BOULDER — If the Cal Bears could be overwhelmed by the sheer power of anecdotes, the Buffs would be a 17-point favorite next week.
“The reason I have a (left) knee brace is, I tore a meniscus celebrating an interception with a defensive player,” CU interim football coach Mike Sanford cracked Tuesday afternoon. “That’s one of those that stayed with me, I think, for about four or five years. It just keeps getting worse.
“So I told (Buffs) players, my full intention is to tear my right meniscus at some point in the next eight games.”
Eight games? As in, these oh-and-five-Buffs-make-a-bowl eight games?
“Next seven. Excuse me.”
The honeymoon has a meter. And Sanford, who was handed the keys to Karl Dorrell’s wreck late Sunday, isn’t wasting any time. On Monday, he met with players individually for about 11 hours straight. On Tuesday morning, he was flying around the practice fields adjacent to Folsom Field like a mosquito on Red Bull.
“I felt like there was a new energy,” observed CU offensive lineman Tommy Brown, the mullet-wearing, affable Alabama transfer. “I felt like everyone’s intensity increased.”
Sanford didn’t just win his first solo news conference as the Buffs’ (temporary) top dude. He crushed it, the way Nick Saban crushes Vanderbilt.
“The one thing I did become well aware of (in meetings) was just how much Coach Dorrell meant to those players,” said Sanford, who was tapped to replace Dorrell this past Sunday, after the latter’s stretch of four wins and 15 losses over his last 19 games at CU made the football unwatchable and his fate inevitable.
“One of the things I’ve learned is that nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”
On a purely surface level, Sanford is everything Dorrell’s wasn’t. The promoted CU offensive coordinator is young (40). He’s spent all of his coaching career since 2005 within the college game. He’s driven. He’s enthusiastic. He’s led a program before, posting a 9-16 record from 2017-18 as a boy-wonder head coach at Western Kentucky. Those last three things were cited specifically as traits Buffs athletic director Rick George told reporters that he wants in a permanent guy.
But at the same time, nobody harbors any illusion as to what’s going on here. The minute George punted Dorrell, he punted on 2022. He punted on the upperclassmen. He essentially punted on the coaches — with the exception of Darian Hagan, who comes with the house — that made this mess in the first place.
Which means that Sanford has nothing to lose, really, except more games. This is the first outright mid-season removal of a Buffs coach since at least 1901, a timing necessitated by team performance (historically lousy) and December’s early signing period (coming quick).
Late November is too late to ask a new guy to save or salvage a recruiting class without a running start. USC and Washington changed the calendar and set the bar last fall with their dismissals of Clay Helton and Jimmy Lake after two games and nine games, respectively. With time on their side, the Trojans poached Lincoln Riley from Oklahoma while the Huskies snatched Fresno State’s Kalen DeBoer. The Men of Troy and the Dawgs of Seattle are a combined 9-1 to open 2022.
“I’m looking at this, (there’s) nothing about (my) candidacy,” Sanford said, “and all about players, all about these young men in front of me. I think that’s the most important thing.”
On the plus side, CU’s October slate — Cal, Oregon State, Arizona State — could afford what the investor types call a “dead-cat bounce,” when a change of coach or manager gives a sagging roster a temporary jolt of caffeine.
Those bounces usually don’t last, though. And CU’s November looks as brutal as its September dance card. No. 12 Oregon (4-1) looms on the 5th; at No. 6 USC (5-0) on the 11th; at No. 21 Washington (4-1) on the 19th; No. 11 Utah (4-1) visits for the finale on 26th.
If Sanford goes 5-2 in the remaining seven games, the man deserves serious love for Pac-12 Coach of the Year. Heck, if he somehow milks a 4-3 finish out of this roster, he might still land my vote.
It probably wouldn’t land him the head gig on a permanent basis, though. And he knows it.
“I think (it’s) important for me to be an asset for (the administration) in this endeavor for these next couple months,” Sanford continued, “and then see where the chips fall.”
In the meantime, Buffs fans can enjoy, for however long it lasts, the new energy. The new intensity. The new sense of humor, too.
After CU had closed the books on its Tuesday media access, with reporters packing up and shuffling along, a voice piped up from the back of the room.
It was Sanford, the temp coach with the bum knee, hovering over a small buffet, then turning to CU assistant athletic director Curtis Snyder.
“Can I take some of the Tibetan beef?”
He could. And did. In this business, free meals, like free hits, don’t last forever. While the meter’s running, you cherish every last bite.