For almost three decades, if you heard that the men's basketball coach at the University of Colorado was going to hang around for another year, it was like learning that Captain Smith was still the skipper of the Titanic. In Boulder, basketball was a minor annoyance wedged between football season and spring break. Take two Advils, curl up with a 1,500-page Tolstoy novel and wait for it to be over.
The Buffs' astonishing 22-9 season came to an end Saturday afternoon in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, but the Ricardo Patton era was just getting under way. Sophomore scoring machine Chauncey Billups may flee to the NBA, and a couple of talented seniors are about to graduate, but CU's first trip to the NCAA tournament since before men walked on the moon showed that hoops is a whole new ballgame along the Flatirons. Picked in a pre-season media poll to finish eleventh in the brand-new Big 12, Patton's troops were outgunned in the league this year only by the University of Kansas--now the odds-on choice to be the last team standing at the Big Dance.
What do you think? Have you ever seen a prettier sight than Indiana coach Bobby Knight slumped in desolation on the bench, as if somebody had just smacked him in his big mouth? The Buffs jumped out to a 7-0 lead Thursday night (Knight goes bug-eyed), ran the margin to 15-3 (Knight goes ballistic) and breezed away to an 80-62 upset--CU's first NCAA tournament win since 1963. In the first half, Billups scored his 1,000th collegiate point. In the second, tall boys all over America suddenly started getting the idea that Boulder might be a nice place to go to school.
Like CU football coach Bill McCartney before him, Patton has rekindled an entire program. If, by eleventh-hour clumsiness or stupidity, the powers that be at Colorado somehow let him slip away, they should be lynched on the Pearl Street Mall. Patton has made his bones. If his tight-knit club's 13-1 home record this year didn't convince everyone of his value, Colorado's first win at Missouri in more than twenty years and a victory over Texas Tech that broke that school's 36-game home-floor winning streak should have.
If those things didn't do the trick, that hurtin' the Buffs laid on the Hoosiers last week has to. This was not Bobby Knight's best-ever team, to be sure, but the manner in which self-assured Colorado--strangers to the big time--swept Indiana away bore witness to Patton's skills: the 6 a.m. team bonding sessions in the Dal Ward Center, the 7 a.m. team breakfasts, the wake-up visits to the Denver County Jail. Hey, along with polishing up the X's and 0's, Ricardo Patton even put his players through an etiquette class.
"If you win the national championship," he told them, "you get invited to the White House. I want the team to feel comfortable in all social situations."
National championship? White House? What in the world was this man talking about? Here was a program that literally lost a hundred straight Big 8 road games, and now the guys were polishing their shoes for a trip to the White House? This was the team that, just two years earlier, was beaten by an industrial-league team sponsored by an oil company? Now they were suddenly about to break bread with Bill and Hillary?
Well, not quite. North Carolina coach Dean Smith, a man whose very name will have the adjective "legendary" attached to it for all time, like a barnacle, saw to that last Saturday. Fate is a joker, so it was Colorado that got served up to the Tar Heels in the NCAA East Regional's second round. Was it a big game for the Heels? Nah. The only thing winning would mean was that Smith, 36 years on the job, would become the winningest coach in college basketball history with his (gulp!) 877th victory, surpassing the (what else?) legendary Adolph Rupp.
First Bobby Knight? Then Dean Smith, on the brink of history? What's a poor little football school to do?
Well, for one thing, play its heart out. Twelve-point underdogs, the Buffs hung tough with North Carolina for twenty minutes of play and actually led 31-30 at halftime. Then, with fifteen minutes left in the game, a 30-8 run by North Carolina and some hometown foul calls that might qualify as legendary themselves set Dean Smith a-sail to his date with destiny. The Tar Heels had to win fourteen straight games at the close of this season to get their coach to this point; Colorado was simply unable to forestall the inevitable until next fall. In the process, they wilted under Smith's relentless 2-3 zone defense, missed twelve straight 3-pointers and fell 73-56. Dance card canceled.
Along college basketball's famed Tobacco Road, Ricardo Patton and the Buffaloes will one day be the answer to a trivia question, just as Al Downing is the footnote answer to another question: Who gave up Homer No. 715 to Hank Aaron?
Okay. Let the basketball gods have their little laugh. It was Bobby Knight, a coach of, well, pretty legendary status himself, who was supposed to become number 877 on the Dean's list--a matchup that March Madness fans and the Columbia Broadcasting System were aching for. Two giants.
Instead, Patton worked his way into the footnotes in North Carolina and into the headlines here in Colorado. He might have to wave bye-bye to Chauncey, but CU students probably won't be burying their heads in War and Peace come next February, or the one after that. With any luck, they'll be cheering on Patton's next crop of recruits.
"These players can hold their heads up high," the coach said. "They surpassed their goals." In the cheap seats at the Coors Events Center, other heads may also be held up high. Men's roundball is back in Boulder.
While we wait around for next season, have you heard about the Buff OneCard? This summer, the University of Colorado is going to issue a new kind of student ID that will do multiple duty as a debit card for bookstore and vending-machine purchases, a dormitory key and a long-distance phone card, among other things.
If the administration has its head on straight, the Buff OneCard will also denote membership in the Ricardo Patton Fan Club.
Now, about Ceal Barry and her Buffaloes...
Close, but no Cigarillos.
The word from Bluegrass country is that Cigar is firing blanks. The great thoroughbred, a two-time Horse of the Year and the most successful runner of his era, was gracefully retired after failing to repeat in last fall's Breeders' Cup Classic. He had been scheduled for at least 85 trips to the breeding shed in 1997--at $75,000 per date. Pretty good for a gigolo who doesn't even pick up the dinner check.
Not so fast, big guy.
Down at Coolmore's Ashford Stud, in Versailles, Kentucky, the first sixteen mares Cigar visited in his new career as lover and father have all come up empty. None are in foal. It appears that he is sterile.
In his great racing career, no one ever questioned the potency of the seven-year-old son of Palace Music and Solar Slew. Over four seasons, Cigar won 19 of 33 starts, including 1 races in a row in 1995 and 1996. If somebody would pony up--let's see here, another $185--Cigar's lifetime earnings would come to a cool $10 million, the most in horse-racing history.
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Late last year owner Allen Paulsen sold a three-quarter interest in Cigar to Coolmore and several partners for a reported $25 million. Orders poured in from all over the world: The Morning Line had it that Cigar could likely become the greatest stud since Northern Dancer and Alydar.
No such luck. No Cigarillos.
To his credit, ex-owner Paulsen expects to buy back his racehorse should he fail at stud, which now appears to be the case. Rumors floated around the racing world two weeks ago that Cigar would return to the track, but Paulsen quelled those. Last week there was even talk of trying to clone the great champion. Paulsen put an end to that idea, too--and not just because the Jockey Club, which registers thoroughbreds, has long stated its opposition to cloning schemes.
"I think I'll take him back to my farm and take care of him," the classy Mr. Paulsen said.
That, of course, is just as it should be. Paulsen won't race again with a great one whose day has passed. He won't abandon a great one just because his genes can't be passed along. More power to him, and to Cigar. At Allen Paulsen's farm, there will now be two champions--one equine, one human.