Category Archives: University of Colorado

This just in: Turning around a college football program is hard

Our two pre-eminent state universities, Colorado and Colorado State, both sport football teams, although only the truly committed or slightly daffy pay much attention to them these days. From the outside, both appear to be stalled on the trip back from nowhere, spinning their wheels before hopeful fans who generally find an excuse to excuse themselves from the proceedings long before the game is actually over.

Each team saw its record fall to 1-5 with its most recent loss — Colorado’s to Arizona State by the woeful score of 51-17 on national television Thursday night, and Colorado State’s to Fresno State by the less embarrassing final count of 28-7 last Saturday.

Fresno thumped Colorado by a score more common to children’s basketball games — 69-14 — a month ago, so losing to the Bulldogs by just 21 was something of an in-state victory for the Rams, their second counting their only actual victory, over Colorado, in the first game of the season, when hope still shone through the clouds of their common plight.

A year ago, Jon Embree, then CU’s first-year coach, was an emotional wreck after each of his team’s 10 losses. He was devastatingly honest about his team’s failings, enumerating them in what seemed a combination of public contrition and confession. Hired in large part because of his connection to the program’s better days — he played under Bill McCartney and coached under McCartney, Rick Neuheisel and Gary Barnett — Embree seemed to take personally his inability to get his players to perform as well as those teams of yore.

This year, in Embree’s second season in charge, the results haven’t changed much but his demeanor has. He is much more equanimous after losses, owning up to his team’s failures matter-of-factly, often with a rueful smile, as if he has come to terms with the fact that good players make good coaches, and not the other way around.

When I pointed out this change of demeanor to him following Thursday night’s loss, he smiled.

“So you’re saying I’m boring now, huh?” he replied.

I asked if his greater calm in the face of adversity reflected merely the difference between a first-year coach unaccustomed to losing and a second-year coach facing reality, or more an understanding that his players — still college kids, after all, most if not all of them destined to make a living outside the sport — were trying as hard as they could, even if that effort didn’t mean much to the scoreboard.

“I think it’s a combination of those factors,” he said. “I do believe these kids are giving me everything they have, I really do. I see the hurt. The way they come out and prepare every week, what they do in the weight room, how they are pre-game. There’s no doubt that they’re giving us all we have. Like I told them, we’re not going to let up. We’re going to keep working hard. We’re going to keep preparing just like if we were undefeated.

“You can’t let your circumstances dictate how you prepare. It’s got to be an attitude, a mindset. It’s got to be who you are as a person. Because you’re going to have times that things don’t go your way, and if you don’t have that resolve about you, then you let those circumstances dictate what you’re going to be and how successful you can be. I know these kids want to have success and they know that they’ve worked harder and they’ve put in a lot more than they have in the past.

“But what we need to understand, and what I think they do understand, is that all that does is give you an opportunity. It doesn’t guarantee you anything.

“And now we have to find a way to play four quarters. I told the team right now we’re about a three-quarter team. We play well for three quarters, when it’s all said and done. And with the level of competition that we’re playing and the situations that we’re in, we’ve got to play four quarters to have a chance. So we’ll keep grinding. We’re going to keep working.”

Frankly, this is a kind assessment, and Embree knows it. Even if you take CU’s best three quarters of each game, it’s not good enough. That’s because, harsh as it sounds, the players aren’t good enough. In particular, the quarterback play isn’t good enough, and Embree knows that, too.

When I asked him what he thought of his offense, he stopped short of a John McKay condemnation, but he didn’t sugarcoat it, either.

“I’m not happy with it,” he said. “I’m not happy where we are offensively. There’s some things that you’d like to do and there’s some guys that (will) come in that we’ve recruited that’ll help some of it, but I’m not happy at all with what we’ve done offensively. So as an offensive staff we’ll take a look at some of that tomorrow.”

Whether that last line was his oblique way of saying he would look, again, at shuffling the depth chart, wasn’t clear. What is clear is that college football, like the professional version, is all about quarterback play. And Jordan Webb, the junior transfer from Kansas, is clearly a bridge at the position until Embree finds someone better.

Asked if he knew why Webb so often misses connections with open receivers, particularly on the deep routes that might produce big plays, Embree returned to his native honesty:

“I don’t. I know he’s had a thumb issue on his throwing hand. I don’t know if that’s it. That’s something maybe you’d have to ask him. But the way we are offensively right now, we don’t have a lot of room for error. So when you create those opportunities and matchups, you’ve got to hit on almost all of them, and right now we’re hitting maybe 25 percent of them. And it has to be the other way. It has to be at least 75, 80. But I don’t know why.”

Up the road in Fort Collins, first-year coach Jim McElwain is something of a cross between the first-year Embree and the second-year Embree. He shows the emotion and reverts to the philosophizing of the first-year Embree, but rather than lapse into despondency, he tries to laugh at it.

“How miserable am I?” he asked rhetorically after Saturday’s loss, the Rams’ fifth in a row. “I am miserable! You want to know how miserable? I’m miserable, OK? But I’m not ready to jump off the cliff because I saw in that room and I saw the fight in the comeback from what they should have been just embarrassed about the week before. So there was some resolve, I think is the correct word, even though I’m not sure I can give you the dictionary definition. But there was resolve. And there was a huge disappointment because I know what they put into it. But, as they know, we come back to work and we keep moving forward. And the guys that are on board, they’ll be out there.”

A blocked punt in the final two minutes of the first half allowed Fresno to tack on a second score to what was a manageable 7-0 CSU deficit to that point. For McElwain, that symbolized everything he’s trying to excise from the program he found when he arrived.

