Lowly Colorado State Begins to Forget Its Place

This is a town where some of the locals still like to point out that Hattie McDaniel, who was in "Gone With the Wind," lived here in the early 1900s, as if anyone, frankly, my dear, gives a, well, rip. Not Clark Gable or Vivien Leigh or Olivia de Havilland. Hattie McDaniel. But that's fine. See, Fort Collins, located about 30 miles from the Wyoming border, knows its place. It's not big-city, bright-lights Denver; it's not trendy Boulder; it's not glitzy Aspen.

It's just Fort Collins, former home of Hattie McDaniel. It's an eminently pleasant town that is home to Colorado State University (CSU). The school also knows its place because it labors in the long and sometimes arrogant shadow of the nearby University of Colorado (CU) at Boulder. CU has produced a Supreme Court justice, a Nobel Prize-winner, a national championship football team and 172 players for the National Football League, a bevy of astronauts and scientists. Scads of celebrities send their children to very-in CU. CSU produces veterinarians and crop specialists. It's about the same relationship French-cuff shirts have to blue collars.

The CSU football team fits right in with the local understated attitude. It knows its place. That means, heretofore, trying to play - and not very well - out here in the widely ignored Western Athletic Conference (WAC). CSU is modest about itself and its accomplishments, which is good because the Rams have much to be modest about.

Indeed, CSU has been just one of the boys in the conference, not holding any major records other than longest losing streak: 26 in 1960 and 1962.

Look out.

The "aw shucks" guys with dirt on their boots suddenly are emerging as the newest collegiate football powerhouse. They finished 17th in the final Associated Press poll last year with an 11-2 record - best in school history - and ranked ahead of national big-timers Washington, Texas A&M, and Syracuse. They had a better record than Ohio State, LSU, Arizona State, and Penn State had. Everybody is picking the Rams as a Top 20 team for this fall. One magazine, Street & Smith, puts CSU an eye-popping eighth.

Head coach Sonny Lubick, who arrived in 1993, broods at his desk: "You're always concerned because the expectations have risen. The fans are all runnin' around saying we're going to be really good. That's scary. I wish I could enjoy the good times. Trouble is I can't."

Nor, really, does CSU know how. It has had so little success, prior to Lubick's arrival, that the previous seven coaches were unceremoniously fired. Prior to the glories of last season and 1994's 10-2, many consider 1948 the most successful season when the mark was 8-3. Says offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild, "We tend to be realistic about who we are."

It is this characteristic that will serve the Rams well as they attempt to take their place among the elite, a status forced about them by their current nine-game winning streak, fourth-longest in the nation. "We have a chance to be pretty good," says Lubick. That amounts to full-throated braggadocio at CSU. "But every team in the country believes it's pretty good," he quickly adds, as if concerned he may have strutted slightly. "Every team is either gettin' better or gettin' worse."

The crucible comes early

Possibly in an omen, CSU will play college football's first game this year on Aug. 29 against Michigan State. The next week the Rams play CU. Victories over both - a possibility that one time would have been outrageous fantasy - conceivably could set up CSU for its first-ever excursion into the Top 10. And, dare anyone suggest it, perhaps a national championship? "Come on," scoffs Lubick, "we're Colorado State." He shakes his head at such absurdity. But he can't help warming a bit: "It would be the miracle of miracles. I hope I don't hurt our players by saying that because they think we can and they are beautifully naive. You have to dream big. But I'm old enough to know what it takes."

He does, because he was an assistant coach at the University of Miami during two of its national championship years, in '90 and '92. He wore those rings in his first meeting with the CSU team in 1993. "I don't know why," he says. "I was so frightened and I was thinking if I can just go 5-5, it will be my happiest day. We do that a couple years and people will think I'm OK." Going into his sixth year, Lubick is 41-19, and the Rams have won the WAC title three of the last four years. So much for winning just half the games.

The unvarnished truth is CSU has little reason to be this good. The Rams have a small (30,000 seat) stadium, which works out because it seldom is filled. Admits media-relations director Gary Ozello, "We've been down so long that people probably are suspicious." The athletic department is $500,000 in debt and Lubick says, "With all of our success, we're still going down. We're sinkin'. We're sittin' here with a football budget of $2.8 million and CU is sittin' down there with $9 million or $10 million." Actually, CU says its budget is only $5.7 million, which is still more than twice CSU's.

But, CSU has one enormous plus: Sonny Lubick. He is proof that one person can make the difference. "It's not one guy," protests Lubick. "The difference is one guy," says Tom Ehlers, defensive-line coach. Believe Ehlers.

