We’re standing on a perfectly groomed Folsom Field during a gorgeous late summer Friday afternoon. There are no players to be found, the stands are empty and there isn’t a football anywhere in sight.
It’s eerily peaceful actually, just a few minutes following the Buffaloes’ first fall practice in full pads a quarter-mile away. I’m soaking in the beautiful backdrop and perfect sod with our photographer and Dan Hawkins, the second-year University of Colorado football coach.
“Last time I was on this field was 62-36,” I say, an obvious reference to storming the field following the Buffs’ biggest victory of the decade, a blowout over rival Nebraska in 2001 that almost catapulted them to the national championship game.
“That was a good time to be here,” Hawkins says.
That victory seems like another lifetime, something Hawkins knows all too well. The Buffs have lost 14 of their last 16 games and a colossal amount of national respect after being besieged by a recruiting scandal and rape allegations. CU Nation is waiting—surprisingly patiently—for Hawk to turn things around.
His exciting and clever sound bites, and gains in recruiting have brought many alumni back to the glass half-full side. But by the time you start reading this story, that optimism may be quashed. The hopes that Hawkins was in fact the savior of the program—and on an even larger scale, the entire athletic department—could be as dried up as Death Valley.
All this because in-state rival Colorado State University may embarrass the Buffs on national television during the Mile High Showdown on Sept. 1, a few days prior to this magazine hitting newsstands. But let’s go ahead and assume that didn’t happen; it’ll make for a better story. We’ll surmise that CU picked apart the Rams with a workmanlike effort. Maybe the score ends up being 28 to 10.
All is good in Boulder as the Buffs head into the rest of their season trying to forget last year’s 2-10 campaign with
some much-needed momentum courtesy of CSU.
If they can steal a few upsets, the Buffs could be pretty darn close to returning to the glory of that legendary 62 to 36 steamrolling of the Cornhuskers. But if victories are as sparse as last fall, you’ll catch in droves fans diving off the bandwagon.
With the entire state—and perhaps nation—glaring in his direction, that’s how thin the line Hawkins walks this year.
“If these guys don’t win…it’s going to be tough,” says Mike Slone, a Longmont resident who graduated from CU in 2003 and considers himself a supporter of Hawkins and the program. “If they go 2 and 10 again this year, I definitely would be majorly concerned.”
Hawk is not wincing at that burden, however, even if it means simultaneously trying to save face for an entire university that only seems to garner negative publicity of late (See Churchill, Ward, and Recruiting Scandal).
“I think in terms of our role, I understand it and accept it,” he says during a July phone conversation as he drives home from Denver International Airport. “The great thing about an unbelievably dynamic program, it can be an awesome window into an entire (campus) culture.
“When it’s not, it’s a tremendous drain…what you are really trying to do is support a culture and a community, reaffirming values and pride.”
And what a drain on the university CU football has been recently. It started in 2003, when several women accused CU football players of rape. Allegations that strippers and escorts were used to lure recruits surfaced, followed by another devastating rape accusation that came from the team’s sole female player, Katie Hnida. Although charges were never filed, it left the school with a swelling black eye.
Ryan Johanningmeier, the Buffs’ 1999 captain, put this in perspective during a February 2004 interview with Anderson Cooper: “This is a situation where these allegations…kind of fall on top of the whole university.”
The University of Colorado was no longer an “it” school; it had been relegated to just another university with an extremely troubled athletic department. During the whole fiasco, CU president Betsy Hoffman lost her job, as did athletic director Dick Tharp. Head coach Gary Barnett survived longer while thumping his “boys will be boys” attitude all the way to a disgraceful 70-3 loss in the 2005 Big 12 championship game. He was finally shown the door, leading to the Hawkins era.
So Hawkins may not exactly have big shoes to fill, but he certainly has a huge hole to dig out of. Going 2-10 in his first season hasn’t helped things.
“I’m not a guy that’s into comfort and luxury,” says Hawkins, who left a comfortable spot at Boise State after compiling a 55-21 record there. “For me, coming to Colorado, I knew there was going to be issues; I knew there was going to be trauma to overcome. The University of Colorado has tremendous potential in many areas.”
Admittedly, it could take some time to reach.
“You’re dealing with a timetable of 2 to 2.5 years,” Hawkins says of rebuilding. “Coach Hawk is not going to go out and throw magic dust and it’s going to fix itself in six months.”
That doesn’t mean he is patient; far from it actually. Hawkins expects a bowl game this year, a feat most prognosticators doubt and would likely make him a conference coach of the year favorite.
He expects CU to compete on the level it used to, when the Buffs ran a respected program and fought for Big 8 and national titles every year.
And whether the academic types want to admit or accept it, large public universities often get the same reputation as their football program.
CU used to be considered a premier university, and it’d be silly to think legendary football coach Bill McCartney had nothing to do with it, although all those astronauts hailing from Boulder certainly didn’t hurt, either.
“It’s not the most important thing (in judging a university), but it’s a big piece,” says CU athletic director Mike Bohn.
That being said, Bohn is more impressed with Hawkins today than he was when he hired him a little more than a year ago.
“(Hawkins) embraces this challenge with a level of passion that is engaging, with a level that is contagious,” Bohn says. “Despite the record (last year), we have three games on national TV, and our capitol projects are almost complete.”
Bohn says he’s hasn’t given Hawkins a timetable to start winning so long as everything seems to progress positively. Hawkins realizes that may not be the case if his teams keep losing.
“We all know at the end of the day, it’s big boy football, and we have to put something on paper,” Hawkins says.
But most of the signs—except the actual wins—point up. Season ticket sales are up to almost 22,000, donations have spiked, a new indoor practice bubble is almost complete, and there have been multiple projects finished this year in the Dal Ward Athletic Center.
Hawkins has also brought a reputation of being a disciplinarian, which has helped give the team much-needed credibility in the wake of scandal. Numerous players have had to sit out of action for violations that used to garner little more than a tongue lashing.
His staff showcases this attitude at the end of their first full-padded practice. While most players were enjoying Popsicles courtesy of a few young fans, two were off to the side, on their side, rolling down the length of the sideline.
The whole time, repeating, “I’ll never do that again.”
Meanwhile, the likeable Hawkins was hamming it up with a handful of reporters, like he always does, sucking down a frozen treat of his own. But a few minutes later, he tightens up a bit as the camera bulbs start flashing—photo shoots aren’t his favorite.
He still offers a little comic relief when we’re forced to scale a locked fence to gain access to Folsom Field.
“Maybe if I win a few games they’ll give me the keys,” he says.
Beat CSU, Florida State and Nebraska, and Boulder will give Hawk a lot more than just the keys to the stadium.