Never a doubt.
JR Payne never doubted the trajectory of the Colorado women’s basketball team. Even when that trajectory remained stuck in the mud and mired in mediocrity.
Same with Rick George. When some athletic directors might have gotten sick of the losing and felt compelled to try a new direction, George opted to stay the course.
That faith, from Payne and her boss, paid off this season in general and on Sunday in particular when the Buffaloes landed their first invitation to the women’s NCAA Tournament since 2013, and only the second since 2004, with a first-round date set against Creighton on Friday.
There were times along the way since Payne’s hiring when it was easy to wonder if the Buffs would ever return to this sort of pinnacle. That skepticism, though, was reserved for fans and, yes, the media as well. Within the program and athletic department, that confidence never wavered. And George deserves credit for believing in Payne for the long haul.
“There was never a time I thought otherwise,” Payne said. “And that’s not because I’m positive. It’s because I believe in our staff. I believe in the types of players we’re recruiting. There aren’t too many people that know what a challenge it was when we arrived, and how long it would take to make sure we were doing it the right way with the right people. It definitely was a formidable task when we set to the job, and we knew it would be, but we always believed in ourselves and knew, culturally, we just had to bring in the right people.”
Payne wasn’t George’s first coach hire as the Buffs’ AD — CU volleyball coach Jesse Mahoney owns that distinction, as he was hired three months ahead of Payne — but outside the two football coach hires conducted on his watch (Mel Tucker, Karl Dorrell), it was the most important.
Thanks to the legendary Ceal Barry, the basketball team is the premier women’s program at CU. That’s not meant as a shot at Mark Wetmore’s nationally-renowned track and cross country program. Same with skiing, or the lacrosse, soccer and volleyball programs that all have made regular visits to their respective NCAA Tournaments. I see what people are clicking on at BuffZone.com every day. Basketball blows away the competition among CU’s women’s programs.
Of course, the cheers from those Ceal Barry glory years now are a generation removed from the nervous systems of Buffs fans. At times early in Payne’s tenure, they may have seemed even further reduced to history. During her first four seasons, the Buffs were never better than 5-13 in the Pac-12. Never finished better than ninth in the league. Those lean, foundation-building seasons bottomed out in 2018-19, when CU finished last in the conference with a 2-16 league record.
Some ADs would have decided enough is enough. Not George. His patience and faith in Payne, as well as her own belief in her vision, have led the Buffs back to the Big Dance.
“When JR came in here, we knew we were going to get to this point, because we had a lot of confidence in her ability to lead this team,” George said. “I could see some progress that she was making and I just have a lot of confidence in her ability and her coaching staff. She’s kept that coaching staff intact and I think that’s important as well to have that consistency. As I looked at it, I had a ton of confidence in her ability to lead and create the right culture in her program. If you look at her history as a coach, it takes a couple years and then she gets a really good team. Now we just have to be consistent as we move forward and do this every year.”