Longtime Buffaloes fan Chris Thompson sums up the last two decades of University of Colorado Boulder football with one word: “Terrible.”
“There’s no way to sugarcoat it,” the Westminster resident said from the CU Indoor Practice Facility before the Black and Gold game on Saturday. “There was some glimpse of hope with Mike MacIntyre and that 2016 team. Those guys were awesome, but he just couldn't keep it going.”
That team won the Pac-12 South Division and finished 10-4 for the season. But since then, the Division I team hasn’t won more than five games in a season. Last year, it lost 11 out of the 12 games it played.
But in November, the program surprised many when it hired Pro Football Hall of Fame cornerback and coach of Mississippi’s Jackson State University football team Deion “Coach Prime” Sanders as head coach. With the season barely underway, Sanders’ presence has reenergized fans, alumni and former players alike.
At the annual scrimmage, which punctuates spring practice, fans filled the stands at Folsom Field. While last year’s game had an estimated crowd of 1,950 people, this year's game was watched by over 47,277 who showed up in 32-degree weather to cheer on the team. The game was also broadcast nationally on ESPN, with anchor and CU alum Chris Fowler reporting from the stadium.
Last week, CU announced that season tickets were sold out for the first time since 1996.
Boulder native Lanny Scarlett has been a season ticket holder since 1981 when former head coach Chuck Fairbainks led the Buffs to a three to nine record during his final season with the team. Scarlett saw Bill McCartney lead the team into a national championship in 1990. He still thinks about the Hail Mary pass from Kordell Stewart to Michael Westbrook that led the team to victory against Michigan in 1994.
Scarlett didn’t understand why Sanders would trade the warm weather of Florida for the snowy mountains of Colorado, but he admired the coach’s enthusiasm for the region.
“[Sanders] says, ‘I have never even seen snow before.’ And he gets up here and he's having fun,” Scarlett said. “He's snowmobiling and doing a lot of activities up here.”
Scarlett also admires how Sanders might bolster the team roster.
“He’s going to bring in a lot of good recruits,” he said.
Since Sanders arrived on campus, he has addressed the shift that can happen when a team is being remade. Twenty-three players from CU have submitted their names into the NCAA transfer portal, which allows students to explore opportunities at other colleges or universities.
At a press conference last week, Sanders said, "it is what it is. We're not upset that anyone jumped in the portal and left." He continued that he's focused on recruiting young men who truly want to help shape the team.
The coach has brought in several new players, including his son and quarterback Shedeur Sanders and cornerback/wide receiver Travis Hunter from Jackson State. Seventy recruits were in attendance at the Black and Gold Game.
CU alumni Josh Ortega has noticed the recruits coming in. He graduated from the university in 2006 and said the peak of his undergrad years was when Buffs thrashed Nebraska 62-36 at home, then went on to beat Texas for the Big 12 Championship in 2001. But by the time he returned to the school for his masters over a decade later, the program had fallen into disrepair.
Ortega believes the new faces will pump some life back into the program.
“I like the schools that we're getting [players] from and so they're bringing a winning culture,” Ortega said of the excitement he feels for the team this season.
Helping players adjust to life in Boulder
As Sanders settles into the season this year, he is also adjusting to the less diverse culture of Boulder — just as three Black coaches before him have had to do.
A key to former coach Bill McCartney’s success was the recruitment of Black players from the inner cities of Los Angeles and Houston.
J.J. Flannigan was one of McCartney's first big-time recruits from Pomona, CA. Flannigan admits he struggled with the culture when he first arrived at CU.
“You start finding out that there's a whole different culture here that we didn't understand and they didn't understand us coming in. How do they handle all these Black kids coming in from the inner city?” Flannigan said. “How [do they] make sure that that respect is not only on the football field, but off the football field?”
Flannigan went on to play three years for Colorado, capping his career with 18 touchdowns in 1989. He thinks that Sanders learning about Boulder’s culture will help Black players adjust to life in Colorado.
“That's the excitement that Deion is bringing,” he said. “Kids want to come here and play for him. They want to win for him.”
Mason Crosby was another out-of-state recruit to the Buffs. The Georgetown, TX native racked up numerous accolades between 2003 and 2006 with the team, and later went on to help the Green Bay Packers win a Super Bowl.
Standing on the sidelines during the Black and Gold game, Crosby approved of Sanders' work and reflected on his time in Boulder.
“I can't say how much I enjoyed my experience here in Boulder and it's always good to come back and be a part of it.”
As for the game, scores didn’t matter. Afterwards, Sanders said every player had an opportunity to compete. He told his team that he was proud of their efforts on the field.
“I didn't know that it would be like that,” he said. “But, the energy and just walking out the locker room with the team, it was unbelievable. It was one of those moments that you would never forget.”
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