“It’s like, ‘Now what? Here we go again.’ Right? Which is what you’re trying to bleed out of them. You know what I’m getting at? I mean, that’s what we’re trying to bleed out of the program right now. It’s not the ‘Here we go again.’ It’s not your dad’s same old Chevy, right? This is the new Rams. And we’ve got to bleed the bad taste, we’ve got to bleed the cancer, we’ve got to get rid of it.

“It’s just not how you think. To be successful, you just can’t think that way. So, you know what? Sometimes you’re going to get knocked down. My problem is I’ve probably been knocked down more than I’ve been stood up. But you know what? You keep getting up and you keep firing. And that’s what we’ll do.”

McElwain faces a challenge greater than Embree’s with respect to fan support. Colorado’s attendance is not what it would like, but Folsom Field, which holds 53,613, still draws roughly 40,000 fans for most of CU’s home games, even if the crowd tends to thin out in the second half of blowouts.

At CSU, Sonny Lubick Field at Hughes Stadium holds only 34,400 and usually draws considerably fewer. Saturday, the announced attendance was 25,814, but the stadium’s famed red-light brigade — three lines of taillights headed east, toward the only street that provides access — was in full force at halftime of a 14-0 game. McElwain goes out of his way to praise the fans who come out, trying desperately to cultivate a following for a program that hasn’t won more than three games since 2008.

This is at least part of the reason why university president Tony Frank and athletic director Jack Graham have launched a fund-raising bid to build a new stadium on campus. For students, faculty and staff, gathering at an on-campus stadium on an autumn day has an appeal that transcends the quality of the team they will see. Driving off campus to the egress nightmare and isolation of Hughes does not.

But in the meantime, they must make do with what they have, so McElwain encourages the few, the proud, the Rams loyalists.

“Very disappointed for the fans,” he said after Saturday’s loss. “I mean, this was a fantastic turnout, guys. It was the first cold night we’ve had and they were into the game. I want to really say thanks to the people who came out to the stadium because they helped on third downs and it was exciting. It’s disappointing that we’re not giving them something tangible to hang their hats on and feel good about, and, as I’ve said, I see what we’re doing and I see the guys we’re doing it with and you know what?”

He paused for a moment and frankly, I don’t know him well enough yet to know whether it was theatrical timing or actually needing a beat or two to check his emotions to keep his voice steady.

“The Rams are going to be a force to reckon with here in the future,” he said finally. “I can tell you that. And I guarantee that.”

As with Embree’s Buffaloes, the truth of the matter is disarmingly simple. CSU’s players aren’t good enough to comprise a winning team. Like Embree, McElwain found a cupboard full of holes when he arrived. His sophomore quarterback, Garrett Grayson, broke his clavicle two weeks ago, so M.J. McPeek, a senior who had never started before, got the call against Fresno. Asked how much responsibility McPeek bore for CSU’a anemic offense, McElwain went out of his way to absolve him:

“That’s a valid question, and I say none. M.J. did some good things; he’s going to want some things back. I’ll take the responsibility on that. We’re not doing what we need on offense to get it taken care of. And it’s obvious. I mean, shoot, let’s call it the way it is. And that’s my responsibility as a head ball coach. We’ve got to get a running game going, plain and simple, to be a successful football team. I mean, the team we just played, as much as they threw it, you know what, they ran the ball effectively, right? That’s where it starts and we’ve just got to get it going. And that’s not M.J. We’ve got to give him some help, all right?”

Like Embree, McElwain basically acknowledges his team’s lack of talent while honoring the effort of the kids in his charge.

“What you do is you keep working and you keep moving forward,” he said. “There are no quick fixes. I checked the waiver wire and they didn’t allow us to take any. I’m going to see if (Broncos) coach (John) Fox up in Denver might be able to throw us a couple, but you know what, I don’t want anybody else. I want these guys. I want these guys to get to where they’re going. That’s where we’re at.”

When he was finished dissecting the particulars of the latest defeat, I asked McElwain, whose last job was offensive coordinator for a national championship team at Alabama, to name his biggest challenge as coach of a 1-5 team.

“I think the biggest challenge is to keep them working every day and not stepping back,” he said. “That to me is going to be the challenge. And we’re going to be able to see the true character of a lot of individuals when you get in this situation. Everything you do in life throws you a challenge. Now, how you decide to step up and accept the challenge says a heck of a lot about who you are and what you’re all about. And there’s a lot of great lessons in that. And you know what? We’ll find out in those lessons who’s strong enough to persevere and see the things we need to make sure we get better at. And like I say, I’m not in any way, shape or form putting it on them. I’m saying, we’re going to do this together.”

It takes four years for a college coach to populate his team with his own recruits. This is the minimum timeframe required to determine if he has the wherewithal to attract players good enough to build a winning program. Whether Embree and McElwain are destined to turn around their respective programs remains a mystery. But there are no shortcuts. Both of them are learning that the hard way.


Looking for a silver lining in another CU loss

BOULDER — Let’s start with a heartwarming individual story because, frankly, there’s not that much to say about the University of Colorado’s 42-14 loss to UCLA that you don’t already know.

A fifth-year CU senior, a walk-on until this year, caught the first touchdown pass of his college career Saturday. Dustin Ebner of Arvada was so excited he forgot to hold onto the ball when the play was over.

“At halftime some of the guys were giving me crap, saying I should have kept the ball,” he admitted afterward with a smile. In fact, he wasn’t quite sure what he did with it.

“I don’t know, I think I was so excited in the celebration, I think I just dropped the ball. It was more important for me to celebrate with the team than remember to hold onto that ball. Maybe I’ll talk to J.T. (Galloway, director of equipment) and see if I can get ahold of one.”

In the media, college football is often reduced to its marquee players, the ones likely to go on to careers in the NFL. But the vast majority of college athletes are more like Ebner than the well-known players in the green room at the pro draft each year. At 6-foot-1, 185 pounds, Ebner looks like your basic college kid.

