CU Buffs’ California recruiting not producing Pac-12 wins

Editor’s note: One of a series looking at CU athletics 10 years after it left the Big 12 for the Pac 12.

When CU decided to leave the Big 12 for the Pac-12 in 2010, one of the move’s selling points was the promise of a California recruiting gold rush.

The Golden State is home to CU’s largest alumni base outside of Colorado — estimated at roughly 28,000 by Alumni Association director Ryan Chreist — and joining the Pac-12 brought visions of a re-opened recruiting pipeline that would, in turn, lead to a return to national football relevance.

So far, that assumption has turned out to be fool’s gold.

Despite signing a sizable increase in California football recruits since joining the Pac-12, CU’s production on the field has been mediocre, with eight losing seasons since the school officially entered the league in 2011.

“Colorado was a destination place for a lot of top California kids in the early ’90s, while they were cranking out good football teams,” said Bruce Rollinson, the longtime coach at powerhouse Mater Dei in Orange County. “They still have that (notion of) tradition with kids here, but it doesn’t help their situation when they have a one-year coach (Mel Tucker) and he walks out.”

The Buffs had 35 Californians on their 1990 national title team, including pillars such as running back Eric Bieniemy, quarterback Darian Hagan and lineman Joe Garten. That California pipeline continued to feed Bill McCartney’s Buffs with blue-chips through the early ’90s, including the program’s lone Heisman Trophy winner, Rashaan Salaam.

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Karl Gehring, Denver Post file

In this Nov. 18, 1990, file photo, CU running back Eric Bieniemy (1) darts around Kansas State defensive tackle Tony Williams. Bieniemy went on to play in the NFL and is currently the offensive coordinator with the Kansas City Chiefs. (Photo by Karl Gehring, The Denver Post)

CU didn’t have more than 35 California recruits on its roster again until 2013, and since then the Buffs have averaged 42 per season. But overall instability — following Tucker’s abrupt departure this past winter to Michigan State, Karl Dorrell became the program’s fourth head coach since CU joined the conference — has produced just one winning season in the Pac-12 (10-4 in 2016). California’s blue-chips (four- or five-star recruits) are signing elsewhere.

The increase in the average number of Californians on the roster since joining the Pac-12 is evidence the school is still held in high regard by recruits on the West Coast. Former CU wideout Nelson Spruce, who became the school’s all-time leading receiver during a four-year career from 2012-16, said he wouldn’t have considered the Buffs out of Westlake High School in Los Angeles had they not joined the Pac-12 late in his recruiting process.

“I didn’t follow them at all growing up when they were in the Big-12, but once they joined — and granted that was my only option within the Pac-12 — that was a quick decision for me,” Spruce said. “The ability to play road games in California was part of it. Growing up, UCLA and USC were the schools I mostly followed, so to be able to come back here and play in L.A., and play in front of family in northern California too, that factored in.”

Rollinson said CU is at about “80 or 85” on a scale to 100 in terms of the regard in which California recruits view Boulder. But the coach, whose program produces up to 15 Division I recruits annually, said “that reputation is based on the tradition of the past.”

“I’ve got many players who aren’t going to even consider Colorado — not when the California schools plus Alabama, Oklahoma, etc., are calling,” Rollinson said. “Not yet anyway. That only comes with success.”

Darrin Chiaverini, CU’s recruiting coordinator since 2016, said that after the program’s home state, California, Texas and Arizona are CU’s main recruiting territory. He notes “most of the staff” recruits California in some way. And in Texas — from which CU has plucked recent standouts Steven Montez and Laviska Shenault — Chiaverini said the Buffs have more than doubled their efforts after having single-digit Texans on the roster from 2007-11.

“In terms of traditional recruiting areas, Texas has always been really good to Colorado,” Chiaverini said. “That’s something we’ve gotten back into over the last four cycles… When I came on in 2016, we only had two (recruiters) in Texas — one in Houston and one in Dallas. (Coach Mike MacIntyre) let me revamp it, and we put eight down there — five in Dallas and three in Houston. That allowed us to cover more ground, develop more relationships. We’ve really made a lot of inroads back into that state, which is important.”

Cultivating recruiting success into the win column is something men’s basketball coach Tad Boyle has done well. In the program’s 10 seasons under Boyle in the Pac-12, CU has posted seven 20-win seasons and four NCAA Tournament trips — success that comes, in part, from a measured perspective when Boyle recruits California.

