Rich Rodriguez knows exactly where Mike MacIntyre’s head is right now because one year ago, Rodriguez’s was where MacIntyre is today.
Midway through their respective first seasons at a new school, they prone to the same frustrations, elated by the smallest of progress, hoping to build the puzzle the right way without losing any pieces.
First-year coaches are all cut from the same cloth. They have to be.
Focus on wins and losses, and you’ll risk losing the players before they’ve had a chance to change the nameplate on the coach’s office. Focus on first downs and third-down percentage and red-zone defensive statistics, and you’ll risk sliding two rungs down the following week.
It is a process, they’ll all tell you, at Arizona, UCLA, Washington State and Arizona State in 2012, and at Cal and Colorado in 2013.
“I wanted to see if they were going to compete on every play for four quarters no matter who the opponent was,” Rodriguez said of his thoughts around this time last season, when, like the Buffaloes of this year, the Arizona Wildcats of 2012 were 3-3. “That’s the part I was really pleased about last year — even in games we lost … the guys kept competing. I’m sure Coach MacIntyre sees the same thing.”
For a first-year coach, adjusting player expectations and demands might be more important than adjusting schemes or personnel.
In Boulder, where the Buffaloes hadn’t won more than five games in a season since 2007 and had managed just nine conference wins between the Big 12 and the Pac-12 in the past five years, MacIntyre practically had to insert hooks into his player’s shoulders so they wouldn’t slump. This was a beaten-down program, ready to collapse in on itself with the slightest poke.
Even with a heritage that includes a split of the 1990 national championship, 18 bowl appearances between 1985 and 2007 and players such as 1993 Heisman Trophy winner Rashaan Salaam, Kordell Stewart and Byron “Whizzer” White, the Buffaloes of recent memory were broken.
“I feel like at the stage we started at, my expectations were higher than the players’,” said MacIntyre, who was hired away from San Jose State, where he led the Spartans on a drastic turnaround from 1-12 in 2010 to 10-2 in 2012. “But they’re rising to our expectations. To mine. To the seniors’. We can beat anybody on any Saturday — nobody thinks we can. But we’re creeping up on that. We just have to do it once.”
Every major success is felt throughout the program.
A season-opening win over Colorado State was like Mardi Gras for a Buffaloes team that tasted victory just once last season.
“It showed us we can win, especially the way we did — we were down and had to come back and it let us think no matter what happened, we can come back and win,” senior tight end Scott Fernandez said.
Two more wins over FCS schools — a 38-24 win over Central Arkansas, and a 43-10 win on Saturday over Charleston Southern that counted as a makeup for the Sept. 14 Fresno State game, canceled due to flood — and an ensuing NCAA decree that both wins counted toward bowl eligibility has Colorado gazing toward the postseason.
MacIntyre has a singular viewpoint, though.
Progress isn’t another W in the win column but a player who for three years struggled to make it to class now bringing home a B-minus.
“The head coach sees it every day,” MacIntyre said. “I’m looking for the everyday things. Going to class, to the weight room, how they treat people. Do they care about all the small details?”
Now MacIntyre has his players celebrating the small joys as well.
Freshman Addison Gillam, who enrolled at Colorado early to begin playing for MacIntyre, remembered the team’s second spring scrimmage, when the Buffaloes started playing with a crisp attention to detail that had been lacking.
And from then until Tuesday’s practice, it’s been a constant push-and-pull, a few steps forward, one step back, a few more forward. Focus on the forward.
On Tuesday, though, there was a certain pep, a sound or a feeling that just hadn’t been there before, with MacIntyre calling it the best practice of the year.
“We were all getting jacked up about making plays, and that was awesome,” Gillam said. “It wasn’t a few guys, it was the whole team. We’re all jacked up about little things, simple plays. I think that was really big to see everyone come together.”
That’s the next step for MacIntyre’s group — to celebrate success rather than dwell on failure.
When that happens, they’ll be a step closer to where MacIntyre wants them to be.
“I feel like we’ve gone from deep in the valley to the foothills,” MacIntyre said. “But we’re trying to climb some mountains.”