It was an hourand a half into the 14th and final spring football practice at Colorado lastThursday when Dan Hawkins gave the command. "Thirty-second utopia!"shouted the Buffaloes' new coach, and 80 players, plus several of hisassistants, dropped to the grass like Deltas flopping onto the dance floor atthe toga party in Animal House. "See yourself making plays!" yelledHawkins. "See yourself making the pick, making the tackle! Envision 13-0!Feel the energy! Visualize it!" ¬∂ Who knows what thoughts went through theplayers' minds as they gazed at the sky, but each would have been justified inthinking, We're a long way from Houston. ¬∂ They were also 131 days and onecoach removed from the catastrophic 70-3 defeat to Texas in the Big 12 titlegame at Reliant Stadium. That rout accomplished what a series of sordidepisodes had not: got Gary Barnett canned. Hired in 1999, Barnett had coachedthe Buffs to 49 wins and one conference championship, and through scandals andcontroversies that included allegations of sexual assault by Colorado playersand the use of alcohol and strippers to entice recruits during visits toBoulder. ¬∂ Though no player or coach was ever charged with a crime, the schoolpresident resigned, the athletic director was forced out and the chancellor wasshuttled to another job during the tenure of Barnett, but he, for the mostpart, was absolved of blame. He could not, however, survive the addedembarrassment of the on-field debacle against Texas, finally getting fired onDec. 8 (the blow softened by a $3 million buyout). Eight days later Hawkins wasintroduced as the new coach. "Let's throw a little Hawk love outthere," he proclaimed at the press conference, "and let's getgoing."
Hawkins arrivedfrom Boise State, where his teams won 53 of 63 games and four WAC titles infive seasons. His penchant for offensive pyrotechnics, positive reinforcementand Zen principles made for a cozy fit in Boulder, a liberal enclave oncedescribed by The Denver Post as being "nestled between the mountains andreality."
The reality forHawkins, a logger's son from Bieber, Calif. (pop. 600), is that he was hirednot only to win more games than Barnett did but also to serve as a kind ofsorbet--to cleanse the palates of Colorado fans disgusted by the program'soff-field failings. Says the Hawk, who has a fondness for nautical metaphors,"We've got to get this thing off the shoals, out of the mud."
How to chart thatcourse? How to restore self-esteem to players who lost their last threeregular-season games by a combined score of 130-22? Hawkins gave SI a front-rowseat for his first four months on the job, starting with his initial teammeeting, in which he drew on a variety of subjects, from the importance oftriangulation at team meetings to the wisdom of Bagger Vance.
April 23, 2006
On a frigidMonday night in mid-January, the Buffaloes came in from the cold, small groupsof them trickling into the clean, well-lighted atrium of the Dal Ward AthleticCenter. Hawkins had spoken to them briefly in December, but this is his firstfull-squad meeting, so he will be addressing a team he has yet to win over.Jordon Dizon, a linebacker from Kauai, Hawaii, shows up in flip-flops, askingno one in particular, "How could it be so cold?" Dizon will say laterthat the firing of Barnett had left him and many of his teammates "upsetand disappointed."
Hawkins saysnothing, waiting with his hands in his pockets for the room to fall silent.When it does, he tells the players a study found that students who perform besttend to sit in a triangular area, the first row of seats comprising its base."All you guys out there," he says, motioning to players beyond thetriangle, "you're fringe guys. And if you're on the fringe, you might aswell not even be here."
The triangle isquickly filled in, and then Hawkins congratulates the team for its 19-10 lossto Clemson in the Champs Sports Bowl on Dec. 27. Because when you follow up amorale-crushing, 67-point loss that cost your coach his job with a gutty effortin a narrow loss the next game, there is such a thing as a moral victory."You guys really scrapped. You really battled," Hawkins says. While itis not his intention to boast, he says, he wants them to know that his BoiseState squads were among the top offensive teams in the nation five yearsrunning. "You mix in some Boise State with some Pac-10"--Hawkins hiredoffensive coordinator Mark Helfrich from Arizona State and poached receiverscoach Eric Kiesau from Cal--"that's some serious voodoo, and we're fired upabout unleashing it on the Big 12. We're going to shock some people."
QuintessentialHawk Moment I: Soon after, he screens a clip from The Legend of Bagger Vance."There's a perfect shot out there trying to find each and every one ofus," the mystical caddie Vance (played by Will Smith) tells the strugglinggolfer (Matt Damon). "All we got to do is get ourselves out of its way. Letit choose us.... I can't take you there.... [I] just hopes I can help you finda way."
