The downward slide of Colorado football towards irrelevance in recent years is both sad and funny. Sad, because Colorado football enjoyed a brief period of relevance in the 1990's under Bill McCartney. Funny, because it couldn't have happened to a more deserving fan base. Some people think that this is just a momentary downturn for a program; football is cyclical, and they'll eventually bounce back.
That could be true. Oklahoma bounced back from their decade of irrelevance in the 1990's; Nebraska is still trying to overcome their lost decade in the 2000's. But Colorado's problems run deeper; it's systemic to the institution and the state. Simply put, Colorado football operates at a huge disadvantage compared to nearly every other major college football program. Yes, they have mountains. But the State of Colorado imposes restrictions on Colorado's athletic department that no other state does:
Colorado state law limits the number of multi-year employment contracts each school can offer to six and in recent years all of those deals at CU have been dedicated to coaches or administrators in the athletic department. The inability to offer assistant coaches more than at-will employment has long been a frustration for CU head coaches who often compete for assistant coaches with programs who can offer long-term deals and more security.
Five of CU's six multi-year contracts have been signed with football coaches MacIntyre and Baer, men's basketball coach Tad Boyle, women's basketball coach Linda Lappe and volleyball coach Liz Kritza. The remaining long-term contract is expected to be offered to the next CU athletic director later this summer.
Kyle Ringo of the Boulder Daily Camera included this when defensive coordinator Kent Baer was hired last month. Baer is the only CU assistant coach with a multi-year contract; everybody else is employed at-will. They have no assurance that they'll have a job come January.
In the past, Colorado hasn't been able to compete with other schools in terms of salary because of the systemic budget issues that continue to plague the CU athletic department. That improved slightly when Jon Embree was hired, but that money has to come from somewhere. And that's the problem: Colorado plays in a relatively small stadium that rarely is full. When it is full, it's because a big name is visiting, or offering massive discounts.
How massive? In 2010, Colorado lowered the price of tickets for a game against Iowa State to as low as $1.50. Even that didn't fill Folsom Field; attendance was only 42,722 that afternoon.
So Colorado has to scrimp and save anyway they can. Former head coach Jon Embree apparently had to buy water for his staff from his own funds last season. And after firing Embree after last season, the problem has gotten worse. So much worse that Colorado has imposed a 10% budget cut on the entire athletic department. Phil Fraser of the Ralphie Report tells us what this means:
So here's the overly convoluted point; how do you cut 10% of the fat when there is no conceivable fat of which to discern? The answer is, you can't. You can call these "discretionary" funds all you want, but the bottom line is that we have no discretionary funds of which to speak, and all of these cuts will hurt every single athletic program we have. Every trip we can't afford to take will hurt, because we need those damn trips. When there is no fat to cut, you're cutting the meat, and that's the place at which we are currently operating. There is no fat, only meat.
Meanwhile, Colorado lags in facilities and support. Mark Kiszla of the Denver Post said something I've long said:
Colorado likes to brag it's a member of the Pac-12. CU acts like it belongs alongside Boise State and Colorado State in the Mountain West.
Why bring all this up? Didn't we leave Colorado behind in our move to the Big Ten? Well, for some reason, Tom Osborne threw Colorado a lifeline last fall for some inexplicable reason. The Huskers will play four games with Colorado, and two of the games will be in Boulder. With the Big Ten's new nine-game conference schedule, those games will be the only non-conference football games of relevance in 2018, 2019, 2023, and 2024. To maintain seven home football games each season (which funds the entire Nebraska athletic department), Nebraska can only have one home-and-home series underway at any time.
Frankly, this series makes little sense to Nebraska as a home-and-home series. It's not a matchup that exposes Nebraska football in new regions of the country. It's a long way off, but there are no indications that it's going to be a meaningful matchup in terms of strength of schedule either.
But there may be a way out of this, and Southern Miss showed us the way. If Colorado football is still suffering through these issues that have plagued the Buffaloes football program for years, Nebraska should up the ante and buy the game back from Colorado. There's far more money to be made playing these games in Lincoln, where the East Stadium expansion project will make Nebraska's attendance double the size of Colorado's attendance.
It won't happen for a while. Colorado won't want to waive the white flag for games so far in the future. A lot can change over time. But if Colorado is still suffering from these budget issues in five years, it would behoove Nebraska to make a bid to buy out these games and play them in a place more suitable: Lincoln, Nebraska. Then turn around and schedule a marquee game for a home-and-home.
This isn't a new idea: I suggested it three years ago, and the logic makes even more sense now. Especially now that Nebraska added Cincinnati to the non-conference schedule in the next decade. Yes, Oklahoma is in the schedule, but six years with Colorado or Cincinnati being the non-conference game to look forward to?
That's not compelling football.