Luke Graham

Luke Graham

Luke Graham: University of Colorado has a decision to make

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Luke Graham

Luke Graham's column appears periodically in the Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4229 or lgraham@SteamboatToday.com.

Find more columns by Luke here.

— As the painfully awkward press conference came to a close Monday, it wasn’t hard to see the real problem with the University of Colorado football program.

Just-fired head coach Jon Embree was emotional, and in subsequent radio interviews he didn't hesitate to dish dirt: Not enough chairs for meetings, having to pay for water for his assistants, and not having full support from the administration.

Athletics Director Mike Bohn and Chancellor Phil DeStefano were left to answer the not-so-fun questions from assembled members of the media.

The cold reality of Colorado football is that this has been building for a long time. The Buffs haven’t had a winning record in seven years.

The head coaching job, once heralded as one of the best in the West, is looking more and more like a career killer.

Gary Barnett never got another job. Dan Hawkins won’t get another job. Embree, architect of a 4-21 record in two seasons and the worst on-field team in the nation this year, likely won't get another head coaching job either.

Of course, Colorado fans like to talk about the glory days, particularly the split national championship in 1990. Even that was the result of a perfect storm, including the infamous Fifth Down Game against Missouri.

At one time, Colorado had the hottest coaching prospect in the game: Rick Neuheisel. He was young when he took over for famed coach Bill McCartney, and he kept Colorado competitive.

After his fourth year, the 1998 season, he took the head coaching job at Washington. The Huskies agreed to pay him an annual salary of $1 million with additional bonuses. He was the second highest paid coach in the nation at the time, behind only Florida’s Steve Spurrier.

But why the move?

"This is the place where I could realize all my goals as a college football coach," Neuheisel told Columns Magazine, the University of Washington’s alumni magazine, in 1999.

He called Washington a “have program” that will always be a “have.”

"At Colorado it was difficult — not impossible — to get things moving. It was slow, arduous," he said.

Not much has changed. The school hasn’t done much to help with facilities, coaching salaries or infrastructure. What made Neuheisel ditch Colorado is still in place today.

What are coaches supposed to do when their bosses aren’t invested in the project?

Colorado has fallen way behind in the college football landscape. With Pac-12 television money starting to trickle in, perhaps things will change.

Trips around the Pac-12 Conference the past two years must have been sobering for CU athletics execs. Colorado has some of the worst facilities in the conference. Embree was one of the lowest paid coaches.

In the ever-shifting conference landscape — quick, try to name five Big East teams — it’s clear power conferences are forming. The Pac-12 is one of them, no thanks to CU football.

Embree is a good man and a Buff for life. But becoming the laughingstock of college football was too much to overcome.

What Colorado does next will be telling. Will it invest in its program by providing the type of facilities and competitive pay that will lure top coaches, and therefore recruits? Will it ever compete in the Pac-12? Can it draw in a coach to a program where the administration has sputtered in place for almost two decades?

Or will it stay the course of the past 15 years?

Neuheisel knew it at the time, and he was right. Colorado’s football program was a has-been that didn’t have a desire to become a full-time "have."

Now is the time to see whether the university is serious about football.

To reach Luke Graham, call 970-871-4229 or email lgraham@SteamboatToday.com

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