"Guys,"says Hawkins, when the lights come back up, "this thing is way bigger thanfootball.... It's about getting a hundred guys who believe in something biggerthan themselves to go out there and just cut it loose. I'm kind of like WillSmith: I can't take you there, but I can help you find the way. This may soundcorny, but I totally believe there's a reason I'm here. This is a great schoolwith a great football tradition. And I don't care what went on before or whatpeople think. But I know where we're going from this point on.
"This placechose me," he says, echoing Bagger Vance, "and I chose thisplace."
QuintessentialHawk Moment II: Later in the meeting he says, "There's only one nationalchampion each year. If we want to get there, we've got to think a littledifferently. We've got to be a little.... abnormal."
By the end ofspring ball the Buffs will know from abnormal. They will have participated insumo drills, in which players strap on blocking pads and try to knock eachother out of a ring. They will have competed to determine who could slide thefarthest on his belly in the snow. Linemen will have fielded punts. And Hawkinswill have brought golf clubs onto the field for a closest-to-the-pincompetition--the "pin" being equipment manager J.T. Galloway, standingvery still 55 yards upfield.
At 7 a.m. the dayafter that team meeting Hawkins and four assistants board a private jet boundfor New Orleans. ("If you want to feel like Shaq," he tells anotherpassenger, "try standing up in the restroom.") They are going to applya full-court press on Chris Mitchell, a much-coveted wide receiver at JohnEhret High. Barnett left behind a solid defense, but if Hawkins is going tostretch the field on offense, as was his wont in Boise, he needs a burner atwideout.
The earliness ofthe hour brings to mind something Hawkins had told the team the night before:He isn't big on "dawn patrol"--on requiring players to report forconditioning at 6 a.m. Why not? he is asked on the plane. "Studies haveshown that the main deterrent to top performance isn't poor diet orstress," he says. "It's lack of sleep."
In this, andother ways, he is a player's coach who lobs around words like"ownership" and "accountability." In the world according toHawk, "so much of life is flow. The more you give power up, the more youget it back." Then he adds a proviso: "I respect you enough to give youall the rope you need, but there is an end to my rope. I'm totally willing toshare my power. I'm not willing to give it up [completely]."
He has alreadyasked each player, "What's the best thing you guys have done here? What doyou want to keep?" He wants them to know he respects their opinions andaccomplishments. This is a team that for all its issues has won the Big 12North three of the last four seasons. Hawkins and his staff are not startingfrom scratch.
They are greetedin New Orleans by driving rain and a yellow-slickered baggage handler who,seeing that they are coaches from Colorado, asks, "Who y'all here tosee?" After they tell him, the baggage handler laughs, then says,"Chris Mitchell? The whole SEC's been here to see him. Florida's been herethree times. Nebraska's been here. Miami's been here. But, hey, goodluck!"
Hawkins spent allafternoon with Mitchell, but in the end he decided to stay in his home stateand play for LSU. In the weeks leading up to national signing day, on Feb. 1,Colorado's recruiting class would be rated as low as 90th by one recruitingservice. But Hawkins and his staff would scramble nicely, reeling in amiddle-of-the-pack class of 22. Allen Wallace, the national recruiting editorfor Scout.com, says, "I would anticipate dramatic improvement [nextseason]. I think they'll put together one of the elite classes in the Big 12. Ahuge cloud has been lifted."
The firstscrimmage of spring practice, on March 23, is by turns slovenly andspectacular. Tight end Tyson DeVree catches a long pass, only to be blown up bythe free safety. DeVree is still bent over on the sideline when Hawkins offersa high five. "I think I'm going to throw up," DeVree gasps.
"That'scool," says the Hawk. "Puke and rally!"
After thescrimmage, the team takes a knee around their coach. Their execution needswork, he tells them, but the attitude was all he could ask for. Then comes apeculiar digression: He scolds them for leaving energy bar wrappers on thefloor of the locker room. "It's about the details," he tells them. Hewants the team to focus less on big-picture goals and more on the process--thedetails--that goes into achieving them. "The Zen master seeks not to hitthe target," he tells his guys, "but to become the bow."
He has beenhammering them on the little things since the day he arrived. "I'm not usedto having the head coach right behind me, telling me I just took the wrongsteps," says Mark Fenton, a senior center, who notes that Hawkins is farmore hands-on than Barnett. "He doesn't let you slide on anything."
