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Tough for Buffs

Fred Harper

Back in the day, University of Colorado football players bonded with each other at pep rallies. They matched appetites at the training table. For awhile there, they went on raft trips and listened to their coach strum his guitar. Always, they exchanged fellow-feeling by kicking serious ass in the grim heat of two-a-day practices and, later, by beating Iowa State or Missouri. If they managed to get past Nebraska, the black-and-gold team love-fest was complete. This past year was different, though. This past year, the Buffs became a band of brothers when eight of them were called to testify before a state grand jury.

"The bond that we've made over the last few months is unbelievable," senior running back Bobby Purify reports. "I truly believe that having each other's back is one of the ingredients to victory, one of the keys in the equation."

Ah, the equation. As CU's embattled Golden Buffaloes get ready for the school's 115th season of college football, it might take a couple of Einsteins, half a dozen psychologists and maybe a little wisdom from Ralphie the mascot to figure out the... equation. This much anyone can see: On the practice field in Boulder, there is no such thing as "scandal." The shocking, tabloid-style allegations of the off-season just past -- Rape! Liquor! Strippers! Prostitutes! -- are known euphemistically as The Ordeal. Before the picture windows of the Dal Ward Athletic Center, wherein beats the troubled heart of CU football, sixth-year head coach Gary Barnett calls the three-month suspension university president Elizabeth Hoffman imposed on him in February "my time off" -- as if he had been on vacation in Puerto Vallarta. His devotion to discipline and character-building and the well-being of student-athletes continued undiminished, as always. Despite the heat, he remained confident he would get his job back.

"We're obviously a team that's been toughened up over the last six months," Barnett told a roomful of reporters gathered on August 10 for CU's annual football media day. "We're a team that's gone through a lot of adversity...probably faced more adversity than some teams get to face in a season."

Whatever crimes were or were not committed inside the CU football program since 1997, the players and the coaches don't want to hear any more about it. They want to concentrate on practice. On X's and O's. They want to get ready for the Colorado State game on September 4, which will be broadcast from Boulder's Folsom Field to a national TV audience. They yearn for the drudgery of business as usual. Don't worry. The equation will solve itself.

"These are always anxious and exciting moments for football coaches," Barnett said on press day. "To meet their new team. There's hope in the air for everybody."

Hope in the air. That has to be a relief considering the other things that have been in the air since January, when the scandal -- The Ordeal -- erupted. Things like the accusations of at least nine women who claim they were sexually assaulted by CU football players or prospects over the past seven years. The stink of rumors about off-campus parties at which booze and sex were freely used as football recruiting tools. The wrath of three women who are suing the university in federal court. The unabashed declarations by employees of an enterprise called the Best Variety Escort Service, who say they were hired to service CU recruits at a resort hotel.

And who can forget the stunning non sequitur Barnett offered when talking about former CU place-kicker Katie Hnida, after she had gone public with the accusation that she was raped by a male teammate: "She was awful," Barnett opined. "Katie was a girl, and not only was she a girl, she was terrible."

That didn't score any points with the administration, and Hoffman put Barnett on leave. But it didn't earn the coach a pink slip in the end, which surprised even some longtime Buff fans. "Amazing that he got a pass," said Denver businessman Bob Haley, who has been going to CU games off and on since 1965. "I love the team, but this guy got off easy. Took no responsibility for anything. It makes you wonder who's running the show on campus -- the football team or the president's office. I think we know the answer."

Days after his reinstatement in late May, Barnett submitted to an interview session with CU football beat writers and described his "time off" in the curious patois of coaches everywhere -- a private language that combines the righteous fervor of the revival tent with the bureaucratese of a police-station briefing. "All the players that I've had have come to my defense," the Barnett transcript reads. "And that's all that's been really important to me -- my family, the people that I've worked with and the kids I've coached. When things like that happen, you just have to say that what is important are these kids, their parents and my family."

 

The scandal has already cost the university about $1,000,000, not to mention an avalanche of bad publicity, and the tarnished football program is sure to face relentless scrutiny this fall, on and off the field. No one can predict how fans and beleaguered players will handle the distractions. A campus maintenance crew has long since scrubbed three words of ugly, anti-football-player graffiti -- three words no one can seem to remember at this point -- from an exterior wall of the Dal Ward Center garage. Reports of players being scorned by strangers on the streets of Boulder have diminished. But the traumas of the past eight months are not over.

