It’s almost surreal for alums and longtime Colorado State fans to drive down west Lake Street in Fort Collins, along the south side of campus, and see what is really starting to look like a new football stadium sprouting up from the ground. Construction is on schedule. It’s really happening.
Saturday’s Green and Gold Spring Game may not be the last spring game at old Hughes Stadium. The new facility isn’t scheduled to open until mid-summer of 2017, so next April, school administrators could decide to play at Hughes one final time, or perhaps do something like moving the game to the Denver area (Dick’s Sporting Goods Park would be a fantastic place to play real football.) Regardless, the coming regular season will offer a series of “lasts” at Hughes, while whetting the appetite of CSU supporters for what is to come. That involves much more than a new playing facility; the football program as a whole is under construction. Fans will get a look at what head coach Mike Bobo and this year’s team will look like on Saturday. The hope is that they can take another step toward a Mountain West conference title when the games start to count in September.
When the Rams step out onto the new Sonny Lubick Field on Sept. 9, 2017 to face Abilene Christian, it will mean that the glistening new stadium will be complete. “The Climb” will not.
Despite some recent on-field success – three consecutive bowl bids – CSU’s journey, that quest to reach the really big time and land on an even playing field with the Power Five conference schools, is actually just beginning. Schools like neighboring Colorado and fellow agricultural institutions like Kansas State and Iowa State remain a notch above CSU in athletics. The new stadium is a fabulous first step, but that’s all it is. Many more steps remain. The administration has done all they can do. They built new facilities and hired the best coaches. Now it’s up to the rest of us.
As the new building rises up from the ground where many of us used to park our cars, it’s a time to be proud yet patient. It’s time to take inventory of the work that remains to be done and get started on it. Time to purchase season tickets. Ram fans have to start to show up at games. Half-filled stadiums – old or new – aren’t insufficient for a Power Five school. It’s time to buy and wear your CSU gear and call talk shows to boast about our team even after the Rocky Mountain Showdown has passed. It’s time to act like our school belongs in the big time. It’s time to show some fervor.
There is one group of fans with fervor – one of those small but vocal minorities – that continues to clamor for CSU to gain membership into the Big 12 or another Power Five conference immediately, if not sooner. Their hearts are in the right place, but they’re shortsighted. Would we all like to see CSU playing Oklahoma and Texas instead of San Jose State and Fresno State? Sure, but such a promotion must be earned. You can boast about potential sellout games when those two Big 12 powers come to town, but until a bunch of sellouts actually happen – regardless of the foe – it’s just speculation.
It was 2003 the last time Colorado State won the Mountain West football title. That’s 13 years ago. That was the same year that CSU pulled off a miracle run to win the MW men’s basketball tournament and the right to face Duke in the first round of March Madness. The men’s basketball team has not won any conference titles since. And yes, CSU supporters can be extremely proud of the incredible performance of both the women’s volleyball and women’s basketball teams this past season. Both programs are among the nation’s best. But conference realignment was not and never will be driven by those sports.
Remember the road that Utah took to gain Pac-12 membership? Like CSU, Utah was a charter member of the MW. But unlike the Rams, Utah has been to and won two New Year’s bowl games and won the MW title three times in football since CSU’s last conference title. TCU joined the conference in 2006 and promptly won the football conference championship four times before leaving for the Big 12. The Horned Frogs won the Rose Bowl at the end of the 2010 season and played in a pair of New Year’s Bowl games (and in terms of appealing to the Big 12 in particular, it didn’t hurt TCU that they won seven MW baseball titles and have been to the College World Series twice now).
If any Mountain West school has a resume to push for Power Five membership right now, it would be Boise State. The Broncos have won the MW twice since joining in 2012 and have been to three New Year’s Bowls, winning all three. Boise State has been to 14 straight bowl games and has also started to excel in men’s basketball.
Those three schools should serve and models for the CSU football program and fan base.
CSU supporters proudly point to the school’s academic standing, which is better than Boise State’s and compares favorably with other purported Power Five expansion candidates like Cincinnati or Houston. If the decision were strictly about athletics, BYU would probably have an inside track. The fact is, CSU, with solid academics and great potential athletically, has a whole lot going for it in the long-term. That’s why supporters need to spend more time, starting Saturday, focusing on building up the résumé for the short-term. A big crowd for the spring game would be a start. So would a major rise in season ticket sales. And of course, if you want to attract the attention of the big schools, selling out and filling up a 35,000 seat stadium more than twice a year is a must.
As construction continues, the CSU football program is a lot like the new stadium. It’s a work in progress. It too could be spectacular when it’s finished.