After a nice football career at Pomona High, he walked on at CU and red-shirted in 2008. He caught three balls for 15 yards his second year in Boulder, broke a fibula his third year and played mostly special teams his fourth.

Saturday, he caught the first two passes of his final season, the fourth and fifth of his college career. The first of these was a 17-yard, second-quarter touchdown from quarterback Jordan Webb that cut UCLA’s lead to 14-7 at the time.

“It was awesome,” Ebner said. “I felt like all my hard work kind of finally paid off. When I lined up, the corner was in press (coverage). As Jordan made his calls, the corner kind of backed off and had outside leverage. Then I saw the safety kind of in the middle of the field. So my eyes got really big because I knew that I was going to be his choice.”

“He’s a kid that’s been here and worked hard,” coach Jon Embree said. “I put him on scholarship this year. I was happy for him. He made a few plays out there. We don’t have a lot of depth at receiver so you’ll obviously see more of him. But he runs good routes and does a good job of catching the ball with his hands, so it was good for him to make that play in traffic. It wasn’t exactly a gimme.”

Ebner graduated last December with a degree in ecology and evolutionary biology, but he stuck around for his final year of eligibility and was rewarded with a scholarship. With the Buffs making do without Paul Richardson, their best receiver, Ebner has been rotating in whenever sophomore starter Tyler McCulloch needs a blow.

His teammates knew what the first touchdown of his career meant to him.

“They were really excited; they all gave me some love,” Ebner said. “It was a great experience for me. I had my mom, my dad and then a couple other friends in the stands. After the game, I went to the sideline and gave them big hugs. They were really proud of me.”

When Ebner is in the game on offense, he’s usually asked to block downfield in the run game, which he’s happy to do. But he admitted that finally seeing the end zone for the first time since high school made him eager to do it again.

“The thing with run-blocking is that it’s all effort,” he said. “That’s what I really strive for — just go out there and put all my effort into each play. So being rewarded with pass plays is awesome, to get that recognition, because not everybody recognizes when you’re blocking. Now I’m hungry for those touchdowns.”

Outside of Ebner being rewarded for five years of dedication to CU football, there wasn’t much good news Saturday. UCLA, which was ranked No. 19 in the country before being upset by Oregon State last week, is a lot better than CU in pretty much every respect. The Buffs’ defense kept them in the game until back-to-back turnovers by the offense near the end of the third quarter allowed the Bruins to put them away.

“We’ve got to get better in all facets of the game,” said Webb, the junior transfer from Kansas.

Alums from CU’s football glory days, Kordell Stewart and Michael Westbrook, joined the team on the sideline. This turned into a bittersweet experience for Embree’s young crew, which couldn’t turn their words of inspiration into inspired play.

“I always remember watching Kordell for the Steelers; such an exciting player,” Webb said. “But you know, it sucks to lose. With those guys on the sideline, it really sucks to lose. Those guys, they started the tradition here, and it’s not a good feeling whenever you feel like you let someone like that down.”

Rebuilding a college football program takes time, and the temptation is strong among fans, alumni and media to get discouraged and rip everybody involved. But the truth is CU is going to take its lumps in the Pac-12 this season. That’s pretty obvious, despite last week’s memorable come-from-behind upset at Washington State.

“I actually was disappointed,” Embree said. “I thought our kids competed hard and played well in spurts. We didn’t do a good job tackling. We had two critical turnovers that they converted to 14 points and then never really were able to recover from that.”

Embree’s charges get next weekend off to work on their numerous issues before playing a nationally-televised night game at Folsom Field against Arizona on Oct. 11.

Who knows? If Dustin Ebner catches a touchdown in that one, maybe he’ll remember to keep the ball.


For CU football, it’s always Groundhog Day

BOULDER — The University of Colorado post-football game press conference needs only an appearance from Bill Murray to earn the title Groundhog Day II. Whether the coach is Dan Hawkins or his successor, Jon Embree, it has been a painful, repetitive routine for too long now.

Saturday, after CU fell to 0-2 on the young season by losing 30-28 at home on a last-second field goal by a team called Sacramento State, Embree was asked what he would say to long-suffering fans of the CU football program.

“I’m sorry,” he replied. “I’m going to do everything I can to make it right and fix it, just like I tried to last week. You guys that know me, are around me, I’m competitive. I’m going to fight ’til there’s nothing left. It’ll start here in 14 minutes when we go upstairs and figure it out, or start to.”

This is more or less what he said last week, after losing in Denver to Colorado State — another game his team was favored to win. It’s also pretty much what he said after many of CU’s games last season — Embree’s first as head coach — when the Buffaloes went 3-10. The problem for many CU fans and alumni is they don’t see any signs of progress.

The Buffs were favored by three touchdowns over a former Division II cupcake put on the schedule specifically to give them a running start into the meat of their Pac-12 schedule. They surrendered 466 yards of offense to a school many students in the stands had probably never heard of.

For all that, they still had a chance to eke out a 28-27 win until they gave up a killer 72-yard drive to the winning field goal in the game’s final 2 minutes and 26 seconds.

“For them to go out there and do what they did to us today, it’s embarrassing,” said Buffs defensive end Chidera Uzo-Diribe. “They came out here with the mindset they had nothing to lose. This was not a game they were supposed to win, so they came out here and just gave it their all.”

The question left hanging in the air was this: Why didn’t the Buffs?

“I did not come in this game thinking we were going to dominate,” Embree said. “I came in thinking this was going to be a football game we were going to have to fight and win. And that’s how they were coached all week and how they were talked to. No one thought we were just going to come in and win.”

Any way you look at this, it’s bad for Embree and his program. Either his players took Sacramento State lightly and got burned or they took them seriously and got burned.

