Basketball School: CU should turn its attention to the hardwood

Colorado Buffaloes head coach Tad Boyle celebrates defeating the California Golden Bears at the CU Events Center. Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Long after the final buzzer, a healthy percentage of the sellout crowd that had just seen CU beat USC still milled around Coors Events Center. There were plenty just soaking it in, basking in the glow of a 70-66 win, a final score that practically gave the Buffs a bye in the first round of the Pac-12 men’s hoops tournament. But there were more still who were fixated on the jumbotron, where Oregon was about to lose to Arizona State – this, too, proved be delightful.

The stench that has hovered over campus in Boulder – the one that arrived as soon as head football coach Mel Tucker bolted to Michigan State – was replaced by the sweet, sweet smell of victory, grilled hot dogs and popcorn. The murmurs of doubt and disgust had been silenced by the roar of a crowd that could’ve watched Tyler Bey’s put-back dunk or Eli Parquet’s alley-oop or any number of McKinley Wright IV’s magical moments all night long.

Football?

For just a moment, nobody cared.

There was a twinge of irony in the air last night in Boulder, too.

It was ironic that John Elway – a football guy if there ever was one – was on hand to watch the No. 18 college basketball team in the country.

It was ironic that about the time Buffs fans were making their way up Highway 36 to the game, they learned that Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian didn’t want to come to Colorado; meanwhile the ESPN’s national broadcast crew was already setting up inside Coors.

It was ironic that the USC Trojans – an iconic brand in college sports, now led by former CU athletic director Mike Bohn – couldn’t quite get over the hump at 5,370 feet above sea level. Why? Sure, the thin air always plays a part, but more importantly, Bohn’s current team ultimately couldn’t overcome CU’s homecourt advantage in “The House that Mike Built” or the Pac-12’s best basketball coach, Tad Boyle, who was hired by Bohn in 2010. Aside from Boyle, Bohn was the last man in Boulder to truly give a damn about basketball, and last night, when CU needed something – anything – to take its collective mind off football, it was the hoops team that delivered.

It was ironic that Boyle, who’s surely had plenty of chances to bolt for bigger (better?) jobs, has now stayed put for 10 seasons. During that time, he’s been to the NCAA Tournament four times (soon to be a fifth), won the 2012 Pac-12 Conference Tournament (and could soon have a regular season title on his resume, too) and extended the season at the NIT three times. Boyle’s Buffs haven’t made a true run at a national title, but to say they’ve been relevant throughout his tenure in Boulder would be an understatement.

“Commitment and loyalty are words that you can’t talk about,” Boyle – ironically – told Kyle Newmann of the Denver Post earlier in the week when discussing Tucker’s departure. “They’re things you have to demonstrate and exhibit in your actions. That’s what we need — we need somebody who is totally loyal and committed to Colorado football.”

Or, perhaps, CU should just become a basketball school.

Go ahead, Folsom Faithful, pick yourself up off the floor. Take a deep breath and consider this for just one moment.

Want to become relevant and stay relevant? Want to do it quickly? Become a perennial invite to March Madness. Nobody cares about the SponsorDeJour.com Bowl – ever. But everyone cares about the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. And you know what? It’s a hell of a lot easier to get invited to the Big Dance than college football’s version of the Final Four.

Think about it: A college basketball team that hangs around the Top 25 is nationally relevant from October to March; Bill Walton can sing Boulder’s praises for a solid four months. A college football team that slips outside the Top 15 after week five, however, might as well start making hotel reservations for Albuquerque or Detroit in hopes of that oh-so-coveted invite to the Gildan New Mexico Bowl or the Quick Lane Bowl.

In Boulder, the window for being truly excited about the Buffs football team lasts only a few weeks; it’s that month when the rest of the country pretends that anyone outside of the SEC or Big 10 has a chance at anything beyond a conference title.

Why fight it?

Why scratch and claw and whine about Mel Tucker when there’s a basketball team in the backyard that’s already damn good and could become even better? Why not pour just a little more money into becoming the very best basketball program in the Pac-12 instead of dumping gazillions of dollars toward becoming a sometimes-contender in the Pac-12 South and an also-ran in NCAA Division I FBS? Why not become the Gonzaga of Mountain Time Zone, the North Carolina or Duke of the Pac-12?

Timeout. Sure. The money that comes in because of a great college football program is infinitely bigger than the dough that’s baked from basketball. It’s been calculated that football easily generates more money than all of the NCAA’s other sports combined (and then some). That’s an impossible fact to argue. Football also costs infinitely more, too. College football is quickly becoming a landscape of the haves and the have-nots. And while the University of Colorado is still in a real conference with real facilities and real custom Nike uniforms, it’s still not an even playing field. The fact that Michigan State and all its money could swoop in and hire away Mel Tucker is evidence that CU isn’t close to winning the football arms race. The Flatirons are cool, but the almighty buck is cooler (anyone who’s ever been to East Lansing has to understand this).

This is not at all to say that CU should just give up on football – not for a single second. But why not cultivate what’s already growing? Look at the University of Arizona: A basketball school that occasionally has a decent football team. Is there anything wrong with that? And who’s to say that CU couldn’t, over time, become like Michigan State, a big state school that almost always has a competitive basketball program and on occasion factors into the national championship conversation in college football?

It’s not 1990 anymore. Bill McCartney, or even Gary Barnett, ain’t walking through that door anytime soon.

Mel Tucker already walked out of it.

But Tad Boyle is about to beat it down.

At this exact moment, CU is a basketball school. And there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, the Buffs should run with it.

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