On the eve of the Pac-12 Championship Game, the Golden Buffalo Marching Band was practicing with a little extra pep in their step.
Junior drum major Natalie Robertson described the vibe as “contagious.” She was having a hard time containing her excitement when she talked about what it’s like to perform at University of Colorado football games these days.
“You can’t help but feed off of it,” she enthused. “You never get tired because you’re just so ready for more. I’m ready for the next quarter. I’m ready to play the next thing because I’m so excited for this win.”
Robertson and her bandmates will perform Friday night in front of their largest audience ever – the Pac-12 Championship Game in Santa Clara, California – a high-stakes, nationally-televised affair. The Buffs, who take on the Washington Huskies, are one win away from a possible Rose Bowl appearance, the school’s first.
A win could also give CU a shot – albeit, a long shot – at being one of the four teams selected for the College Football Playoff.
That’s a remarkable accomplishment for a team that won just one conference game in their previous season. During that hard slog, junior drum major Brandon Abell remembers what it was like performing at Folsom Field, where fans showed little enthusiasm for a team that finished with an overall record of 4-9.
Signs saying “Get Loud,” meant to stoke and electrify the crowd, didn’t “necessarily have the intended effect,” that year. Now, Abell said, the signs command you to “‘Get Loud’ and the band’s playing and the crowd is cheering, and it just echoes through Boulder.”
Even the most die-hard CU fan couldn’t have imagined the kind of success the team has had. Before this season, the Buffs’ overall record since their last bowl appearance — a 24-30 loss to Alabama in the 2007 Independence Bowl — was 27 and 71.
For Justin Guerriero, the head sports editor at the school’s student newspaper, the CU Independent, it was tough writing the same story every week, which typically had something to do with the Buffaloes blowing another game.
“A lot of times it would be at halftime and the game was close,” he said. “And a couple of quarters later, the team just crumbled in various ways. So there were a lot of instances I remember of just, it’s the 3rd quarter and there’s just 10 or 15,000 people left in Folsom (the stadium holds 53,613).”
At least the fans had the option to leave. Buffaloes’ senior players, like quarterback Sefo Liufau, suffered through three miserable seasons and several drubbings by perennial conference powerhouses like Oregon and USC.
“Someone asked me, ‘What’s cooler: Going to a Pac-12 championship or a bowl game?’ I said, ‘I don’t know I’ve never been to either.’ So, it’s just an exciting time,” Liufau said.
Larry Zimmer, who announced Buffs games for more than four decades, said the team’s turnaround can be attributed to several factors. He said 4th-year coach Mike MacIntyre patiently rebuilt the program “the right way.” The 2013 hiring of athletic director Rick George – whose resume includes being the chief financial officer of the Texas Rangers and the executive vice president and chief of operations for the PGA Tour – also improved the culture of CU sports.
“Now they have a recruiting department of seven, instead of having just one recruiter,” Zimmer said. “Now they’re doing what other teams are doing and it’s paying off.”
Zimmer called a lot of legendary CU games during the team’s glory years of the late 1980s and '90s, which included a national championship squad. Zimmer said those teams had a lot of talent, but this year’s team “plays better together than those teams.”
Zimmer doesn’t call the games anymore, but he’s still closely connected to the school. He knows how hard these last few seasons have been for McIntyre and his players, and he’s happy the players are finally experiencing success.
“I saw the torment that they went through, the seniors in particular over the last few years, when they came so close to winning games, they just couldn’t get over the top,” Zimmer said. “It’s gratifying to see the smiles on their faces and see the success that they’ve had.”
On campus you can feel the Buffs’ success. If you’d had asked about the team last season, sophomore Julio Rojas would have dismissed it as “yeah it’s a football game, but we’re probably gonna lose.” Now when you ask? “It’s like, we’re gonna win. And we’re gonna keep going, and everyone’s excited and it’s pretty great.”
The people on campus, the students, the faculty and all the fans alike have the same fever that the marching band has. The sports editor at the student paper said it’s “this feeling that we can all kind of share in.” It’s a school spirit and connection in Boulder unlike anything he’s ever seen.
That’s just the kind of thing that happens when a team turns it around — just ask any Chicago Cubs fan.