To his credit, Embree does not blame Hawkins for the sparsely-populated cupboard of talent he found when he arrived, but his choice of personnel Saturday made his opinion of many of the holdovers pretty clear. He started four freshmen on defense, including three in the secondary, and used freshmen liberally on offense as well.

After his running game ground to a halt against CSU, he installed 235-pound freshman Christian Powell at tailback. Powell finished with 154 yards and three touchdowns on 28 carries. Those numbers look a little gaudier than they felt because Powell scored the Buffs’ first touchdown on a 64-yard ramble just over a minute into the game. After that, the yards came harder.

Still, he’s more likely to provide the power running game Embree has advertised than the back he replaced, sophomore Tony Jones, who is quicker than Powell but weighs just 190 pounds.

The last time a CU runner scored three touchdowns in his first start, his name was Bobby Anderson and the year was 1969. “I thought he did a lot of good things,” Embree said of Powell.

He was less complimentary discussing his quarterback, Jordan Webb, a junior transfer from Kansas, who completed 12 of 24 passes for 160 yards and a touchdown. He was sacked three times.

“We missed some throws,” Embree said. “We missed some critical throws. I’ll have to see the tape overall, but there’s two that really jumped out that were some big-time plays for us and we weren’t able to make the throw.”

Asked if that means he will re-evaluate his decision to start Webb over sophomore Connor Wood, Embree said:

“Everything will be re-evaluated. Everything will. All positions. Yes.”

Webb suggested that protection breakdowns were at least partially responsible for his misses.

“I missed a couple, but every quarterback does,” he said. “A couple of them, I was just trying to get the ball out of my hands to avoid a sack. A few times the receivers were not even breaking into their route and I had to get rid of it. It is hard to be accurate and I guess I missed a couple.”

Wood danced nimbly around the possibility he’ll be named the starter this week, although he said he’s competing for that job every day. He entered the game for a single play — on third-and-18 — when Webb’s helmet came off and he was required to leave the field for a play. Wood completed a short pass to freshman Gerald Thomas that Thomas turned into a 28-yard gain and a first-and-goal.

“A lot of guys had their hand in the loss; it wasn’t just the quarterback position,” Wood said. “I think it was everyone. Right now, I’m not really thinking about the job. I’m still mad just as a teammate after a loss like that.”

Of course, when you lose to a team you’re favored to beat by 21 points, more than one thing is going wrong. When I asked Embree if all those freshmen in his lineup reflected a decision after last week’s loss to go with his own recruits, he demurred.

“It’s not necessarily my guys or someone else’s guys,” he said. “We’re just trying to play our best players and get guys going that we feel give us our best chance. In some cases, it’s true freshmen. So it wasn’t like, my guys or their guys. We’re all University of Colorado football players and it’s about trying to play those guys that give us the best chance and I thought those young kids played well.”

Maybe, but two of the true freshmen in his secondary — safety Marques Mosley and cornerback Kenneth Crawley — were called for pass interference on Sacramento State’s final drive.

The Hornets used a read-option running attack that might have reminded Broncos fans of the offense designed around Tim Tebow’s skill set last season in Denver. Like many of the Broncos’ opponents, the Buffs failed to maintain gap discipline too often, biting on fakes and giving up an average of 7 yards per carry to running back A.J. Ellis.

Sacramento State also burned the Buffs in the passing game on a series of quick slants that CU seemed unable to defend.

Most CU fans know that legendary coach Bill McCartney started his career in Boulder with three losing seasons, culminating in a dreadful 1-10 mark in the third. But there was no Twitter or Facebook in the 1980s. It’s not at all clear Embree could survive such a start to his head coaching career.

He was widely expected to be 2-0 at this point in the current season. Instead, he’s 0-2 and 3-12 overall. With only one non-Pac-12 game remaining — at Fresno State next week — CU has botched arguably the two most winnable games on its schedule. CU fans have not been shy about expressing their displeasure.

Whether it’s scheme or talent, coaching or coordination, the Buffs don’t look any better than they did a year ago.

“For whatever reason, the team that’s practicing isn’t necessarily coming consistently to Saturday,” Embree said. “That’s one of the things I need to look at and figure out why.”

And soon.


A new day for Colorado State football

The president of Colorado State University grew up a Cubs fan on a farm in rural Illinois, so he knows to a certainty that no matter how promising things look, they can always go horribly wrong.

As Tony Frank and his wife, Patti, stood on the CSU sideline in the final minutes of Saturday’s Rocky Mountain Showdown in Denver, they were the last to celebrate. When green-shirted Rams personnel leaped in the air at an apparent interception by strong safety Trent Matthews with just over a minute to play and the Rams up five, Frank watched warily as the interception was nullified by a roughing-the-passer penalty that gave Colorado a first down at the Rams’ 47. Could it all still slip away?

“As a Cubs fan, we’re always skeptical, right?” Frank told me afterward, aware of our shared affliction. “As long as Steve Bartman’s out there, you’re never sure it’s over.”

“Did you see him anywhere?” I asked.

“Well,” Frank said, smiling, “maybe a hallucination here or there.”

CSU’s recent haplessness on the gridiron has been the blink of an eye compared to the Cubs’ historic run of pity and sorrow, but Frank, who was named the school’s 14th president in June 2009, was hoping for a sign that he, his new athletic director and new head coach were headed in the right direction. He got it with the Rams’ 22-17 upset of the Buffaloes to open the college football season for both schools.

The celebration by CSU hands old and new was reminiscent of the Sonny Lubick years, when every victory over Colorado was a triumph by the little brother over the big brother. As CU’s disconsolate student section streamed out of the Broncos’ stadium, the Rams went to the northeast corner to celebrate with their small but raucous student section, as if to announce that CSU football is back.

“I know that maybe they’ve been a little down about not being able to really give those students something to cheer about, so I was kind of excited when they ran over there,” said first-year coach Jim McElwain, now 1-0. “I mean, that was kind of cool, wasn’t it? It wasn’t planned.”

