Colorado faces steep climb to return program to glory days

BRIAN HAYES/STATESMAN JOURNAL/USA TODAY NETWORK
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BOULDER, Colo. — Longtime NFL linebacker Chad Brown owes so much to the University of Colorado, his alma mater. He won a national title while with the Buffaloes. He met his wife there. He sent his kids to school in Boulder, too.

That’s why going back these days brings such an array of emotions.

Brown so deeply wants to see the Buffs return to the glory of ages ago, when bowl games were just a matter of which one, not just hoping for a berth. But he also realizes it’s an Everest sort of ascension out of a rocky slide that’s seen the program tumble to 1-6 this season (all losses by 23 or more points) and cost coach Karl Dorrell his job earlier this month.

The Buffaloes, who are 1-3 in the Pac-12, have free-fallen to near the bottom of the college football landscape.

“I look at life through black-and-gold glasses,” said Brown, who helped the Buffaloes win their only national football title during his sophomore season in 1990 before the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted him in the second round of the 1993 NFL draft. “But if you can’t recognize and see the lay of the land, and the difficulty ahead for the Buffs, you’re fooling yourself.

“It’s an incredibly uphill climb.”

For their recent fall from grace, there’s a myriad of reasons. Partly, the transfer portal (Colorado lost a chunk of players before this season). Partly, the money surrounding name, image and likeness deals (complicated by state policies). But perhaps more than anything, a not-so-clear understanding of precisely what’s necessary to win in Boulder.

At least, that’s the take of former Colorado coach Gary Barnett, who’s now a radio analyst with KOA in Denver. Since Barnett’s departure – he went 49-38 from 1999-05 – the Buffaloes have had nine coaches, including three interims (with Mike Sanford currently in charge). They’ll have to win the rest of their games – as underdogs, no less – to avoid a fifth losing season in six years.

“It’s more complicated, probably at Colorado, because the appearance from the outside is one thing. But once you get here, and realize that it has its own set of values, its own set of things that are important, and if it didn’t fit with what you thought it was going to be, it’s easy to get resentful or to feel like nobody’s helping you,” explained Barnett, who was a longtime assistant coach in Boulder before taking over at Northwestern and then returning to Colorado. “Fortunately, in my case, I’d been here. I knew what to expect.

“You’ve got to have the right attitude going in.”

The names being mentioned as possibilities to become CU’s next head coach range from veteran coaches (Gary Patterson, Bronco Mendenhall) to up-and-comers (Ricky Rahne of Old Dominion ) to former Colorado players (Ryan Walters, defensive coordinator at Illinois; Eric Bieniemy, offensive coordinator with the Kansas City Chiefs) to instant national attention (Deion Sanders, Jackson State).

Sanford has a shot, too, should he be able to right the reeling Buffaloes. He’s 1-1 since taking over for Dorrell.

Sanford pointed to what Oregon State has done as an ideal blueprint. The Beavers went 2-10 in their first season under coach Jonathan Smith in 2018. But after beating the Buffaloes 42-9 last weekend they became bowl eligible for a second straight season.

“A lot of those players that were playing against us on Saturday are guys that had gone through those tough years,” Sanford said. “They had the continuity – how they were developed, the strength coach, the position coaches, all the way down. You see them grow up and become a veteran team that looked like a true Power Five, upper-echelon-of-the-conference type of team.”

Following this season, the Buffaloes could experience another exodus via the transfer portal, with players chasing a more stable environment, maybe even an easier course load. Or more lucrative NIL deals, which is a realm the Buffaloes are looking to be more competitive.

“I do not think it is a matter of altering any of the rules and policies,” University of Colorado Chancellor Philip P. DiStefano said when Dorrell was fired on Oct. 2. “I believe that you can have excellent academics and excellent student-athletes coming together. They are not mutually exclusive.”

Back in his day, Brown was a standout player in California who happened to see some big names in his state being heavily recruited by Colorado. That included Bieniemy and later quarterback Darian Hagan. It enticed Brown to Boulder as the Buffs were rising in prominence after going 1-10 under Hall of Fame coach Bill McCartney in 1984.

There was a game plan in place. The 1990 season culminated with Colorado earning a national title following its win in the Orange Bowl over Notre Dame.

Bottom line: The next coach needs time to grow the program.

“If you get the right coach and he’s able to build his program, you can get back to respectability, and maybe even some years be a part of the bigger national picture,” said Brown, a sports talk show host on 104.3 The Fan in Denver. “That’s my hope.”

Washington QB Michael Penix Jr. returning for 2023 season

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports
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SEATTLE – Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr. said Sunday he will return to the school for his sixth and final season of eligibility in 2023.

Penix announced his decision on social media and it was a surprising one at that. Penix was the national leader in passing this season, throwing for 4,354 yards and led Washington’s turnaround. The No. 12-ranked Huskies went 10-2 in the regular season, finished tied for second in the Pac-12 and will face No. 21 Texas in the Alamo Bowl.

Penix will have a chance at setting Washington’s single-season record for yards passing in the bowl game. He also threw 29 touchdowns this season. Because of his performance this season, Penix saw his NFL draft stock rise to where he was being expected to be a second-day pick at the latest.

In his announcement, Penix wrote, “As I look back on this special season we had, I realized there were so many great moments and things to celebrate, but I KNOW there is so much for out there for this team and the job is still not finished. I can’t wait to be playing in Husky Stadium for the 2023 season!”

Penix started his career at Indiana and showed flashes of stardom while also battling injuries. He transferred to Washington after the 2021 season, a move that reunited him with new Huskies’ coach Kalen DeBoer, who was Penix’s offensive coordinator for one season at Indiana.

North Texas fires Littrell after .500 record over 7 years

Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports
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DENTON, Texas – Bowl-bound North Texas has fired coach Seth Littrell, who went 44-44 over seven seasons.

University president Neal Smatresk said Sunday night that the decision to make the move came after a thorough assessment of the program.

The Mean Green are 7-6 this season after losing 48-27 to UTSA in the Conference USA championship game Friday night.

Phil Bennett, their defensive coordinator the past two seasons, was named interim head coach. North Texas plays Boise State in the Frisco Bowl on Dec. 17.

The 44-year-old Littrell had one year left on his contract in what was his first head coaching job. He was the youngest coach in Conference USA and one of the youngest at the FBS level when he arrived after two seasons as offensive coordinator at North Carolina with UNT coming off a 1-11 season at the time.

While the Mean Green are going to their sixth bowl since Littrell first got there, they haven’t won any of those yet. The bowl in his debut season came after only five wins since there weren’t enough bowl-eligible teams to fill all of the slots. Consecutive nine-win seasons followed in 2017 and 2018, but they then had three consecutive losing records before this year.

North Texas also has an interim athletic director after Wren Baker was named as West Virginia’s AD last week.

Smatresk said Jared Mosley, the chief operating officer of UNT athletics, will serve as interim AD. The university is working with a search firm to find Baker’s successor.