The grand jury, empaneled in May, has not only heard from players, but also from Barnett, campus police and former recruiting aide Nathan Maxcey, among others. A former escort service manager said Maxcey paid her more than $2,000 for three call girls to visit Boulder-area hotels. Although he's denied that allegation, Maxcey has been indicted on charges of soliciting a prostitute and misusing a state cell phone.

Still, further legal proceedings remain a possibility. Last February, Governor Bill Owens appointed Attorney General Ken Salazar as the special prosecutor to head the University of Colorado Law Enforcement Task Force and to examine potential criminal matters "involving the University of Colorado football team and its recruiting program." Salazar announced last May that the task force wasn't filing criminal charges of sexual assault in nine cases involving football players. He said that the decision was partly at the request of some alleged victims who didn't want to become part of court proceedings. Still, he noted in a public statement, the cases remain open and the inquiry will presumably be ongoing.

"This stuff hurts," says one player. "I am pissed off that we have to put up with a lot of stuff that is not our fault, that we had nothing to do with. I just wanna go out there and play football."

Last year's team went 5-7, its porous defense yielding even to the league's doormat, Baylor, in a 42-30 loss. Not many observers outside the cocoon of CU football think 2004 will be much better. For just the fourth time in the past sixteen years, the Buffs are off the radar in the pre-season polls, and reporters covering the Big 12 pick them to finish a dismal fourth in the six-team North Division, behind Kansas State, Missouri and Nebraska. No Colorado player was chosen for the media's pre-season all-conference team.

Barnett's suspension kept him away from this year's spring drills (assistant Brian Cabral did his best as a replacement), and in the wake of the scandal, six players transferred out of the program, including three key starters: last year's leading rusher, Brian Calhoun, cornerback Sammy Joseph and defensive end Marques Harris. There's a new defensive coordinator, Mike Hankwitz. When secondary coach Vance Joseph left the fold under a cloud, Barnett scuffled to replace him with veteran Craig Bray, late of Arizona and Oregon State. Bray came aboard June 4 and has yet to learn all of the defensive players' names.

Last week, the Buffs suffered another major blow when the NCAA rejected return specialist/wide receiver Jeremy Bloom's bid to rejoin the team. A superb athlete who doubles as a world-champion moguls skier, Bloom had challenged collegiate sports' amateurism rules when he accepted skiing-related endorsement money last year to help finance his training for the 2006 Olympics. The fastest man on the team, Bloom figured to be a prime target this fall of quarterback Joel Klatt. Instead, his college football career is probably over.

The Buffs return twelve seniors, but a defense that ranked 97th in the nation last year will need major improvements to hold up against number-nine-ranked Washington State (September 11), number-eleven Texas (October 30), number-thirteen Kansas State (November 13) and number-eighteen Nebraska (November 26). At the same time, the graduations of top wide receivers Derek McCoy and D.J. Hackett raise more questions about CU's passing game. Barnett says he will rely heavily on the run.

Meanwhile, CU's tailbacks won't be the only ones trying to cover ground. With their credibility at stake, Barnett and CU athletic director Dick Tharp must try to repair the image of a football program that has shifted the focus of inquiry in Boulder from "Who killed JonBenét?" to "Who paid for the hookers at the Interlocken Hotel?" (In Tharp's case, he was criticized for his partial ownership of Liquor Mart, a popular campus liquor store. Tharp said he would resign from the store's board of directors but stopped short of severing his ownership ties.)

 

It could take years for CU football to recover its equilibrium -- if it ever does. The unkindest cut of all? In a startling turnabout, Nebraska fans have begun to tell Colorado jokes. It may not be Letterman-worthy, but here's a sample, direct from downtown Omaha: "What's Saturday night like in Boulder? The cops are smoking grass, the football players are at the whorehouse, and Gary Barnett's feeding Milk-Bones to his guide dog."

For now, most CU boosters stand firmly behind the coach, athletic director Tharp and the players. Despite all the criticism and controversy, they point out, 2004 season-ticket renewals stand at 88 percent, a minor drop-off from the 92 percent rate of the last five years. The 80-year-old stadium's 53,750 seats will probably be filled on game days in Boulder. This minor fallout is not too bad, considering that the school even had to bring in an outside expert on college sports reform, former Tufts University president John DiBiaggio, to investigate the culture and practices of the entire CU athletic department. "I'm ready for the season," CU alum J.C. Reynolds says. "The media has overblown the whole thing, and I'm tired of it. These girls can say whatever they want, but Barnett runs a good program, and it isn't right that he gets smeared. It isn't right that the players get smeared. It's all political correctness. I can't wait for September 4th. The scandal shit is all over. Done with."

