One year ago today, Colorado hired Karl Dorrell: The inside story of a courtship that required just one conversation – The Denver Post
One year later, the relationship seems preordained.
Karl Dorrell has instilled his brand of calm and cool into a Colorado football program that was in dire need of both — a program that had been ditched by its head coach, a program that was forever one win short, that had a fragile roster and lacked momentum and was consumed by uncertainty as the pandemic descended and society lurched to the edge.
One year later, the skeptics have been silenced.
Unflappable as the Flatirons, Dorrell provided instant stability, kept the roster intact, managed his staff, navigated the local health restrictions, demanded accountability, identified a quarterback, guided the Buffaloes to unexpected success and was named the 2020 Pac-12 Coach of the Year.
“He has done everything I thought he would do, and he has been exactly who I thought he was,’’ Colorado athletic director Rick George said recently as he reflected on the process that led to Dorrell being named head coach on Feb. 23, 2020.
“We wanted somebody who could stabilize the program, who cared about young men and shared the same aspirations for this program that I did and could bring back the success we had in the 1990s and early 2000s.”
Those shared aspirations formed the bond between George and Dorrell that sealed the deal on a pleasant Friday afternoon in an immaculate home in Lafayette, a few miles from the CU campus.
George extended the job offer while standing in Dorrell’s living room, near a giant container of Hershey’s Kisses, following a five-hour conversation, lunch from Jersey Mike’s and a timely interruption by Federal Express.
That conversation — the conversation that changed CU football — came approximately 12 hours after Dorrell’s name first appeared on George’s radar.
The 27th head coach in Colorado history went from zero-to-hired in one day.
Thursday, Feb. 20, lunchtime, Boulder.
Rick George was stuck. Nine days into his search, he had plenty of candidates but no coach.
Nobody felt right in his gut.
“When I think about where I was at that point,’’ he recalled, “I wasn’t sure if anybody we were looking at was the right person.”
Just two weeks earlier, George felt good about the state of the program and the man leading it.
Mel Tucker, fresh off his first season in Boulder, had been linked by media reports to the vacancy at Michigan State, where he once served as a graduate assistant under an up-and-coming head coach named Nick Saban.
On Feb. 8, George asked Tucker if he had any interest in the MSU job.
Tucker’s response: No.
On Feb. 9, the Spartans struck out with their preferred candidate, Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell.
George went back to Tucker.
“Are we good? Do we need to talk about anything?”
“Nope,” Tucker responded, according to George. “We’re good.”
On Feb. 10, George checked into a local hospital for back surgery.
He was home the next day but heavily medicated and spent the late afternoon asleep.
At 6:30 p.m., he awoke to a barrage of text and voice messages: The Spartans were coming after Tucker with full steam and a loaded wallet.
By midnight, it was over.
Tucker had agreed to a massive deal: Six years at an average of $5.5 million — more than double what CU was paying Tucker annually.
And, the salary pool for assistants was enormous.
And, it was the Big Ten.
The next morning, George met with the dazed players, grimaced through a press conference and launched his second coaching search in 15 months.
The tumult created by Tucker’s departure, just 14 months after his arrival, helped frame the search:
George wanted stability, discipline, experience, “somebody the players could look up to” — somebody who shared his vision of reviving what was once a heavyweight program.
Former Colorado star Eric Bieniemy had his sights on an NFL job. Air Force’s Troy Calhoun, Arkansas’s Bret Bielema and Alabama playcaller Steve Sarkisian were among the names linked in the media to the vacancy.
For various reasons, nobody worked.
Nine days into the search, it was time for a pause.
Sitting in his office, George turned to his chief lieutenant on football matters, associate athletic director Lance Carl.
“Why haven’t we considered Karl Dorrell?”
“I don’t know,’’ Carl responded.
“Let’s call him.”
Thursday, Feb. 20, approximately 3 p.m., Miami.
Karl Dorrell’s day had started with a promotion, and it was scheduled to end with a flight home.
In between, it got even better.
As Dorrell packed his gear and prepared to head to the airport, the phone rang.
Until then, the former Colorado assistant coach and offensive coordinator hadn’t pursued the vacancy.
“When Tucker left, I didn’t initially reach out,’’ he explained. “The early speculation was about Bieniemy” — the former CU star — “and there was a lot of stuff like he was a shoe-in.