Anotherdifference between the two coaches: The tempo at practice is more intense now,but the players don't seem to mind. Dizon, the linebacker who was still bitterabout Barnett's firing at that first team meeting, has bought in completely.Under Barnett, he recalls, "guys would lag when practice rolled around. Nowguys are like, 'Practice! I wonder what we're going to do today? What'll hethink of next?' The whole climate is so different. Coach Hawkins's philosophyis, You won't play your best unless you're having fun."
One player havinga blast is junior quarterback Bernard Jackson, who completed just two of threepasses in the scrimmage but scrambled like a poor man's Vince Young. On oneplay he pulled the ball down, reversed his field and streaked 33 yards up theleft sideline with Hawkins chugging in his slipstream, shouting, "Nothingwrong with that!"
An electrifyingtalent, Jackson nonetheless languished for three seasons while Barnett's stafftried to figure out what to do with him. Jackson was shuffled from quarterbackto kick returner to receiver to running back, then back to quarterback in 2005.Last year, he says, "I would go to the line thinking, If I do this wrong,I'm going to get yelled at."
Given theslightest opening, Hawkins will expound on Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. ForJackson, one of those needs--the need to feel safe, physically andpsychologically--was not being met. After spending time with him, says Hawkins,"I got this vibe that his spirit was broken, that he was in a cage. And Ijust told him, 'I want you to break out, play your style, use your talents anddon't worry.'" Thus unburdened, Jackson had a strong spring and willchallenge fellow junior Brian White for the starting job in August. The Xfactor in that battle could be the Buffaloes' top recruit, Cody Hawkins, whograded out fourth among 12 high school players in the prestigious Elite 11quarterback camp last July in Aliso Viejo, Calif., where it was noted that whathe lacked in height (5'11"), he made up for in natural leadership skills.That is not surprising, considering that his father is a football coach. AtColorado.
Dan Hawkins oftentells his players not to let their fears limit them, so he found himself in abind several weeks ago when Cody's sister Brittany, who is 20, challenged herfather to go skydiving with her. "If you don't do this," Brittany said,goading Dan, "then everything you tell your guys is meaningless."
"Thathurt," recalls the Hawk, who despite his fear of heights decided to takethe plunge.
"See thatnice-looking plane over there?" the skydiving instructor asked the coach,when it was time to take off. "That's not ours." Instead, they boardeda smaller, scruffier craft. When the pilot started the engine, Hawkins recalls,it stalled. Finally, the plane took wing. "Got to get out of your comfortzone!" he declares on a video of his adventure that can be viewed atcubuffs.com. He also tells his wife, Misti, he loves her. During free fall heis surprisingly calm until he shouts to the heavens, "Colorado BuffaloesNumber 1!"
Not in '06, asanyone who watched the offense lay a carton of eggs in last Saturday's springgame knows. The poor showing was not wholly surprising. The offensive playershad been force-fed a new system, and on Saturday they played as if they hadindigestion. Close to 7,000 fans came to see the defense dominate on ablustery, overcast day at Folsom Field--only 50,000 fewer than packed MemorialStadium in Lincoln, Neb., to watch the Cornhuskers' spring game.
No matter howgood they get down the road, the Buffs will never fill the stadium for theirspring game. This opinion--intended as a compliment to the citizens of Boulder,who have more and better things to do on a spring Saturday--is voiced in frontof Hawkins, who takes umbrage. "Did you just call me out?" he says."I think you just called me out." When Colorado sells out a futurespring game, he vows with a smile, "You'll eat those words."
Whatever. He'dbeen less feisty, but just as confident, one evening earlier in the spring.While eating at Pasta Jay's, he was approached by a female student, whodeclared, "You're the new football coach! You gave a talk at my sorority.You rocked! We are so stoked for the season!"
Still smilingseveral minutes later, Hawkins said to his dinner companion, "Will we winthe national championship next year? I don't know. But I do know this: We'regoing to have this place bumpin', and for all the right reasons."
For more spring football coverage, including reportsfrom Ohio State and Louisville and an early Heisman watch, go toSI.com/collegefootball.
"Coach's philosophy is, You won't play your bestunless you're HAVING FUN," says Dizon. "Guys say, 'What'll he think ofnext?'"
"There's only one national champion eachyear," Hawkins said. "If we want to get there, we've got to be a LITTLE... ABNORMAL."