In the early 90′s the Bill McCartney led the University of Colorado Buffaloes to glory. He captured a share of the national title in 1990, tied for the Big 8 title in ’91, and won a combined 20 games in the next two season before retiring after the 1994 season. He was succeeded by his assistant Rick Neuheisel and the two could not be any more different. McCartney was conservative, hard-nosed and disciplined, very much the stereotypical football coach; Neuheisel opened up to offense and acted as if he were in college himself. How did the Buffaloes respond to this change? Keep reading to find out. —Ed.
Even though the aftertaste of Colorado’s 20-13 loss to Michigan on September 14 left Rick Neuheisel wondering whether he had chased an anchovy pizza with a ten-cent cigar, the Buffaloes’ coach was still having fun.
While critics circled his good-time program for the first time and leveled accusations of insufficient discipline and an overdose of ‘90s me-first behavior by his players, Neuheisel just kept grinning.
In a business where most coaches resemble men waiting for their proctology examinations, Neiheisel is a rarity. So far. He doesn’t greet life or football with a dour expression and sports-as-war metaphors. Neuheisel savors life, even when adversity arrives.
“He takes more of a relaxed approach,” senior quarterback Koy Detmer says about his coach. “He likes everybody to enjoy themselves.” That’s why Neuheisel wasn’t issuing ultimatums to his team after their grisly, 14-penalty performance against Michigan. His players didn’t have to brace themselves for a couple weeks of Draconian practices or a series of paint-peeling harangues.
Don’t go thinking he didn’t care. The 35-year-old Neuheisel hated to lose a game that all but wrecked Colorado’s national title hopes. He would work feverishly to prevent the mistakes. But he wouldn’t question his methods or issue a Dean Wormer-esque “No kind of fun of any kind” proclamations.
“I still believe it’s a case where everybody who’s at the top of every organization, whether it’s a football team or a company, has to be who they are,” says Neuheisel, who credits his father, DIck with his good-natured approach to life. “They can’t try to be someone they’re not. I’m going to be me. I said that at the outset. Just because we had a few penalties too many-and we’re going to address that-doesn’t mean all of a sudden I’m not going to smile around my players. That doesn’t make any sense. If there’s a correlation between not having fun and coaching, maybe I wasn’t meant to be a head coach.”
“I don’t believe that.”
Neuheisel shouldn’t. Age and experience may someday rob him of his quick smiles and the ease with which he relates to college students, but the calendar hasn’t affected his soaring spirit yet. Thank goodness for that. In a little over a season as Colorado’s head coach, Neuheisel has imprinted the Buffalo program with his identity so thoroughly that one would imagine rigid Bill McCartney left town in ‘85, not January of ‘95.
The team’s high-octane offense and aggressive defense seem to be direct manifestations of Neuheisel’s personality, rather than the next step in a progression begun by McCartney when he took over the dreadful Buffs in ‘82. McCartney deserves credit for bringing Colorado back from the grave-not to mention winning a national title in ’89- and Neuheisel is in Boulder to make sure the corpse looks good and has a good time. Kind of like Weekend at Bernie’s.
The offense is very much alive. Fleet wide receivers Rae Carruth, James Kidd, Phil Savoy and Chris Anderson give Detmer almost too many options, while the two-headed tailback combo of Herchell Toutman and Lendon Henry would make even the most potent ground-oriented school envious.
On defense, the Buffaloes play an aggressive, blitzing style designed to put as much pressure as possible on opposing attacks. Guys like linebackers Matt Russell and Hannibal Navies and end Greg Jones get the opportunity to use their substantial talents to make big plays, instead of reacting to what rivals do. And though Colorado d-backs spend considerable time in man-to-man coverage- hardly the easiest way to make a living- they thrive on it, particularly safety Steve Rosga and cornerback Kenny Wilkins.
It’s as if a sons has succeeded his father. McCartney was a firm, all business, born-again Christian who exhorted his players to work hard for the guy next to them. Neuheisel, a former UCLA quarterback who was the MVP of the ‘84 Rose Bowl and dreamed of coaching the Bruins, believes that winning football is equal parts talent and camaraderie.
“Mac was a very certain person,” Neuheisel says of the man who brought him to Boulder as the quarterbacks and receivers coach in ’94. “He was not always right, but was very certain. He was very devout in his convictions, and that’s an admirable quality. But for all his perceived rigidness, he was very good at working with people.”
While McCartney was paternal with his players, Neuheisel is almost one of the guys. He took the entire team tubing before the season, has organized off-season ski trips and treats the players to ice cream after tough preseason workouts. He brings his guitar to his weekly radio call-in show at a local bar and serenades those in attendance with everything from songs about beating that week’s opponent to Jimmy Buffett tunes. A huge parrothead, Neuheisel sponsors a bus trip for friends whenever Mr. Margaritaville comes to town. Just imagine Tom Osborne or Lou Holtz doing that.
“I admire that attitude,” says outstanding senior linebacker Russell. “I’m not one to buy into the ‘let’s kill the guys after a loss’ attitude. I like having fun. I came to Colorado to play college football and have fun. When the top has fun, the bottom follows. That’s the way it should be. I feel sorry for anybody who’s not in that situation.”
“There’s a misconception people have that we haven’t worked very hard with coach Neuheisel,” he continues. “We have hard practices, with a lot of one-on-one drills and a lot of hitting. The difference between Neuheisel and Coach McCartney is that we have a lot of fun as a team.”