For most of the first half, it looked as if the Rams would be thoroughly overmatched. When McElwain inexplicably declined to punt on fourth-and-1 at his own 47-yard line trailing 7-3 in the second quarter, he set up a short CU touchdown drive that made it 14-3.

“Stupidest decision ever, isn’t it?” McElwain said.

But what was your thinking behind it, I asked him.

“I don’t know, but my dad was looking down and saying, ‘Boy, Jimmy, you messed that one up,'” he said.

“I guess the biggest thing is showing faith in your guys. I have faith in them. And I told the defense, ‘Look, if we don’t get it, I’ve got faith in you to stop them.’ So it’s about showing trust in your guys. And you’re going to see on video, we came off a double team too soon getting to the second level, which, always block the line of scrimmage first. I’ll beat myself up over it, but I know this: Our guys knew that we trusted them.”

On CSU’s ensuing possession, CU went for an early knockout, putting on a punt block. They didn’t get there and, to make matters worse, return man D.D. Goodson muffed the catch.

“We were supposed to fair-catch it and obviously we didn’t do that,” said CU coach Jon Embree.

CSU had new life at the CU 20 with 33 seconds remaining in the half. They needed only seven of those seconds for quarterback Garrett Grayson to hit a wide-open Dominique Vinson for the touchdown.

“Half the guys heard one call, the other half didn’t,” Embree said of the blown defensive coverage.

Even after the extra point was blocked, CSU went into the locker room at halftime back in the game, trailing 14-9.

When they came out after intermission, neither team looked quite the same. The Rams drove 89 yards on their first possession, culminating in a brilliant misdirection screen pass for 32 yards and the touchdown that gave them a 16-14 lead.

McElwain, in his second riverboat gamble of the afternoon, called for a “bunt onside kick” in which his kicker bunts the ball — kicks it softly on the ground directly in front of him — runs alongside it for 10 yards and falls on it. It worked, too, except the officials said they never blew the whistle to signal the ball was ready to be kicked. That’s a delay-of-game penalty. So McElwain was 0-for-2 on riverboat gambles, but he signaled that life as a Rams football fan just got a lot more interesting.

On the Rams’ next possession, running back Tommey Morris fumbled at his own 15-yard line. The stage was set for another reversal of fortune, this one to benefit Embree and the Buffs.

On third-and-goal from the Rams’ 3, Buffs tailback Malcolm Creer tried to reach the ball over the goal line as he went down. The ball hit the ground and bounced into the air. CSU defensive back Austin Gray grabbed it in stride and raced 100 yards the other way for an apparent touchdown. Upon further review, officials ruled Creer’s knee was down before he lost control. Instead of a possible 23-14 CSU lead, the Buffs were back in business.

In fact, both coaches thought the ball had crossed the plane of the goal line before Creer lost control, meaning the play might have been ruled a Buffs touchdown instead of a Rams touchdown. But officials said Creer’s knee hit the ground before the ball crossed the plane or came out, so the Buffs were awarded a fourth-and-goal at the Rams’ 1, still trailing by just two.

Embree eschewed the field goal that would have put CU back in front, if only by a point. When I asked him why, he replied:

“Because I didn’t think it was going to be enough, to tell you the truth. I thought we were going to need touchdowns if we were going to win.”

What he called was a play fake into the line and roll out by his quarterback, junior transfer Jordan Webb. CSU read it and pressured Webb, who had to retreat behind the 10 and finally heave the ball out of the end zone.

“We felt it just gave us more options,” Embree said of the play call. “We had three options on that — a run and then two guys to throw it to. They did a good job of defending it. But we felt that was better for us. Our backs, Tony (Jones) was out with a shoulder and then Malcolm got dinged a little bit on (the previous play), so we just felt like our best option at that point was doing that.”

Still, the Rams took over at their 1-yard line. Although they made a first down, their ensuing punt gave the Buffs excellent field position at the CSU 35. Four plays later, CU’s Will Oliver kicked a 30-yard field goal and the Buffs had a 17-16 lead.

This is when McElwain, Nick Saban’s offensive coordinator at Alabama the past four seasons, brought out his Alabama playbook. Not counting his quarterback taking a knee on the last two snaps of the game, the Rams ran 16 plays in the fourth quarter. Thirteen of them were running plays.

Despite the Crimson Tide’s reputation for conservative offense under Saban, McElwain likes to point out that ‘Bama tended to throw more than run through the first three quarters of games. But in the fourth, having beaten down the opposing defense, they would “run to win.”

That’s what the Rams did to the Buffs. After possessing the ball for more than 6 minutes on their first series of the fourth quarter, McElwain’s bunch faced a third-and-13 on the CU 34. That’s the very edge of field goal territory, particularly for a college kicker. Nine out of 10 coaches would attempt to throw for the first down in that situation. McElwain called his seventh consecutive running play. I asked him why.

“We were in that (field goal) range,” he said. “I mean, let’s face it, we weren’t throwing the ball well. It’s not like Joe Namath was out there slinging it around. But Garrett did a great job, he did a great job of managing the game. What we ask our guys to do is let the people around you help you be successful because of how they’re playing, because of how hard they’re working. We just felt right there, look, our defense was playing pretty darn good. And that look in their eyes, I felt really comfortable with our defense.”

The running play gained three yards. On fourth-and-10 from the 31, McElwain sent out sophomore kicker Jared Roberts, who drilled the 48-yard field goal with 10 yards to spare. The Rams were back on top, 19-17.

McElwain’s defense, the one with that look in its eyes, forced the Buffs into a three-and-out. That’s when the “run to win” philosophy paid off. The first running play produced a 37-yard scamper from Donnell Alexander. It led to another field goal and the final 22-17 margin. After that, all CSU had to worry about was Steve Bartman.