Maybe not. At this point, no one can gauge the long-term effects of the lingering tumult on the football program -- or the university itself -- but worry clearly does battle with Barnett's brand of hope in Boulder these days. Whether the school will suffer in terms of reduced student applications, a fall-off in alumni giving or damage to its academic reputation remains to be seen, but you take little victories wherever you can get them. For instance, almost no one on campus -- except, perhaps, a few bleary-eyed frat boys -- was disappointed last week when the new edition of a dubious annual survey published by the Princeton Review dropped CU from its long-held perch as America's number-one party school all the way down to ninth place.

Nevertheless, some staff members -- including two victims' advocates -- are leaving the university, in part because they believe the administration turned a blind eye to the rape allegations and should have promptly fired the coach and the athletic director. CU regents continue to argue over what some of them see as a culture of entitlement for the school's varsity athletes -- especially football players -- and one of the most outspoken critics of the university's response to the scandal, Democrat Jim Martin, has dropped his bid for re-election. While Martin did not have to specify why he isn't running for another term, his disgust has been apparent. But it's not just the state that's grappling with the gridders. Even the U.S. Congress has gotten into the act by scheduling hearings on the use of sex and other inducements on campus to lure high school prospects.

For Barnett and his staff, recruiting promises to be an ever-trickier business in coming seasons. Last month, the university announced a 15 percent cut in next year's football budget (currently $7.5 million), though his million-dollar-plus annual salary and contract does not appear to be in play. This reduction has nothing to do with scandal fallout, officials say, just campus-wide austerity. In any event, it will not help in CU's battle to sign blue-chippers. But that's only the beginning. Barnett himself claims many black players feel uncomfortable on the overwhelmingly white CU campus, and as a result of the scandal, the administration has established new recruiting guidelines much stricter than standard NCAA rules -- including an embargo on player-hosts, more oversight by coaches and parents, an 11 p.m. curfew and a one-time limit on official campus visits. Barnett says that will compel CU to become more "creative" in its recruiting. He also acknowledged in his end-of-May interviews that he may now shift his focus from California and Texas (where most of CU's out-of-state recruits come from) to the Midwest, where the sex-and-liquor scandal in Boulder hasn't been such big news.

Some recruiting analysts, however, say CU has been fatally crippled. Because of the school's sullied reputation and its new, self-imposed restrictions, they claim, the Buffs are finished as a big-time football power. In March, former college player Jason Whitlock wrote an angry commentary in the Kansas City Star calling Barnett and his staff scapegoats for a nationwide problem and predicted that Colorado "won't be able to recruit at the Big 12 level" any longer. "I'd have more respect for (Elizabeth) Hoffman," Whitlock wrote, "had she announced that Colorado was leaving Division I football."

 

Fan J.C. Reynolds put it another way. "You know what Tommy Mason once said? The old football coach at the University of Cincinnati? He said: '90 percent of colleges follow the rules; the other 10 percent go to bowl games.'"

By fair means or foul, Colorado has certainly played in its share of bowl games and worn proudly its dazzling cloaks of glory. The trophy cases on the first floor of the Dal Ward Center are stuffed to overflowing with evidence. There's the bright yellow flannel jersey, number 24, worn by Byron "Whizzer" White in the 1930s; the Whizzer, as any first-year law student could tell you, went on to become a U.S. Supreme Court Justice. CU's 1996 Holiday Bowl Trophy is a swooping glass behemoth as wide as a car, while the dueling Butkus Awards earned by Alfred Williams in 1990 and Matt Russell in 1996 are stately and blunt -- as befits the ferocious Illinois linebacker for whom they are named. Have a look at the 1990 NCAA National Championship Trophy coach Bill McCartney's Buffaloes won with a thrilling 10-9 win over Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl and, boxed in gleaming glass, the Heisman Trophy -- CU's one and only -- that went to running back Rashaan Salaam in 1994.