What Lubick has brought to CSU is a steely realism acquired growing up in Montana where not much of anything is easy but where he says there's "a passion for football." His dad was a miner; as head coach at Montana State, Sonny made $11,000 a year. Star Ram fullback Damon Washington says Lubick routinely talks about Montana: "When it's really cold here, he says it gets a lot colder in Montana. Everything is worse in Montana."

Lubick's philosophy is dead simple: "The only chance we've got," he says, "is working at it, staying together, and trying to be as straightforward and truthful as we can." He says it's a joke that CSU football season tickets are $99 compared with more than $200 at most places. Life is simple when words are straight.

A Chevy versus a Cadillac

Ask him how CSU does recruiting against CU and he is predictably forthright: "Not good. CU still gets 'em. You take a kid to [Colorado coach] Rick Neuheisel's office, then look at this." One tragically worn chair has been living in Lubick's office since 1981. The office has all the charm of a trucking warehouse. Continues Lubick, "You look at CU's training table and then look at ours. It's like someone shows you a Cadillac and a Chevy. Which one do you want? Now that's nothin' against Chevy. Chevy is all I've ever driven." Of course.

Still, asked if he can win with CU's leftovers and left-outs and he says, "I believe we can."

Lubick is also correct when he says, "We're not like Nebraska. The worst thing that can happen to them is they go 7-4. Whereas at our place, we're pretty fragile. We can go either way. We're a lot closer to 3-8 than people realize."

The other day, the father of a CSU non-scholarship player got a full dose of Lubick-style honesty. He phoned to ask if his son finally might be given a scholarship. Said Lubick, "Of 100 guys, he is the least deserving. He hasn't done a thing." In fact, Lubick went on, the youngster has contributed so little that the Rams had to go recruit another player to play his position "so that's where your son's scholarship went." And although this father might not believe it, fullback Washington says the players like Lubick because "he's firm but not firm to the point where there is no leeway."

All these hopes easily could be shattered, maybe early against Michigan State and Colorado - "We could play very well and lose," says Lubick - and maybe often during the rest of the season. Those who see glasses half empty instantly question fifth-year quarterback Ryan Eslinger, who is getting his first chance as a starter. Says offensive coordinator Fairchild, "He has a chance. We'll see how he does. I trust him." Any team with quarterback questions is a team with a lot of questions. There are some concerns, too, at tight end.

But in the half-full glass category, there are 10 defensive starters back, two first-rate linemen in offensive linemen Anthony Cesario and Mike Newell, and above all, Damon Washington and fellow back Kevin McDougal. Naturally, Washington says he thinks the Rams can win a lot and maybe even a national title in "due time." But whether due time means this time will require more time to find out. Regardless, another defensive coach, Thurmond Moore, says, "We're at the bottom of the pyramid now and working our way up. We have a very solid base." Pyramids with solid bases don't crumble for centuries.

There's a sign leading from the Rams locker room that reads: "Attitude - a little thing that makes a big difference." That is central to the good times around CSU because while it never will have the best players or the best facilities or the most fans or easy-flowing money, it definitely can have a mind-set that if effort can't conquer everyone else, it can at least defeat many who lack it.

A permanent Top 20 fixture?

When a recent drive to raise $8 million to build and improve athletic facilities drew only $4.5 million, the students voted to pay the remaining $3.5 million. Marvels Lubick, "I'll bet you there's not another campus in the country where the students would vote a new building for their athletes."

But as the Rams are being showered with progress and adulation, it is Lubick who keeps things perfectly grounded. He readily admits the WAC is "not the SEC [Southeastern Conference] or the Big 12. Maybe our top team can beat their third- or fourth-place team, but it's a big difference." When asked if his team is becoming a permanent fixture in the Top 20, he shakes his head: "I think that would be difficult. The last three years, we've been knocking at the door of the Top 20, which means we're winning, six, seven, eight games a year. That's good for me - but maybe not for the fans."

Explains Gary Ozello, "Sonny has such a good grasp on who he is and what this program is. He remembers who we are. We are Colorado State and what we are trying to be is the best that Colorado State can be."

While CSU clearly knows its place, so does the NFL. Example: CSU's brilliant QB last year, Moses Moreno, who led the Rams to new levels, was the 232nd player selected in this year's pro draft. But what the NFL thinks isn't the point. What matters is what's going on with the Rams in Fort Collins, and it's very, very good.

Lubick sits back, smiles the look of a contented man, and says, "At CSU, we're still small enough to have fun."

* Douglas S. Looney's e-mail address is: looneyd@csps.com

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