“We did not play a good football game by any stretch of the imagination,” McElwain said. “Plain and simple, we have a long way to go. And this, at the end of the day, as good as it is for Colorado State, for our students, our faculty, our fans, it’s great. But at the end of the day, it was one game. And as excited as I was for them, they have to realize that we have a long, long ways to go before I consider us a decent ball squad.”

The story is pretty much the same for the Buffs except they didn’t get to celebrate going 1-0.

“Obviously, we didn’t play good enough,” Embree said. “We had too many turnovers. We talked about that, protecting the ball was going to be a key for us in a game like this. We didn’t do it and they were able to take advantage of it. And we weren’t effective running the ball. So we’ve got to get that fixed, because it’s been too long now, too many games of us not being good running the ball. So we’ll get that figured out.”

On the field afterward, CSU’s new leadership soaked in the unfamiliar feeling of winning a showdown with a big brother.

“It’s a great start for the coach and the staff and the players,” said Frank, the school president, his smile as wide as anybody’s. “It’s fantastic. It’s good for the fans. It’s nice to have a good competitive game back in Colorado college football.”


A Colorado original

He is such a familiar presence on the Denver media landscape that it’s easy to forget just how unusual and varied Dave Logan’s list of career accomplishments is. But the Denver Athletic Club’s announcement this week that it will honor him with its Career Achievement Award next month was a timely reminder.

I first met Logan in the summer of 1984, just after the Broncos acquired him from the Cleveland Browns for a fourth-round draft choice. Although we were born the same year, he was an old NFL receiver and I was a young sportswriter.

Entering his ninth season as an NFL possession receiver, Logan had a reputation for great hands and the courage to catch balls over the middle and take the vicious hits that came with them. Because of his height and athletic ability, the Browns occasionally used him as a safety in Hail Mary situations, which accounts for the lone interception on his resume, off Atlanta’s Steve Bartkowski.

He was coming home to a place where he had starred at Wheat Ridge High School, winning the Denver Post‘s Gold Helmet Award as the state’s top senior football player, scholar and citizen, and at the University of Colorado, where he lettered in both football and basketball. He was drafted by baseball’s Cincinnati Reds as a high school senior, and by the Browns and basketball’s Kansas City Kings as a college senior. Dave Winfield is the only other athlete to be drafted in all three sports.

The prospect of coming home was so attractive to him that he lobbied the Browns to make the deal, but his return did not work out as he had hoped. Why Broncos coach Dan Reeves traded for him was never really clear. He stuck him behind Steve Watson, the Broncos’ top receiver, where he seldom got a chance to play. In four games, Logan caught one pass for three yards after catching 37 for 627 the season before.

Strangely, Reeves then moved him to H-back, the Broncos’ second tight end, a position Logan had never played. In his first game there, against his former team, Logan was asked to block Pro Bowl linebacker Chip Banks, then blamed for not doing it successfully.

No wide receiver would ever have been given such an assignment. Logan, it seemed, was being set up. Four weeks into the season, Reeves cut him.

Logan had every right to be bitter. He had been the Browns’ leading receiver in 1983. He had come home for this?

The yellowed clipping from the Rocky Mountain News is dated Sept. 27, 1984. Here’s a passage from the perplexed piece I wrote at the time:

Logan, who never uttered a discouraging word despite finding himself a fourth (or fifth) receiver after seven years of starting in Cleveland, would not knock the Broncos even after he was waived Wednesday.

“The only thing I can understand from the whole situation is for a guy that’s played eight years, if they weren’t going to give me any playing time, it would be better for the team to bring in a young receiver they could develop,” he said. “If I were on their side, I would feel the same way.”

I tried to get him to rip Reeves, believe me. He wouldn’t do it. This was my first experience watching Logan take the high road. It would not be my last.

We pay a lot of attention these days, as we should, to the difficulties former players have when their careers are over. So many of them struggle to find an identity beyond what they used to be. Everybody’s All-American, the Frank Deford novel later made into a movie starring Dennis Quaid and Jessica Lange, captures the sadness of a life lived in the rearview mirror.

Logan never looked back. Rather than chase a fading playing career in the usual way, trying to make another team in training camp the following summer, Logan settled down in his hometown and started looking around for a new career. The things he has accomplished since would each be a highly satisfying life for many of us. That they are combined on one resume is extraordinary.

He began his media career as a radio talk show host, a role he continues today, more than 20 years later, as host of the Dave Logan Show on 850 KOA. He parlayed his background as a former player to become a color analyst on Nuggets and Broncos broadcasts and telecasts.

In 1996 he broke out of the stereotype by moving from the analyst’s chair to the play-by-play chair on Broncos broadcasts. This fall will mark his 17th as the voice of the Broncos. Catch a Broncos highlight on national TV, whether it’s John Elway from the championship years or Tim Tebow from last season, and it’s Logan’s trademark call you’ll hear on the voiceover.

For lots of folks in my trade, the media business, this would be a hugely successful career all by itself, without the talk show or the history as a player. There are only 32 local NFL play-by-play voices, and many fewer than that who last long enough to become institutions in the role.

But long ago, Logan also began indulging his passion for the game and for young people in another way. He kicked off his high school coaching career at Arvada West in 1993, moved to Chatfield in 2000 and Mullen in 2003. This fall, he begins a new chapter in his coaching career at Cherry Creek.

In 19 seasons, he has taken his teams to the playoffs 17 times and won six championships in the state’s highest classification. It’s well known that he donates his coaching salary to his assistants.

Each of these careers — as a player, a coach and a media personality — has been remarkably successful in its own right. That they have all been accomplished by the same person would be hard to imagine if Logan didn’t make it look so easy. As we know from watching the best athletes perform, that’s the mark of the great ones.

