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Rebuilding Project Project - Case Study #5: Colorado

Successful rebuilding projects generally bear positive results within the first five years - but not always. In this final case study, we take a look at one such situation where patience was rewarded.

Doug Pensinger

Patience is a trait that is in increasingly short supply when it comes to college football (and reflects a larger trend within all big-time team sports). And it's understandable why - there's a lot of money at stake, and administrators feel the pressure to win now and bring in the money that comes with winning. But it hasn't always been this way, at least not to the extent that you see today - look back at the career of Rich Brooks at Oregon or Jim Walden at WSU. Or consider the following case:

Imagine it's 1984. You are the fan of a team that, while not one of the premier programs in the game, has been successful much more than not with 10 bowl games and 9 top-20 finishes. As recently as 1972, it finished 10-2 and ranked #3 in the country. But it had fallen on hard times recently; a successful coach had been let go after a dispute with the school administration, and the replacement - a coach that had found great success earlier in the decade at a conference rival before moving on to the NFL - had bombed, going 3-8, 1-10 and 3-8 before getting fired after the 1981 season.

The replacement had not fared much better - in his first season he had posted a 2-8-1 record, then a modest improvement to 4-7 the next year, but in year three the team crashed back to another 1-10 disaster. If you are that fan, are you convinced this guy has to go? If it's 2013, the answer is probably yes.

Fortunately for Colorado Buffalo fans, the AD exercised patience and stuck with his coach - Bill McCartney. In year four, he showed reasons for optimism by leading the Buffs to a 7-4 regular season before losing in the Freedom Bowl (their first bowl game eight years) to the Washington Huskies. Another bowl game (and another bowl loss) followed in 1986 after a 6-5 regular season. At that point McCartney had compiled a mark of 20-36-1 (.360) in his five seasons at the helm; in the five seasons prior to his arrival, they had gone 20-34-1 (.373).

But the trend was upward, and after another 7-4 regular season (no bowl game this time) and an 8-3 regular season (capped by another bowl loss), the Buffaloes finally busted out in a big way in 1989 as Colorado finished the regular season undefeated and ranked #1 before falling in the Orange Bowl to Notre Dame and allowing Miami to claim another National Championship. The Buffs had played that season in both mourning and in celebration of Sal Aunese, the starting QB in 1987 & 1988 who had succumbed suddenly to stomach cancer in September of that year, and the team was clearly able to use his death as inspiration.

After coming so close to a title in 1989, they finally claimed one the following year. Despite a tough start to the season that saw a tie with Tennessee in game 1, a close call vs. Stanford in game 2 and a loss to Illinois in game 3, they were able to run the table to conclude the season, including getting revenge in the Orange Bowl by squeaking by Notre Dame 10-9 and claiming the final #1 ranking in the AP Poll to win their first National Championship.

Colorado remained a national power under McCartney, posting seasons of 8-3-1, 9-2-1, 8-3-1 and 11-1. That 1994 team suffered their only loss to eventual National Champions Nebraska, and featured their first (and only) Heisman Trophy winner in RB Rashaan Salaam.

But Coach McCartney shocked the college football world by retiring after the season. McCartney - a deeply religious man who had co-founded the Promise Keepers organization in 1990 - has always maintained that this decision was about spending more time with his wife, and he never returned to coaching.