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Rooney: Offensive coordinator Mike Sanford draws on precedent with CU Buffs optimism

Karl Dorrell lauds CU youngsters at annual Media Day

OC Mike Sanford, during University of Colorado Boulder football practice and media day on August 6, 2022.(Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
OC Mike Sanford, during University of Colorado Boulder football practice and media day on August 6, 2022.(Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
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For someone who remains relatively young in coaching years, Mike Sanford owns a wealth of stamps on his coaching passport.

In 17 seasons as a collegiate coach before arriving in Boulder in December as Colorado’s new offensive coordinator, Sanford plied his trade at eight different schools and still managed to squeeze in two separate stints at both Stanford and Western Kentucky. Except for a three-year stint at Stanford, Sanford has not spent more than two consecutive seasons at any locale.

The merits, or perhaps disadvantages, of such an extreme nomadic existence, even within a nomadic profession, will be on display in a few weeks, as Sanford takes his shot at rejuvenating a CU attack that was among the worst in the nation a year ago.

Invariably, all those stops have heaped a world of experience upon Sanford. During Colorado’s football media day on Saturday, Sanford recounted the only other time, until last week, his team was picked last in a preseason poll. Buffs fans desperate for optimism might find hope in Sanford’s recollection.

It was 2007, the third year of Sanford’s coaching career, when he was named as an offensive assistant at Stanford in the program’s first year under Jim Harbaugh. The Cardinal was coming off a 1-11 season and was given little love in the Pac-10 preseason media poll, finishing 51 points behind ninth-place Washington. Last week, the Buffs were picked last in the Pac-12 preseason media poll.

The 2007 Stanford Cardinal didn’t exactly stun the world by defying expectations, going 4-8 and finishing ninth in the conference.  But a template certainly was set. One of those four wins was against top-ranked USC in Los Angeles. Two years later, Stanford finished 8-5. In 2010, the Cardinal went 12-1 and routed Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl.

“What I like about this (CU) team right here, converse to that, is that this is a football team that is so hungry. It reminds me of the 2007 Stanford football team,” Sanford said. “They’re so hungry. They want to be coached. They want to have a schematic identity that they know is going to allow them to compete at a high level. As a result, it’s a joy to coach here. It’s the most fun I’ve had coaching in over a decade.”

Granted, that Stanford run that started at the bottom was bolstered by having a guy named Andrew Luck, the top overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, at quarterback. That sort of player with program-altering talent isn’t on the Colorado roster. But if anything, the 2022 Buffs at least have an opportunity to set a similar template.

One recurring theme throughout the media day comments from head coach Karl Dorrell was his excitement over the potential surrounding the youngsters on CU’s roster. A collective eye roll from Buff Nation would be understandable. In the transfer portal era, counting on freshmen to eventually become productive seniors is a tenuous crutch.  And a program that has posted just one full-season winning record since 2005 has frayed too many nerves to preach the patience necessary for a gradual rebuild.

Still, given the roster turnover, staff overhaul, and the all-encompassing chaos of a global pandemic that greeted Dorrell shortly after his hiring, Year Three of the Dorrell era resembles the opening year of a coaching regime change. During his opening comments on Saturday, it took Dorrell less than a minute to veer into a gushing evaluation of CU’s freshmen (“There’s a number of those guys that are making very, very strong impressions on this football team,” he said). CU’s head coach eventually as asked directly about those freshmen, but more unsolicited praise for the rookies followed as well.

Good for CU if the 2022 recruiting class already is providing a jolt. If ever a program needed a shot in the arm, this is it. Yet much has changed since 2007. If the Buffs hope to defy expectations and climb out of the basement, it will take much more than first-week optimism to get there.

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