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Highs and Buffaloes: Mike MacIntyre captures catharsis in Colorado

AP Photo/Thomas Boyd
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Coaching is a cutthroat profession — Mike MacIntyre doesn’t need anyone to tell him that.

However, fans can always use the reminder that while this business is suffocating for anyone who enters it, head coaches carry most of the scrutiny.

Yes, they are well paid to bear immense stress. They are handsomely compensated for running a football program. Nevertheless, the responsibility for a team’s development falls more on the head coach’s shoulders than anyone else’s. The money is good, the power considerable, but the weight of a job is enormous. Coaches — like the athletes they coach — have to have strong egos and a well-fortified sense of self, but when losing persists, it is very easy for a coach to view his self-worth through his job performance.

Coaching survival often feels like personal, holistic survival.

Until that moment when genuine survival is achieved in this industry, every head coach will always wonder — maybe not in the exact words, but certainly in spirit:

“Will I make it?”

“Will I get over the hump?”

Surviving means different things for different men at different programs in different situations. Coaching at the University of Colorado in 1994 carried a particular set of expectations. Had Mike MacIntrye won no more than four games in his first three seasons on the job back then, he would not have been given a fourth season.

However, MacIntyre took over in Boulder under much different conditions after the 2012 season. Colorado was not a quick-fix program. In accordance with much of the coaching industry, any program which is not a quick fix should give a coach a minimum of three seasons, barring an off-field scandal which brings dishonor upon the program.

In year four of a coach’s tenure, however, even the more downtrodden programs in the FBS will begin to expect a return on their investment. Some might be more spacious and allow a fifth season, but many won’t tolerate four straight seasons without at least one .500 record and the bowl bid which goes with it.

As MacIntyre — the author of only 10 wins in his first three seasons at CU — stepped into his fourth year, he had to wonder: “Will I make it?”

Saturday, he got his answer: Yes. Yes, he’ll make it in Boulder.

That’s why he cried after his team defeated Oregon in Autzen Stadium… with a backup quarterback… after blowing a 16-point third-quarter lead… and by needing an interception in the end zone inside the final two minutes of regulation.

October 31, 2015: UCLA defensive back (1) Ishmael Adams stops Colorado (2) Devin Ross from scoring a touchdown during the game at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena , CA. (Photo by Adam Davis/Icon Sportswire)

Colorado statistically dominated UCLA last year, but couldn’t finish. Mike MacIntyre is rightly proud of his 2016 CU team for closing the sale in Autzen Stadium against Oregon. (Photo by Adam Davis/Icon Sportswire)

The win over the Ducks — a national championship game participant two seasons ago — was unfathomable for Colorado in each of the past three seasons, primarily due to the lofty standard Oregon football has established in recent times. Oregon’s decline, however, is something Colorado could not control. The Buffaloes needed to take care of themselves.

More precisely, they needed to stop squandering strong performances, which happened in 2015 at UCLA.

Last year, with Sefo Liufau at quarterback, the Buffaloes outgained UCLA by 154 yards; collected 18 more first downs; and held the ball for over 22 minutes more than the Bruins. Someway, somehow, they lost.

Colorado — against UCLA and Utah and nearly everyone else in the Pac-12 — didn’t always compete on even terms, but when it had a chance to win an important game, it always fell short in the first three seasons of the MacIntyre era.

The Buffaloes could have beaten Oregon, 40-17, and yet in a strange and counterintuitive way, it wouldn’t have been as impressive as the way in which CU finally broke through this past Saturday.

MacIntyre flies higher: Colorado defensive back Ahkello Witherspoon (23), catches the game winning interception intended for Oregon wide receiver Darren Carrington II (7) during the last moments in an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016 in Eugene, Ore. (AP Photo/Thomas Boyd)

MacIntyre flies higher: Colorado defensive back Ahkello Witherspoon (23), catches the game winning interception intended for Oregon wide receiver Darren Carrington II (7) during the last moments in an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016 in Eugene, Ore. (AP Photo/Thomas Boyd)

It feels that much more cathartic for Colorado to have experienced moments of panic and dread, blowing that 16-point lead in the Pacific Northwest, only to rally.

MacIntyre spoke to that feeling after the win:

“They’ve got an uncommon attitude and soul; they’ve been to it and back, you know? They can’t ever give up, and they understand that. They just kind of start making plays in big situations, and they don’t hang their head and they just keep fighting. They know now that they’re a heavyweight boxer and they can box with the heavyweights, and when you can box with the heavyweights you keep punching. If you don’t think you can box with them, then you stop boxing, and they know they can box with them now.”

It feels so much more hopeful for the CU program that with Liufau injured, backup Stephen Montez carried his brothers — and his coach — to such a significant win.

MacIntyre admired what his quarterback endured in order to forge this satisfying triumph:

“The way he came back from the two picks, being a redshirt freshman. He could have just crumbled, and he just kept playing. He has a gunslinger mentality, which sometimes can hurt you, but if he just keeps playing then he’ll make a lot of great plays to help you.”

After three years in the wilderness of Colorado, Mike MacIntyre stepped into the golden light of victory, even as evening shadows covered Autzen Stadium in Eugene.

At USC, “survival” means winning conference championships.

At Arizona State, it means competing for division championships.

At Colorado, the standard for survival might be raised to a higher level in 2017, coming closer to the expectations the program held in the early 1990s or early 2000s. For now, though, “survival” in Boulder means getting to a bowl game and not bearing the burden of another losing season.

Two months of football remain before the deed is officially done, but it is now extremely hard to imagine a world in which the Colorado Buffaloes aren’t bowling in late December of 2016.

MacIntyre — having walked through the valley of the shadow of doubt — knew as much when he commented on this win’s significance for CU.

He wasn’t about to downplay anything:

“I would say this is a signature win. You’re playing the perennial Pac-12 champion, the last time we came here was Marcus Mariota Day and they killed us, and eighty percent of these kids were out there. So winning one on the road after we lost one last week that we let slip away, and going on the road back-to-back to Michigan and Oregon where we really should have won both of them but we got one of them, I think these kids believe they can beat anybody.”

They definitely defeated Oregon on Saturday.

Two other opponents they subdued: The demons of the recent past, and the fear that the Mike MacIntyre era would never amount to anything.

The Boulder has been rolled away from the tomb.

Colorado football is risen — it is risen indeed.

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Today’s U reporter Craig Morgan provided reportage used in this article

Highs and Buffaloes: Mike MacIntyre captures catharsis in Colorado

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