“At CU, to be successful in the long term, you have to be a very good evaluator of talent (because) it’s more of an evaluation job than it is a recruiting job,” Boyle said. “You’re always selling CU and what it has to offer, but in terms of going head-to-head with UCLA on an L.A. kid, you’re not going to win that recruiting battle or the recruiting battle with USC for a kid from L.A… so you have to go to L.A. and you have to find that kid that USC and UCLA don’t think is good enough, a.k.a. (former Buffs star) Spencer Dinwiddie.”

Marty Caivano, Daily Camera file

In this July 1, 2011, file photo, CU men’s basketball coach Tad Boyle, center, shows off his new Pac 12 t-shirt, while his assistant coach, Mike Rohn, reaches to shake hands with chancellor Phil DiStefano, right. At left is Linda Lappe, then the women’s basketball coach. The coaches and staff were celebrating Pac 12 Day on Friday, designated by Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper and Boulder mayor Susan Osborne.

For CU football, Rollinson said re-establishing stability under Dorrell must be a top priority for the Buffs in order to get more blue-chip players in California and beyond. Colorado has signed only three blue-chips since joining the Pac-12, per the 247Sports recruiting database.

“They’ve got to market Karl and they’ve got to re-market the school,” Rollinson said. “If they put Karl on the hot seat in two years, it’s another step back.”

CU athletic director Rick George believes Dorrell, a California native who served as UCLA’s head coach from 2003-07, is well-suited to mine top recruits in his home state.

“Karl’s background there is important and valuable,” said George. “Some of the assistant coaches he hired, and where they’re from, is significant. And having Chiaverini and (assistant coach) Hagan, both West Coast recruiters and guys, is impactful.”

And for Colorado to rise again, the road to success may very well start in California.

“I think we’d all be lying if we didn’t acknowledge the fact that the Pac-12 is at the bottom of the heap for football’s Power 5 conferences,” former CU lineman and local radio host Tyler Polumbus said.

“At the time, (the move) felt like a necessity, but now it feels more like a burden. That makes it even more important to capitalize on the (pipeline) that was part of the original sales pitch. As the former head coach at UCLA, you’d have to imagine (Dorrell) has an incredible network going on with the high school coaches and programs in Southern California. Buff fans certainly hope so.”


CU’s Top Out-of-State Pipelines 

A look at how many Californians and Texans were on each Buffs football roster dating back to 1989.

Tim DeFrisco, Getty Images

Quarterback Darian Hagan of the Colorado Buffaloes runs down the field during a game against the Nebraska Cornhuskers at Folsom Field in Boulder. Colorado won the game 27-21, on Nov. 4, 1989.

Year Record Bowl CA TX

1989 11-1 L, Orange Bowl 33 9
1990* 11-1-1 W, Orange Bowl 35 12
1991 8-3-1 L, Blockbuster Bowl 30 8
1992 9-2-1 L, Fiesta Bowl 22 9
1993 8-3-1 W, Aloha Bowl 21 10
1994 11-1 W, Fiesta Bowl 20 12
1995 10-2 W, Cotton Bowl 20 14
1996 10-2 W, Holiday Bowl 24 15
1997 5-6 None 23 11
1998 8-4 W, Aloha Classic 35 15
1999 7-5 W, Insight Bowl 31 12
2000 3-8 None 27 9
2001 10-3 L, Fiesta Bowl 23 11
2002 9-5 L, Alamo Bowl 22 17
2003 5-7 None 22 21
2004 8-5 W, Houston Bowl 20 18
2005 7-6 L, Champs Sports Bowl 25 16
2006 2-10 None 28 13
2007 6-7 L, Independence Bowl 28 8
2008 5-7 None 31 5
2009 3-9 None 25 6
2010 5-7 None 26 5
CU enters the Pac-12
2011 3-10 None 29 9
2012 1-11 None 34 12
2013 4-8 None 48 13
2014 2-10 None 54 9
2015 4-9 None 48 10
2016 10-4 L, Alamo Bowl 43 10
2017 5-7 None 36 15
2018 5-7 None 41 16
2019 5-7 None 35 19
2020 TBD 29 22

* Won national championship