "We need to change our bodies," MacIntyre said. "There's some significant situations to take care of there. Especially on the defensive line ... we're not in very good shape right now."
The team's uphill battle -- both on and off the field -- cannot be overstated. Non-student ticket sales dropped by nearly 2,200 from 2011 to 2012, and, on more than one occasion, half of Folsom Field appeared empty at kickoff. Colorado's attendance declined by 10 percent last season, the second largest dip in the Pac-12. Clearly, MacIntyre has a lot of work to do.
He'll require a multi-year rebuilding project. He'll need to convince some talented prospects to help him along the way. In all likelihood, it's going to be a long and ugly ride. But if all goes according to plan, MacIntyre believes Colorado will be partying like it's 1990 again soon enough.
"I feel like the kids bought in every day," said MacIntyre this spring. "The overall attitude is very positive."