Can Elway Save CU?

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John Elway to the rescue!

The former Broncos quarterback has been offered the head coaching job at the University of Colorado, and he's expected to accept the $1.6 million-a-year position pending final negotiations, which have reportedly snagged over university cutbacks in dental coverage. The 43-year-old Broncos great would replace embattled CU football coach Gary Barnett, who has been placed on paid leave by CU president Betsy Hoffman while a blue-ribbon panel investigates the recruiting-and-sex scandal that has engulfed the entire athletic department.

Although that panel's work won't be concluded until the end of this month -- the same time that Barnett's leave expires -- sources say that the current coach's time is already up.

And while CU's negotiations with Elway for the coach's position have been conducted entirely behind closed doors, the future Hall of Famer has already emerged as the leader in a movement to buff up the University of Colorado's tarnished football program. On April 2, Elway is slated to lead a group of Buff supporters in a "unity walk" for the team, which coincides with the first day of spring football drills on the Boulder campus. Elway will be at the head of a contingent marching from the Millennium Harvest House to the team's practice field at the Dal Ward Athletics Center.

"This is not something I take lightly, but it is worth making a stand," Elway said in a statement released this week by the CU athletic department. His announcement was cheered by members of the newly formed Buff Defenders, who praised Elway for "a bold vision and a willingness to stand tall for Colorado football."

While Elway took that stand publicly, behind the scenes he's been talking terms for becoming the permanent head coach and replacing the beleaguered Barnett. Although Elway lacks formal coaching experience, he has credited his late father, Jack Elway, with teaching him most of what he needs to know about the coaching profession. The elder Elway, who was head football coach at his son's alma mater, Stanford University, said back in 1989 that "John's a natural, and when he decides to become a head coach, it will be like a duck taking to water."

Even as CU has called on former Buffs coach Bill McCartney to provide some stability as an interim coach, sources within the university confirmed that negotiations with Elway for the permanent job are well under way. Barnett got the bad news at a meeting with university lawyers and Hoffman last week, and exited that meeting with CU's president muttering that "not only was she a girl, she wasn't any good," according to one witness.

Meanwhile, news of Elway's potential arrival rippled through the CU campus like a herd of recruits headed to a frat party.

"He's gonna be great for business. I mean, we were looking at eating a whole bunch of tickets next year, but this should be hot," said Alpha One, a student who runs a "ticket exchange" from his Cockerell Hall dorm room. "Seriously, half of Denver would pay to see him do anything."

"You know what this does for our Ultimate Frisbee team? It totally rocks. The guy can, like, throw it a mile," added Sunshine Baumgartner, a former CU standout turned Pearl Street busker. Others greeted the arrival of National Football Hall of Fame electee Number 7 with high-fives.

But several student groups say that an Elway appointment won't put a stop to their protests over CU football, global warming or several hundred related topics. "Frankly, while Mr. Elway is a local icon, we're not about to be conned again," insisted Susan Applehoffer of Coloradans Against Tainted Sexuality (CATS). "We are hoping for a more meaningful dialogue. Why can't there be a female head coach?"

In fact, Ceal Barry, CU women's basketball coach, was mentioned as a possible contender for the permanent coaching position, but Barry said she prefers to stay with the Lady Buffs, working on her top priorities of "gaining equal funding under Title IX for women's football and female wrestling -- the good kind." CU is currently battling three Title IX lawsuits filed by women who claim they were sexually assaulted after a football recruiting party.

Response to the possible Elway move was more positive nationally.

"I was hoping the Buffs would keep stumbling around, shooting themselves in the foot, or the hoof," said Bill Callahan, the former Oakland Raiders coach who took over Nebraska's football program. "I was led to believe all the recruits east of the Rockies would come here. But now, with John Elway? He's got some star power." Still, Callahan promises that he'll be able to diagram a defense against an offense "based on the bootleg and two-minute drills."

Hearing of the possible signing of Elway, Representative John Conyers, a Democrat from Michigan who blasted the "culture of sex and drugs" and called for congressional hearings into college recruitment practices, responded: "You know, if Elway was at Colorado, we would probably take another look. This guy is the real deal, and it's likely that kids will sign up without even visiting the school, just for a chance to play for him. I don't think there'll be any hanky-panky, as the kids say."

Noted John Madden, former NFL coach and current airline-phobic football broadcaster: "That's what they needed -- wham! Blitz the old guard, go for the bomb, quit waiting for the Hail Mary. CU scores with Biff Elway!"

And former Broncos teammate Terrell Davis, who played with Elway through two Super Bowl championships, offered this: "It is fitting and just that someone like John be given the opportunity to coach a top program. John is a thoughtful, dedicated student of the game who will impart a keen understanding. Way to go, White Bread!"

One exception to the outpourings of support comes from Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, apparently still smarting over the $150,000 signing bonus paid to Elway to play for a Yankees minor-league squad after college. "The bastard owes me," Steinbrenner said. "Pay up, Elway."

Even as rumors of the impending hire began to circulate at the State Capitol, Governor Bill Owens was preparing to trim more from the CU budget. "While the governor is very happy to keep the coaching ranks of CU firmly in the Republican camp, there will be some sacrifices," spokesman Dan Hopkins told legislators. "Due to dwindling resources, we will have to outsource Ralphie."

Despite the tight budget, sources say the CU Board of Regents is prepared to offer Elway a number of incentives to sign on and help the school overcome the scandal. Among the provisions, according to a document obtained by Westword:

: A bonus for every high school prospect who journeys to the Boulder campus but remains in a projection room, watching the collected game films of Elway from his days at Granada Hills High School through Stanford and finishing with the Broncos. An extra bonus will be paid to Elway if the recruits also sit through Crush highlight films.

A complicated lease-back arrangement of late-model cars from Elway auto dealers, in which Elway and his team of coaches will travel to all away games.

An exclusive franchise for Elway to sell autographed "Vortex" brand winged footballs at Folsom Field during games. At halftime, Elway would be paid $50,000 if he hits one of the goalpost uprights from the fifty-yard line.

Generous dental benefits (still being negotiated).

Elway, who has been much in the public eye following a highly publicized breakup with his wife, recently announced that he will open a steakhouse in Cherry Creek this fall. While it was originally designed as a high-end bistro, once Elway signs with CU, he will reportedly turn the restaurant into the "Buff Trough," which will feature all-you-can-eat nights, Jell-O shots and toga parties.

"Let's face it -- John was happiest in college; he really thrived on campus," said Sissy Poynter, who briefly dated Elway when they were at Stanford. "He often said that if he wasn't destined for football immortality, he would gladly spend all of his days in academia. And the frat house."

While local and national media gathered on the lawn of his posh Cherry Hills Village townhouse, hoping for a comment, Elway was huddled with his mother in her Palm Springs residence. Reached there, Mrs. Elway said only, "I'm not saying whether it's true or not, but there is a family tradition of coaching, and since Mike Shanahan's in no hurry to leave, the next best thing could be Boulder.

"It does make sense," she added, "because after five years, John needs a job."

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