When evaluating off-season coaching hires, it’s always important to be sure and differentiate between the fundamental questions of “Whether the last guy should’ve been fired” versus “Can the new guy succeed?” One essentially has nothing to do with the other.
That’s certainly the case at Colorado, where most of the off-season fireworks around the program had little to do with the Mike MacIntyre being hired as the program’s new head football coach, and instead with the unceremonious firing of his predecessor, Jon Embree. Embree was let go after just two seasons on the job, under circumstances where he was given virtually no chance to succeed. His firing led to some real tough questions at Colorado, where at best the abilities of athletic director Mike Bohn were called into question, and at worst, racial undertones were bandied about when Embree was let go. Safe to say, it was the ugliest firing of the college football off-season.
Of course none of that is Mike MacIntyre’s fault. Yet those are the circumstance he walks into. As things stand, Colorado is a fractured football program with questionable leadership and a divided fan-base. It is also a fan-base that has little reason to be optimistic about the future; the Buffaloes haven’t had a winning season since 2005 and haven’t finished the season ranked in the Top 25 since 2002.
Above all, it’s safe to say that MacIntyre has a tough job ahead of him just to get Colorado back to respectability, let alone national acclaim.
Why We Like the Hire:
In evaluating the entire college football landscape, and argument could be made that no major college football program needs a complete makeover from top-to-bottom, soup-to-nuts quite like Colorado does. An argument could also be made that short of Ty Pennington from “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” MacInytre might be the man best suited for that overhaul.
MacIntrye is a self-made football coach who took a circuitous route to Colorado, from former NFL defensive backs coach to Duke defensive coordinator before eventually landing at San Jose State. There, he went to one of the toughest places to win in college football and turned the program around 360 degrees; the Spartans went from one win in 2010 all the way a 10-2 mark and near upset of Stanford in 2012. MacIntyre might not be a miracle worker, but he’s pretty darn close.
More importantly though, it’s not just about the fact that MacIntyre won games, but how he built the program from next to nothing. To his credit MacIntrye used unique recruiting methods to identify talent and get players to the school (he once famously ensured that he or his assistant coaches would personally shake the hands of every high school coach in the state) and overhauled his strength and conditioning program after seeing Stanford have success locally doing the same.
If anything, we have to give MacIntyre credit for this: The man at least has a plan, something he’s going to desperately need at a school like Colorado.
Why We Don’t Like the Hire:
The reasons we don’t like the hire have little to do with MacIntrye himself and everything to do with the job he’s taking over. Simply put, Colorado is a damn hard place to win.
The easiest way to rebuild a program quickly is by having access to talent, and Colorado has little of that. There aren’t very many elite players- let alone good players at all- coming out of the state’s high schools, meaning that they’re always going to be several steps behind virtually everyone else in the Pac-12, who all seem to have easier access to better recruits. Pac-12 South rivals USC, UCLA and even Utah (which produces a surprisingly large number of good high school football players) will always have an inherent advantage over the Buffaloes in recruiting. Arizona and Arizona State too, actually.
More importantly, the landscape in college football has changed a lot since Colorado’s glory days in the 1980’s and 1990’s. In 2012 it isn’t enough just to have good coaching, you also need to have the glossy facilities to attract talent to your program. Colorado lacks those facilities, a major reason they took the Pac-12’s cash when it was offered to them in the summer of 2010.
At the same time, the program lost a lot of its football soul in the move from the Big XII to Pac-12. Remember, it was a lot easier for a school like Colorado (again, with few inherent advantages) to win games against Kansas, Kansas State and Iowa State in the Big XII North than it currently is against UCLA, USC and the Arizona schools in the Pac-12 South.
Colorado was once one of college football’s destination jobs. It isn’t anymore.
What Kind of Talent Does He Inherit?
Arguably the worst of any FBS program in college football. The proof is in the pudding, and in this case, “the pudding” is some of the most putrid stats you’ll see from any major college football program, anywhere, ever.
In 2012, Colorado had one of the worst offenses in college football, ranking 119th in total offense (302 yards per game) and 120th overall in scoring, putting up a meager 17.8 points per contest. What’s even scarier is that the defense was somehow worse, allowing 46 points per game, which ranked them dead last in FBS football. The Buffaloes allowed 40 points eight times, 50 points five times and at least 38 points in each of their last eight regular season games. In other words, there’s a reason they finished 1-11 overall.
However if there is one saving grace for MacIntyre, it’s that Embree inherited next to nothing when he arrived in 2011, and because of it had little choice but to throw an ungodly amount of freshmen and sophomores into the fire these past few seasons. In particular, eight true freshmen saw the field on defense in 2012, two of the Buffaloes’ top three rushers were true freshmen as well, while Colorado’s top receiver was a savvy and experienced... redshirt freshman. Their fourth and fifth leading receivers were also true freshmen.
At this point, there only seems to be one place Colorado can go. And that’s up.
Yeah, But Can He Recruit?
That’s the $64,000 question, and the one that could ultimately determine MacIntyre’s success and failure at the school. It doesn’t matter how good of a coach you are, you’re not going to win if you don’t have talent. And just in case you didn’t read the above bullet point, right now, Colorado doesn’t have all that much talent.
Now, as far as acquiring that talent, there is both good and bad news. The simple truth is that for any coach to have any success in Boulder, they need to recruit Southern California well. It’s something Bill McCartney was able to do in his glory years at the school (thanks in large part to a young, hot-shot assistant coach named... Les Miles) and is something MacIntyre should be able to from his days at San Jose State. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that there are more schools fishing out of the Southern California pond right now than ever before. USC will always be able to get the guys they want, and UCLA’s re-emergence as a relevant college football program couldn’t have come at a worse possible time for Colorado to be in the midst of a major overhaul. Not to mention that within the last few years Oregon and Stanford have become viable options for any Southern California kid looking to enter an established, National Championship contender, and even Washington provides a better alternative than Colorado right now too.
I guess that’s a long-winded way of me saying the following: There are a lot of options for any Southern California kid looking to play major college football. What is going to make them choose Colorado?
Look, the simple truth is this isn’t 1990 anymore and a lot has changed across college football since Colorado’s glory days. This is no longer a destination job or even an upper-level one, but instead one of the hardest places in college football to win at all, let alone build a consistent contender. There are no cakewalk games against overmatched Midwest schools, but instead a viable, tough opponent every time the Buffaloes take the field in the Pac-12. There aren’t many teams that Colorado is going to be able to beat on talent alone, especially with the current state of the program.
At the same time, the more I researched and evaluated MacIntyre’s hire, the more I liked it for Colorado. This is a guy who has taken an unconventional trip to the top of college football, and is someone who won’t be afraid to roll up his sleeves and get his hands dirty in the process of rebuilding a college football program.
In the end, we need to again remember one thing: This evaluation isn’t about whether Jon Embree should’ve been fired (considering the number of young players who were forced into action these past few years, the answer is “probably not”), but how Colorado did in replacing him. And the short answer is “pretty darn well.”
Mike MacIntyre is a fantastic football coach, with a great vision for how to get this program back to the top.
At Colorado though, getting back to the top is easier said than done.
Coaching Grade: B+
For all his opinion, insight and analysis on college football and beyond, please follow Aaron on Twitter @Aaron_Torres.