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Colorado Risks Becoming Basketball School

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If not for the damage it would inflict on the court, Ralphie might be sprinting across the CU gym floor rather than Folsom Field this year. Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images.
If not for the damage it would inflict on the court, Ralphie might be sprinting across the CU gym floor rather than Folsom Field this year. Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images.

The bison snorts. Its handlers grip its reins a little tighter.

At the signal, the giant beast thunders across Sox Walseth Court.

And the Boulder crowd goes wild. The transformation is complete.

The University of Colorado is now officially a basketball school.

Run, Ralphie. Run.

Could it happen? Not likely — and not because the 1,100-pound animal would tear the hardwood asunder.

There’s no doubt that the Buffaloes’ football and basketball programs have been galloping in opposite directions the last few years.

Colorado has always been regarded as a football school. Its curriculum vitae are impressive, even if the Buffs have been anything but in the last few years.

We’ll let the description used by CU Football’s official Twitter handle @RunRalphieRun sum it up:

“21st in wins (622 all-time wins actually makes them 29th now), ’90 Champs, 26 League Titles, 28 Bowl Games, 63 All-Americans, 226 NFL players, 1 Heisman (Rashaan Salaam), 2 Thorpe, 2 Butkus, 9 Trophies”

The Buffs’ hoops’ squad is a different tale.

They’ve reached the Final Four just twice in their 110-year existence, the last time coming in 1955. Prior to 2011, they’ve reached the NCAA tournament just 11 times dating back to 1940. In 1963, Colorado peaked at its highest ever ranking in the AP polls at 6th in the nation.

The Buffs have won nine conference championships. But that was before 1964 arrived and ushered in a title drought of nearly five decades. Their contribution to the NBA is mostly known as Chauncey Billups … and so forth.

Since the move to the Pac-12 in 2011, however, Colorado hoops have owned the campus. The Coors Event Center has become as intimidating a place to place as there is in the country when the right opponent is in town (see: the court-storming, Valentine’s Day massacre of highly-ranked Arizona).

The Buffs have gone 69-38 since head coach Tad Boyle took over three years ago. Under Boyle, CU won its first-ever conference tournament title and reached the Sweet Sixteen. Impressive for a program that’s been the textbook definition of average (1,197-1,127, .515).

The football team, conversely, has bobbed its head above .500 just twice in the past decade — and not since eking out a 7-6 record in 2005.

Since the class of 2014 arrived in Boulder, CU has undoubtedly been a basketball school.

But there’s a long slalom-filled path to traverse before the distinction becomes permanent.

That’s the task facing new Colorado football head coach Mike MacIntyre: how to turn around a moribund program while re-establishing the Buffaloes’ hierarchy as big men on campus.

MacIntyre does so by starting at the bottom, quite literally. The football team is coming off a 1-11 season, its worst in the program’s 111-year history.

Re-igniting its rivalry with Nebraska will help fire  the football passions on campus. That won’t happen until 2018, however. There’s no guarantee MacIntyre will still be the Buffs’ coach by then, judging by the win-now-or-hit-the-bricks mentality of college football these days. MacIntyre’s predecessor Jon Embree, for example, lasted just two unspectacular (4-21 overall) seasons.

And he was a decorated CU alumnus.

Embree didn’t leave the Buffaloes’ cupboard barren — just a little trampled and injured. The Buffs are young, especially at the skill positions. The Buffs aren’t devoid of talented playmakers, either.

The key for MacIntyre will be refocusing that talent and convincing this team and its fan base to believe in this once-proud program again.

He’s done it before.

MacIntyre took over as head coach of a San Jose State team that was 2-10 in 2009. After his first year at the helm, the Spartans dropped to 1-12. Two seasons later, San Jose State had the top recruiting class in the WAC (Scout.com) and were owners of a 10-2 record, a No. 24 final BCS ranking and a Military Bowl win over Bowling Green.

One has to believe that with more resources and the backing of a Pac-12 school behind him, that a turnaround is beyond possible. You have to believe it can’t get worse.

The question will be whether he can recruit well enough to compete in the loaded conference and at a school that has caught basketball fever.

Or will it prove more difficult than trying to put sneakers on a bison?