This year's Colorado Football media guide is 470 pages long and weighs almost four pounds. It's heftier than most history textbooks and freighted with gaudy statistics: Since 1989, it tells us, when the Buffs became a regular item in the national rankings and a mainstay of the TV networks, they have posted the ninth-best record in the nation, 125-53-4. Last year, they had 29 former players in the National Football League. In the last decade, they've played the third-toughest schedule and gotten the fourth-most face time on national television.

In other words, this is not Duke. This is not Rice. It's not Yale. This is Big Time College Football at loudest shout, where wins and losses are serious business -- the currency of campus pride and money in the bank. At CU, as at most major colleges, football is the only sport that turns a significant profit. Football revenues in Boulder will amount to about $15 million this year (including a $5.5 million injection from the Big 12 Conference) against expenses of more than $7 million. So the notion that Barnett puts his Buffs out onto the field for sheer love of the game is quaint, at best. They go out there to win, win, win, and there's hell to pay when they don't.

At what cost?

For almost a generation, the critics charge, festering problems inside the CU football program and a win-at-any-price culture produced the time bomb that finally exploded last January. Herewith, a brief refresher course:

When McCartney took over as head coach in 1982, he inherited a program that had enjoyed occasional renown. In 1937, Whizzer White led a Buffs team coached by Bunnie Oakes to an 8-1 mark and a 17th-ranked finish. Dal Ward's 8-2-1 1956 club scored CU's first-ever bowl victory, over Clemson, and between 1969 and 1972, coach Eddie Crowder put together three very good ranked teams that featured future NFL stars like Bobby Anderson, Cliff Branch and Jon Keyworth. But McCartney was handed a mess in '82. Chuck Fairbanks's three previous CU teams had an embarrassing combined record of 7-26, and it would take three years of hard recruiting before McCartney started winning. By 1988, though, the Buffs were in high gear, and their 22-2-1 mark through the 1989 and 1990 seasons, culminating in a national championship, made clear that big-time football was around to stay at CU.

Meanwhile, the off-field stuff was not so wonderful. Increasingly, the names of Colorado players showed up on the police blotter as often as the game-day program. Between 1986 and 1989, two dozen Buffs were arrested for everything from bar fights and drunken driving to burglary and serial rape. Sports Illustrated chronicled these misdeeds in a story called "What Price Glory?" But the most bizarre turn was yet to come. The rumors were true: McCartney's unmarried, twenty-year-old daughter, Kristyn, had given birth to a child fathered by CU quarterback Sal Aunese; then the Samoan-born football star died of cancer. Westword reported the story, including details about the coach's fundamentalist Christian beliefs. Some called it cheap-shot journalism and said the cost to McCartney's family was incalculable. But the coach stayed on through the 1994 season. Every year was a winning one, including his last one, when the Buffs again went 11-1 and blasted Notre Dame 41-24 in the Fiesta Bowl.

McCartney left CU to oversee Promise Keepers, an organization for Christian men. But CU football was not yet done with dark deeds and bewildering oddity. "Coach Mac's" successor was a 33-year-old former UCLA quarterback named Rick Neuheisel -- "Slick Rick" to his less-admiring familiars -- who played the guitar, took his players on rafting trips and kept up CU's winning ways for four seasons. Between 1995 and 1998, the Buffs went 33-14 and won three major bowl games, but after Neuheisel moved on to the University of Washington, the NCAA charged him with 51 mostly secondary recruiting violations at CU, which resulted in scholarship sanctions. Neuheisel called his actions "inadvertent"; NCAA officials said they demonstrated "a lack of institutional control" over the football program on the Boulder campus.

 

Neuheisel, too, coached his share of bad-boy players. In 1996, a dazzling speedster named Rae Carruth (recruited three years earlier by McCartney) became CU's second all-time leading pass receiver with 135 career catches, 2,540 total yards and twenty touchdowns. In 2001, then-Carolina Panther Carruth became the first former CU player convicted of conspiracy to commit murder, after he put out a successful contract to kill his pregnant girlfriend, Cherica Adams. Neuheisel's sin two years later was considerably less serious: After admitting to betting on college basketball in two annual tournament auctions, he was fired at Washington.

For Barnett, who took over at CU in 1999, the job was the fulfillment of a long-held dream. After serving eight years as an assistant coach under McCartney in the 1980s, he had lifted a perennially dreadful Northwestern team to the top of the Big 10 Conference in 1995. Northwestern in the Rose Bowl? That was like Madonna knocking out Larry Holmes. He continued his seven-year stint as head coach there through 1998. But critics say Barnett also showed some disturbing true colors in Evanston, Illinois. A gambling and point-shaving scandal erupted at Northwestern in 1998 that resulted in the indictments of four Wildcat football players. One of them, tailback Dennis Lundy, admitted to purposely fumbling the ball at the one-yard line in a 1994 game against Iowa -- so that Northwestern would not cover the point spread.

