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BOULDER, Colo. – Colorado interim head football coach Mike Sanford will make his debut at home against California on Oct. 15.(Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
BOULDER, Colo. – Colorado interim head football coach Mike Sanford will make his debut at home against California on Oct. 15.(Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

Amid the ruins of the Karl Dorrell era, winning the room was easy. Now comes the hard part for Mike Sanford and the reshuffled deck of Colorado’s football staff.

The bye week following Dorrell’s firing — his final straw falling after last week’s 43-20 loss at Arizona, dropping the Buffs to 0-5 and 4-15 in Dorrell’s past 19 games — offered a chance for the Buffs to regroup. And in just a few short days, the change in attitude was palpable.

There was Sanford, hired 10 months ago as CU’s offensive coordinator after being let go by Minnesota, gushing with enthusiasm in a team hype video. There were more smiles and humor in one press conference from Sanford and company than Buffs fans have witnessed in years.

Changing the mood, though, simply required Sanford to show up. I was never as turned off by Dorrell’s stoic demeanor as CU fans. But when that stoicism fails to inspire, when the most emotion you show in two-plus seasons is a postgame shove of a television camera and, most importantly, when you don’t win, quiet leadership becomes largely indistinguishable from no leadership.

In a few short days, Sanford has proven to be the anti-Dorrell. His practice energy, at least per team-run social media accounts, is that of a man burning more calories in one team workout than his predecessor did in years. Sanford’s answers to the media — and likewise for CU’s new interim coordinators, Clay Patterson (offense) and Gerald Chatman (defense) — were engaging and heartfelt. Focusing on the players, many of whom have endured the upheaval of regime change more than once, is a selfless proposition.

Will it translate to the field? It’s doubtful the Buffs suddenly will become a force over the final seven games of the season. But really, can it be any worse? Maybe lightening the atmosphere will at least allow the Buffs to play more loosely. There is nowhere to go but up for a team boasting one of the nation’s worst defenses to complement one of the nation’s worst offenses.

Still, the best chance for a win in 2022 will be over the next three games, beginning next week at home against Cal. Then it’s at Oregon State and home against Arizona State before the uphill climb of the season’s final third (Oregon, USC, Washington, Utah). New enthusiasm aside, the Buffs will be heavy underdogs in all of them.

As for Sanford, as it stands he probably is a longshot to make Boulder a long-term home, at least as the head coach. Yet the best-case scenario for his interim status and unofficial audition also is the best-case scenario for Buffs fans. If Sanford can resurrect the CU offense behind freshman quarterback Owen McCown, the freshman running back tandem of Anthony Hankerson and Charlie Offerdahl, and an offensive line that went through a few youthful adjustments during Dorrell’s final game last week at Arizona, that at least would give the Buffs something tangible to build on going into the offseason..

Once the coaching transition eventually is settled, the Buffs might find themselves in need of starting over at quarterback as well. If it comes to that, so be it. Razing the entire operation wouldn’t be the worst approach for a program that has posted just one full-season winning record since 2005. If not, however, keeping McCown out of the transfer portal might become the biggest personnel priority for CU. The best way to do that, besides somehow putting a few notches in the win column, would be to build on the brief glimpses of promise the McCown-led offense has provided.

Sanford might never be seriously considered for the leading role. But clicking with those young skill players and developing an offensive attack that continues to improve would give the new head coach something to consider as he hits the reset button.

Give Sanford credit for winning the bye. If he can make football fun again during non-byes, Buff fans gladly will take it.