The “Fun, Fun, Fun” approach is always a big hit with the players, who aren’t about to go asking their coach to become a hard-ass. Unfortunately, it also spawns criticism from those who believe discipline is a cure-all.
The Buffaloes’ early-season penalty rash (36 in three games)led many in the Denver-area media to question whether Neuheisel’s laid-back personality was responsible for the team’s mental mistakes. They ripped the team for its trash-talking in a win over Colorado State on September 7 and accused Neuheisel of fostering an environment in which today’s selfish athletes are encouraged to put their own goal ahead of the team’s. They also had a field day in early October when Neuheisel had to suspend 12 players for one game each for long-distance telephone-access violations, a nice way of saying the offenders had stolen phone service.
Instead of erupting, Neuheisel is willing to argue philosophy with his critics. Today’s athletes are different than their predecessors, he asserts, thanks to the messages they receive from the professional ranks (money good, humility bad) and the ever-growing awareness of players that college is merely a waystation on the road to the NFL. At many programs that kind of talk would be sacrilegious, particularly from a head coach. For Neuheisel, it is a fact of life.
“Athletes today are a lot more in touch with the individual aspects than the team aspects of football,” he says. “That’s not a knock on them. It’s a sign of the times. They they watch TV, the first thing they see on the highlights of the NFL week is Deion [Sanders] dancing. They money and the flashiness of pro athletes are the things our kids aspire to.”
Neuheisel even sells that to recruits. Come to Colorado and learn the skills that will prepare you for the next level. Pass. Catch. Blitz. It’s an attitude that has taken over college basketball that has been resisted by the harder-hitting counterpart only because of the age-old belief in the greater glory of team and school.
“The guys playing under Neuheisel love the style,” Detmer says. “They love the wide open attack. It gives us a chance to get ready for the next level.”
“I think guys are more aware of that. In the past, it hasn’t been such a big deal, and you never heard about guys coming out early. Money wasn’t an issue. Now, rookies are getting such big contracts and there is so much money flashed in front of players’ faces. They’re not just in it for themselves, but they are aware of looking for places that might better prepare them for the next level.”
That doesn’t mean they like to lose. No one came right out and said it, but the Buffaloes believed their 20-13 loss to Michigan was a galling nightmare that should never had occurred. In the post-game gloom, Colorado players damned their own mistakes and grudgingly gave credit to their conquerors, whom they still believed were an inferior outfit. Even though they were able to make Wolverine fans relive Stewart-to-Westbrook in the waning seconds, it didn’t happen. The truth remained: Three weeks into the season,the team’s national title hopes were as good as gone.
Without a championship tournament to pit them against the nation’s best following the season, the Buffaloes were reduced to concocting conspiracies involving their rivals. If A beats B, and B beats C, and C beats A, Colorado might have a chance. Sure. For a couple of days, it seemed like the rest of the season wasn’t even worth playing. The Buffaloes had put so much work and hope into the national title quest that they had no contingency plan, no reason to go on.
“The problem was, at the outset of the season, everybody wanted to talk about whether we could win the championship,” Neuheisel says. “I didn’t want to shy away from the talk, but when you talk like that, you get judged as a January team in September. That’s a lesson I’ve learned.”
The Buffaloes had every good reason for great expectations, and they’ll be right to aim high again next year and the year after. That’s what McCartney created and Neuheisel has moved further down the road. He doesn’t own a national title ring, but Neuheisel has brought two superior recruiting classes to Colorado, and the talent should keep flowing as long as the team keeps winning.
Detmer sure is happy. Who wouldn’t want to throw the ball 30-plus times a game? It’s a quarterback’s dream. It’s also a test of a young man’s physical and mental capabilities. Detmer has headed into several post game film sessions feeling pretty confident about his performance, only to leave wondering how he’ll be able to correct all the mistakes Neuheisel found. Neiheisel isn’t only the head coach, he’s in charge of quarterbacks. And he knows what he wants.
“It’s a complex offense, but it’s not complicated,” Detmer says. “He teaches it pretty simply,and once you get into the offense and see what he’s trying to accomplish, it ends up not being complicated. It’s a numbers game. You try to figure out how the defenses work and what play Neuheisel wants and why.
“He’s a perfectionist, and he strives for you to be perfect. But if you’re a little off perfect, that’s not bad.”
Neuheisel’s offense is predicated on spreading out opponents with formations and then daring the to concentrate on stopping the run or the pass. Crowd the line of scrimmage, and you’ll never cover all four of the Buff’s fleet receivers. Drop everybody into the secondary, and here comes the draw play. Try to match up evenly and get burned by the Buffaloes’ superior athletes. You may have two or three good defensive backs, but do you have a fourth? A fifth?
It’s a fun way to play, an aggressive way to play, a now way to play, the only way to play. It’s Neuheisel’s way to play. And it all comes packaged with a sincere smile.
Are we having fun yet? In Boulder they sure are.
Michael Bradley is a contributor to several national publications, including SLAM Magazine. He is a host on 97.5 The Fanatic, contributes to Sirius/XM Mad Dog Radio and CSNPhilly.com, and is an adjunct professor at Villanova, Saint Joseph’s and Neumann. He writes the “Goal Line Stand” each week covering college football, and you can follow him on Twitter @DailyHombre.