In the aftermath, Barnett took no responsibility for the scandal and claimed to know nothing about gambling by NU players. "What occurred here is a societal issue, not an athletic issue," he said in December 1998. "The stain is on the individuals, not on us."

Six weeks later, he was hired as Colorado's new head coach, self-belief unscathed, ideological purity intact. Over five seasons, he has compiled a 34-28 record. He won the Big 12 Conference title in 2001.

Between Whizzer White's ascendancy to the Supreme Court and Rae Carruth's trip to the penitentiary, Colorado football has weathered many storms. But this fall, the program may face its sternest test yet -- on the field and in the crucible of public opinion. Bray, the team's new secondary coach and a 26-year college coaching veteran, believes his new charges are up to the task. "I've come in with a lot of different programs in different places, and it's always been that you have a group of kids, and there are three or four kids you like right away, three or four you're not sure about and three or four you go, oh boy, this is gonna be something. But this group is different. They are all really positive, all really refreshing. Really good people. And I don't see any residue on them at all. I think they're all ready to give everyone a better sense of who they really are."

That sense of purpose, Barnett says, got inside the players early. "This team comes in on a mission," he said. "Most other teams have to discover their mission or decide what it is during camp or as the season unfolds...this group knows. The team mission is to restore confidence in our program in the people out there who have supported us and the people out there who have doubted us a little bit. They want to show what they're really about."

Just to underscore the mission, Barnett has seemingly embraced a new transparency for his operation. August practices were opened to the public for the first time during his regime. And McCartney, rather than rail against the shadow of sin gathering at the foot of the Flatirons, gave the players a pep talk. And just to drive home the point, Barnett, his lieutenants and the team captains are scheduled to gather at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts galleria on September 3, where the Denver Buff Club will host a free rally (complete with hot dogs and Pepsi). On the agenda? An honor guard of players, cheerleaders leading the CU Fight Song, and recognition of various groups -- including the Buff Defenders, the CU Football Families, the Boulder Buff Club and the Buffalo Belles, who, in the words of organizers, "have supported the CU football program during the past months."

 

But such steps may not change the outcome on the gridiron. Apart from the jokesters in Lincoln and Grand Island, there are plenty of skeptics right here in Colorado who probably think Jack the Ripper will be hunkering down in a three-point stance on Colorado's offensive line and Osama bin Laden will be starting at cornerback. Still, those in the "negative camp," as license-plate-flaunting CU boosters might say, haven't met Daniel Jolly, a 230-pound sophomore fullback from San Antonio, Texas, who also happens to be enrolled in Colorado's "gifted and talented" program. Anything but dispirited, he says he'll be inspired by adversity to bring his A-game on every play this season.

"Of course, I feel all of what has happened personally. The situation we just went through probably brought us closer together than any team I've ever played for. We went from just being teammates to being family, because we're in this for the long run. We didn't come here to be politicians or to atone for things that happened before we got here. We came to play football, and we want our fans to be proud of us. We want to restore their trust, beginning September 4 against CSU. I don't care what we hear in the stadium, or if there's trash talk from opposing players. I'll just have to tune it out, because the game is not won by talking -- it's won through your actions."

Whizzer White couldn't have said it better, but some say it differently, and others have an entirely different message in the face of CU's woes. Jake Smith, a 1981 CU alum who now lives in Miami and follows Buff football from afar, ascribes the recruiting scandal, the campaign against Barnett and criticism of the athletic department to "left-wingers who hate football, who hate all sports and don't give a damn if the whole thing went away in the morning so they can get back to their knitting." There is no excuse, Smith says, "for the way these people are trying to undermine the tradition of CU football and everything it stands for. It's an insult to the players, to the parents and to the school. Do you really think these recruiting parties are sex orgies, or that football players get special treatment? Do you really think these girls were taken advantage of? That football players are a bunch of Neanderthals? Not only that, but do you have any idea, any idea at all, of the kinds of things that go on at Florida State? Or Miami? Makes Colorado look like a nursery school for blind kids. Get real."


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