BOULDER, Colo. — Mike MacIntyre has a reputation as a turnaround artist. Give him a program, any program, and he will transform it.
Colorado, though, had the looks of being the sort of program that not even MacIntyre could fix.
After three years that resulted in a grand total of 10 victories, MacIntyre led the 10th-ranked Buffaloes (No. 11 AP) to a 10-win season and a spot in the Pac-12 championship game, and even the fringes of the national title conversation for a week or two. Colorado also will make its first bowl appearance since 2007.
For that, MacIntyre is The Associated Press college football Coach of the Year. He received 109 points and 25 first-place votes from the AP college football poll panel. Penn State‘s James Franklin was second with 98 and 16, and Alabama‘s Nick Saban was third with 57 and 13.
“We played a lot of young guys, and they worked hard and got better,” said MacIntyre, who became the first Colorado coach to win the award since it began in 1998. “They grew into their talent and kept right on going.”
To comprehend just how far Colorado has come, it’s important to know where the Buffaloes were before MacIntyre arrived. In 2012, they led the nation in games started by true freshmen, were outscored by 552-214 and lost a school-high 11 games that ultimately cost coach Jon Embree his job.
MacIntyre realized he was inheriting a program that had fallen on hard times. But the depths of that decline caught him off guard.
“Overall, to be able to compete, to be in the Pac-12 championship game, we weren’t very close,” MacIntyre said.
MacIntyre gradually revamped the program — just like he did at San Jose State when he inherited a 2-10 squad and in three seasons turned the Spartans into a double-digit win team.
All he needed was time and a chance to develop his talent. After going 2-25 in conference games over his first three seasons at Colorado, some publications listed him on the hot seat heading into the season.
Now he is one of the hottest coaches in the business.
“It’s been remarkable, what’s occurred this season,” said former Colorado coach Gary Barnett, who is now a radio analyst for Buffs football games. “They’ve acted like they’ve been there before, acted like a mature team that’s used to winning. They have this resiliency to find a way to win, every single game they’ve been in.”
“The Rise” — as Colorado has labeled it — has been no surprise to MacIntyre’s players. They bought in from the beginning. Take junior running back Phillip Lindsay. He was recruited by the previous regime and didn’t know if his scholarship would still be honored after suffering a serious knee injury in high school.
MacIntyre visited him and assured Lindsay that one day he would play a role in leading this team back to prominence. Lindsay rushed for 1,189 yards and 16 scores this season. He won’t forget that trust from MacIntyre.
He believed. His teammates believed — even as the Buffaloes struggled.
“Rome wasn’t built in one day. He just needed time to build a program,” Lindsay said. “He’s a big reason we are where we are today.”
And that’s a program trending in the right direction — with big crowds showing up again at Folsom Field. The Buffaloes appeared in their first conference title game, losing 41-10 to No. 4 Washington, since 2005, when they were in the Big 12. They are also heading to the Valero Alamo Bowl against Oklahoma State with a chance to become just the fourth team in school history to win 11 games.
“We’ve been making steps. Some of them were baby steps, but we were moving forward,” said MacIntyre, whose late father, George MacIntyre, was the coach at Vanderbilt from 1979 to 1985. “We weren’t going backward at all.”
Upgrades to the athletic facilities, including a new indoor practice field, helped. Recently, MacIntyre took the team over to their old digs, just as a reminder of how far they have come.
“Those young freshmen were like, ‘What’s this?'” MacIntyre recounted. “You can’t kick it high. The lights are weird. But this is what it was for us all the time.
“There might be some times we go back down there and do some morning drills like we used to and make them realize how nice we’ve got it.”
“A lot of ups and downs, a lot of heartbreaks, a lot of happy times, a lot of crying over the years,” Lindsay said. “We are a figure of him. Now you’re seeing the final product.”