“Dave is arguably the most versatile and accomplished sportsman produced in Colorado,” Broncos vice president and unofficial Colorado sports historian Jim Saccomano posted on Twitter when he heard about the DAC’s decision to bestow its Career Achievement Award.

“Logan is the only prep coach in history to win six state titles in the highest classification of play with three separate schools in one state,” Saccomano wrote. “That stat is for all 50 states. Next highest is a coach with three titles. Logan has six. That’s an astonishing statistic.”

Saccomano did not make this up. A couple of years ago, he had Broncos media relations folks call the high school athletic associations of all 50 states to see if anybody else had won titles at the highest classification with three different schools. They found one who had done it. He had a total of three titles.

Here’s another piece of research courtesy of the veteran Broncos publicist: Only three former NFL players have made the transition from color analyst to play-by-play man — Pat Summerall, the late Tom Brookshier and Dave Logan. That makes Logan the only former player doing play-by-play today.

As his current partner on the talk show, I have a front row seat to his influence in Colorado. Not a week goes by when at least one fan doesn’t call to thank him for the thrills his Broncos calls have provided. When Mullen unaccountably let him go earlier this year, he was flooded with missives from former players and parents of would-be future players. The impact he had on these people, and the emotions they expressed about it, were sometimes overwhelming.

As he did when the Broncos cut him nearly 28 years ago, Logan took the high road. He offered not a word of criticism of his former employer. He urged angry Mullen students and parents to calm down. It’s the way he was raised and the way he’s wired: In everything you do, show class.

He is a fiercely loyal son and father. He could have been on at least two NFL coaching staffs if he had different priorities. As someone fortunate enough to call him a friend, his unbending sense of right and wrong is the most impressive thing about him, even more than any of the career accomplishments for which he’ll be honored.

Living in a world with more than its share of glad-handers and self-promoters — and if you’re wondering whether I’m talking about athletes, coaches, school administrators or media types, the answer is yes — Logan’s idea of the right way to live is deeply old-school. Bring up his achievements and he will swiftly change the subject. Ask for a memory and he will almost certainly give you a funny, self-deprecating one.

I didn’t tell him I was going to write this because if I had, he would have asked me not to. But just think about the exclusive clubs of which he’s a member: One of only two men in the nation to have been drafted in three sports; one of only three former NFL players to become NFL play-by-play voices; the only high school coach to have amassed six championships in his state’s highest classification at three different schools.

Saccomano and the DAC are right. His achievements put Logan in a class by himself. But it’s the values he’s maintained along the way that make him a Colorado original.


Colorado’s game plan tonight in the NCAA tournament

After Murray State eliminated Colorado State from March Madness this morning, the University of Colorado is the state’s last hope to advance beyond the round of 64 in the Division I tournament.

In fact, Colorado is also the Pac-12’s last hope after Cal, the conference’s only other tournament invitee, was eliminated in a play-in game Wednesday.

You might think, as I did, that CU’s best chance against the athletic, high-flying Runnin’ Rebels of UNLV would be to take the air out of the ball and turn tonight’s matchup into a half-court game, as Wisconsin did when the Badgers beat the Rebels 62-51 in December. But CU coach Tad Boyle said this week on the Dave Logan Show that’s not the plan.

“Here’s what the game plan is,” Boyle said. “Now, what the game plan is and what unfolds are sometimes different things, but we still want to run. When we get stops, we’re going to go, we’re going to attack. We always want to be in attack mode. I think in tournament basketball, the aggressive team has the advantage. So we are going to be the aggressor on both offense and defense. We’re going to attack. We’re not going to take the air out of the ball. We’re going to run.

“But what we have to do is we have to control the tempo of the game so that we can dictate when we do that and when we don’t do that. And that’s where I think, when you’re playing UNLV, you’d better dictate the tempo. If you let them dictate the tempo and you go toe to toe, athlete to athlete, we probably come up a little bit short.

“But we are going to run. We’re going to just pick and choose our spots. Off misses, rebounds, turnovers, we’re going to go. Off a made basket, you may see us execute in the half court. So I think you have to learn how to win games. If you saw us play in L.A., we were aggressive offensively when we had the advantage. But when we don’t, we’ve got to be smart, we’ve got to make them execute in the half court, because I think maybe advantage Buffaloes when it comes to that. But we’ll see how it plays out.”

In this morning’s game, Colorado State wanted to slow Murray State’s transition game, and largely succeeded. The Racers’ 58 points were their second-lowest point total of the season. But the Rams sabotaged their chances to stay close with a fatal 21 turnovers. Many were bad decisions, but Murray State also seemed to anticipate much of CSU’s interior passing game, frequently picking off feeds in the paint.

Like the Rams, the Buffaloes are underdogs as a No. 11 seed. When Dave Rice’s UNLV team gets out and runs, it can play with anyone, as it proved by defeating North Carolina in a 90-80 November track meet.

“We’ve got our hands full,” Boyle said. “We’ve got to (play good) transition defense, getting back, and they shoot over 23 three-point shots a game. They really use that to their advantage. They do it from a lot of different spots on the floor, a lot of different positions. If we can get our defense set, which is going to be easier said than done against those athletes, I like our chances. But that’s going to be a key to the game.”

CU came up big in the Pac-12 tourney, winning four games in four days to take the conference championship and earn its automatic bid to the big dance. Sophomore Andre Roberson and senior Carlon Brown were the tournament standouts, but the Buffs also got important contributions from seniors Nate Tomlinson and Austin Dufault and freshmen guards Spencer Dinwiddie and Askia Booker.

“Carlon Brown played with a sense of urgency, an aggressiveness, a confidence that we really needed,” Boyle said. “And that was infectious to our whole team. He made Nate more confident, he made Austin more confident, he helped our freshman guards, Spencer Dinwiddie and Askia Booker. I thought Austin Dufault had a great tournament.

