COLUMBIA — When the Missouri football team plays Colorado on Saturday night in Boulder, it will be facing a team with renewed vigor.
Only two years ago, the Colorado football program was languishing. Three straight losses to end the 2005 regular season led to the dismissal of embattled coach Gary Barnett, whose legacy was tainted by a myriad of off-the-field scandals.
The firing punctuated the downfall of one of the country’s elite football programs. To clean up the mess, the CU Board of Regents hired Dan Hawkins, a proven winner at Boise State with a clean record.
After a rocky first year filled with growing pains and adjustments, the Colorado players have bought into Hawkins’ stricter system. Now the Buffaloes are 5-4 and appear to be on their way back to the top of the college football mountain.
No one ever questioned Barnett’s coaching ability. The MU graduate could flat out win. He took a downtrodden Northwestern team and led it to two Big Ten Conference titles and a Rose Bowl berth in 1995.
Barnett’s success continued when he was hired to replace CU coach Rick Neuheisel in 1999. He led the Buffaloes to a Big 12 championship and an appearance in the Fiesta Bowl three years into his reign. His place in Rocky Mountain lore appeared to be set.
But Barnett’s legacy began to crumble in the spring of 2004 when a scandal erupted amid allegations that CU had used drugs, sex and alcohol to entice football recruits to come to Boulder. Barnett was briefly suspended after calling former CU place kicker Katie Hnida, who alleged that she had been raped by a teammate in 2000, an “awful” player who “couldn’t kick the ball through the uprights.”
Barnett was reinstated before the start of the 2004 season after multiple investigations ended without any sex-related charges. However, the university president, chancellor and athletic director were soon gone, and the school self-imposed harsher recruiting rules than any other Division 1-A school.
But Barnett kept on winning. He led the Buffaloes to another North Division championship that year and was named Big 12 coach of the year for the second time in his tenure.
CU got off to an even better start in 2005. The Buffaloes were 7-2, and the scandals that plagued the university two years ago seemed to disappear in the state’s thin air. There was even speculation that Barnett would receive a contract extension at the end of the year.
Then the bottom fell out.
The Buffaloes finished the regular season with losses at Iowa State and at home against Nebraska before getting embarrassed by Texas in a 70-3 loss in the Big 12 championship game. Five days later, Barnett accepted a $3 million settlement to resign as CU’s coach.
The decision tore the team apart. A players’ coach, Barnett had earned the respect of his players by constantly interacting with them and letting them weigh in on team decisions.
“We struggled without our leader,” said running back Hugh Charles, who was a sophomore when Barnett left. “Every team needs a leader, and Barnett was the leader of the team. He wasn’t there to guide us in the right direction.”
While the older players were resigned to their coach’s fate and happy they were at least playing in a bowl game, the younger players felt like they had been abandoned. They were recruited by Barnett, had given everything they had for Barnett, and now he was gone.
“What am I doing here?” wondered defensive tackle George Hypolite, who was then a true freshman. “Where am I going to fit in when the new coach comes in? Who is he going to be?”
He found out a week later.
The university made it perfectly clear who it wanted to rebuild the program. Someone who was a disciplinarian. Someone who had a strong sense of community. Someone who had an impressive record on the field, but more importantly off it.
“Integrity,” said Cindy Carlisle, a member of the Board of Regents, when asked what qualities she was looking for in the next coach. “Leadership. An ability to engage with players and help move them forward in academics and in life.”
That led the university to Hawkins, a man who had compiled a 53-11 record in five seasons as the head coach of Boise State. While there, he developed a reputation as a no-nonsense coach who was also heavily involved in the community. Fans referred to his intimate relationship with the program as “Hawk Love.”
Hawkins was hired as the Buffaloes’ 23rd head coach on Dec. 16, 2005, and he immediately began talking about national title aspirations. But before he could do that, he had to first win over the players who remained from the Barnett era.
The problem was that Hawkins was the polar opposite of Barnett. Barnett was easygoing. Hawkins was in your face. If Barnett named you a starter, you were a starter. If Hawkins named you a starter, you’d better play like it unless you wanted to sit on the bench the next week.
“GB (Gary Barnett) is a little more laid back, a little more of a CEO of a corporation,” Hypolite said. “Hawkins is more of the hotel manager who’s doing everything himself and fixing the corners of every bed sheet.”
Converting his players into a blue-collar team would be harder than Hawkins imagined. The Buffaloes lost to teams like Baylor and Division 1-AA Montana State and finished the 2006 season 2-10, their worst record in 22 seasons.
But Hawkins had a plan. He brought in new talent, preached a one-game-at-a-time philosophy and harped on the importance of leadership. It also helped that his talented quarterback son, Cody Hawkins, came to rescue an offense that ranked 102nd in the nation last year.
Then, something funny happened on opening day. The Buffaloes won, squeaking by instate rival Colorado State in overtime. Four weeks later CU pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the season when it beat then-No. 3 Oklahoma on a last-second field goal. Last week, the Buffaloes beat Texas Tech in Lubbock.
Hawk Love began to spread in Boulder, and in the CU locker room.
“What he’s doing this year is great,” said Charles, now a senior and a team co-captain. “He knows how to win, he has faith in what he’s done the last few years, and he’s brought that here to Colorado, and it’s working.”
MU coach Gary Pinkel said he isn’t surprised.
“I think they’re an entirely different team (from last year’s),” he said. “...Dan and his discipline of what he does internally has helped his whole program. Without question, they’re playing at a much, much higher level.”
Which should make it even tougher for the Tigers to get their first win in Boulder since 1997. But that’s what Carlisle and the other Board of Regents were hoping for when they hired Hawkins. That he would restore some of that mile-high magic.
“Coach Hawkins has done a great job of giving us security, letting us know what’s going on, always encouraging us and always instilling a positive attitude,” Hypolite said. “Hopefully it’s going to pay off. Hopefully we can hang another Big 12 championship banner when the season’s over.”