“I think if you point to two guys, probably Carlon and Andre really stepped their games up, but Nate was terrific. I thought our freshmen played very, very well for freshmen. Spencer Dinwiddie was 4-for-4 from the three-point line in a championship game. I mean, we had some great performances. And I thought our bench played well when they needed to play well. Shane Harris-Tunks gave us some big-time minutes.

“To win four games in four days, you have to have contributions from multiple places and we got that. I was really proud of what these kids did. But all that stuff’s behind us. This is a new tournament. We’ve got to refocus, re-energize and we’ve got to approach Albuquerque just like we did L.A.”

Can the 23-11 Buffs pull off one more upset and make it to the round of 32? Tip-off is scheduled for 7:57 p.m. mountain time on TruTV.


Nine years later, can a Colorado team make it out of the first round?

The last time the men’s teams from Colorado and Colorado State both made it to college basketball’s big dance was 2003. You don’t hear much about it because both were one-and-done, eliminated in the round of 64.

Colorado was the No. 10 seed in the South region that year. The Buffaloes were dispatched by the No. 7 seed, Michigan State, 79-64. Colorado State was the No. 14 seed in the West. Duke, the No. 3 seed in the region, sent the Rams home 67-57.

So the question this year is whether either or both Colorado schools can get beyond the round of 64 and get a little taste of the Madness. Both are No. 11 seeds this year. The early line made Murray State a 3-point favorite over Colorado State and UNLV a 4 1/2-point choice over CU.

So which Colorado school has the better chance to pull the upset?

If you judge by who’s hot and who’s not, it’s CU. The Runnin’ Rebels put the runnin’ back into Nevada-Las Vegas basketball under first-year coach Dave Rice, but they started faster than they finished. After compiling a gaudy 21-3 mark out of the gate, they lost five of their last ten, including a 66-59 defeat to Colorado State in Fort Collins on Feb. 29.

By contrast, after losing three of four to finish the regular season, Colorado roared back to life in the Pac-12 tournament, winning four games in four days in Los Angeles to take the conference championship in its first Pac-12 season and earn an automatic bid to the national tournament.

The challenge for CU coach Tad Boyle will be avoiding the temptation to let UNLV dictate the pace of the game. The Rebels thrive in the open court. They love to run and gun, sharing the ball and showing off high-flying moves that may remind you of Jerry Tarkanian’s teams (Rice was a member Tarkanian’s 1990 national championship team). Unselfishness is their hallmark. They were second in the nation in assists and fourth in field goal percentage. In fact, they outran North Carolina, ranked No. 1 in the country at the time, for a 90-80 victory back in November.

On the other hand, the Rebels struggle when forced to play half-court basketball. Wisconsin took the air out of the ball in December and prevailed 62-51. New Mexico obliterated UNLV 65-45 in February.

Because they don’t like to slow it down, the Rebels are also not great at holding leads. They blew advantages over TCU and CSU down the stretch of the Mountain West Conference regular season.

Slowing it down is a challenge for the Buffs because they, too, like to run. The temptation will be even greater playing at altitude in Albuquerque, where Colorado’s high-altitude conditioning should be an advantage. Still, having lost its top four scorers from last year’s squad, this particular CU team is not that explosive. It averaged 67.6 points per game, 183rd in the nation. The Rebels’ 76.7 points-per-game average ranked 24th.

At 6-foot-7, sophomore Andre Roberson emerged as a do-everything star for the Buffaloes this season. He led them in rebounds, steals and blocks, was second in scoring and assists and is their best on-the-ball defender. If he and senior Carlon Brown continue to lead as they did in the Pac-12 tournament, and if the Buffs can resist the siren song of UNLV’s pace, they’ll have an opportunity to advance to the round of 32.

In Murray State, CSU faces a similar challenge. The Racers, as their name suggests, would love to make it a race. They averaged 74.2 points per game this season in the Ohio Valley Conference, good for 40th in the country. The Rams, at 71 points per game, were 101st.

The Racers played only two ranked teams all season — Memphis and St. Mary’s — but beat them both. Against many tournament opponents, the Racers would seem small. Their starters measure up at 6-feet, 6-1, 6-3, 6-7 and 6-7. As it happens, the Rams are even smaller, featuring a starting five that come in at 5-11, 6-2, 6-3, 6-5 and 6-6.

Tim Miles’ bunch doesn’t want to run, largely because it lacks the depth to substitute freely. So it shouldn’t be tempted to get into a track meet. The Rams excel at offensive efficiency in the half court, moving the ball, moving without the ball and getting open looks. They are fifth in the country in three-point shooting and led the Mountain West in field goal percentage. But they struggle to rebound because of their lack of size.

“We’re undersized all the time,” Miles said last week on the Dave Logan Show. “We defended pretty well in the conference. We were the third-best defensive team in league play. Now, we had some troubles earlier in the year. And we lost Pierce Hornung, who’s on the all-Mountain West defensive team, for six and a half games. He got his bell rung, a concussion, during the Stanford game when we were up 13. And we lost that game and then went 3-3 without him.

“But since then, those kids have really defended, hung around on the boards and we play offense with a good pace. What I mean by that is we don’t really fast break because we don’t have a lot of depth, but when we’re in our half court offense, it’s hard to keep up with our guys. They really run hard and cut hard and play well together.”

In short, the keys for Colorado and Colorado State are pretty similar. Both must resist the temptation to allow their games to be turned into track meets, which will be more tempting for the Buffs than the Rams. Both must defend tenaciously in the half court, rebound the ball without dominant size and execute efficiently at the offensive end.

Neither is favored, but each has an opportunity to pull off the upset by playing disciplined basketball.