“I was sure (George) had a short list.”
At the time, Dorrell was renting a one-bedroom apartment in Miami, having just finished his first season on the Dolphins’ staff.
Hours earlier, he had been promoted to assistant head coach.
Now, Colorado’s No. 2 was on the phone.
“When can you meet?” Carl asked.
“As a matter of fact,” Dorrell responded, “I’m flying to Denver tonight.”
Neither George or Carl had realized it, but Dorrell’s permanent residence was in Lafayette, just east of Boulder.
He and his wife, Kim, had fallen in love with the area during Dorrell’s four seasons as CU’s offensive coordinator under head coach Rick Neuheisel in the mid-1990s.
“We have an arrangement,” said Dorrell, who has been married for 28 years and has two children. “I work remotely. Even when I was in New York (with the Jets), I was remote. And Kim is in Colorado.
“So when they called, the timing was unique. I was flying to Denver for a few days before I went to Indianapolis for the (NFL Scouting) Combine.”
A meeting was arranged for the following morning at Dorrell’s home.
But preparation would have to wait, for Dorrell had a flight to catch.
Thursday, Feb. 20, evening, onboard a Southwest flight.
Dorrell settled into his seat — 10th row, on the aisle (“I’m an aisle guy”) — and pulled out a notepad.
His preparation for the meeting the next day did not require in-flight internet access. It was all in his head.
“I used the time to collect my thoughts,’’ he said.
Mostly, those thoughts were about UCLA.
Dorrell spent five years in charge of his alma mater in the mid-2000s, with mixed results: The Bruins were bowl-eligible each year but escaped mediocrity just once, in 2005, when they won 10 games with a roster that included two future All-Pros: tailback Maurice Jones-Drew and tight end Marcedes Lewis.
Dorrell was dismissed after the 2007 season and bounced around as an assistant in the NFL (Dolphins, Texans, Jets) and a coordinator in college (Vanderbilt).
“I thought about UCLA, and the things that were important to success. The experience was good, but there are some things that I would change.
“Two things seemed really important. I wanted to be able to hire the type of staff that would allow me to be successful, especially the offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator. And the other part was the recruiting budget and where we needed to go.”
Dorrell recalled his first stint in Boulder, as an assistant for legendary coach Bill McCartney, who won CU’s only national championship.
“Coach Mac hit Texas hard, but we also went into Louisiana and Georgia. And he had a lot of success in the Lake Michigan area.
“I wanted to be sure we would have the means to do it.”
Friday, Feb. 21, approximately 10 a.m., Lafayette
Dorrell and George were not complete strangers. They had chatted before, on campus — Dorrell’s daughter, Lauren, played for the CU volleyball team.
But those conversations were brief, little more than an exchange of pleasantries.
An ice-breaker was required, and George provided it, courtesy of his weakness for chocolate.
Spotting a container of Hershey’s Kisses on the kitchen counter, he picked up the cover, only to discover the container had been placed upside down, a personal preference of Kim Dorrell’s.
The Kisses spilled everywhere.
Otherwise, George recalled, the house was “immaculate.”
Dorrell took no credit for that.
“I have no jurisdiction in the house,’’ he said with a half laugh. “I know where I sleep, and I take out the trash, and I’m my wife’s occasional sous chef.”
Kim was loaded with nervous energy, eager to help but not wanting to interfere. They decided she should get everyone lunch — sandwiches from the Jersey Mike’s on South Boulder Road would hit the spot.
Dorrell, George and Carl got comfortable around the dining room table for a discussion that would last more than five hours.
Dorrell talked about his coaching experiences, his views on leadership and education, and his family — about their plans to retire in Boulder, in that very home.
George and Carl provided a detailed update on every aspect of CU football, from the facilities to the budget, from academics to support services for the athletes.
They talked about recruiting, the coaching staff, the strength-and-conditioning program, fundraising efforts.
Many of Dorrell’s questions were answered before he asked.
“They were very detailed.”
Kim arrived with the sandwiches, and the discussion rolled on.
As the hours passed, George became convinced he had found his coach.
“Everybody can talk through the process, and he knew how to coach and recruit, and he knew the game,’’ George recalled. “But he was the right person.
“His calmness made me calm.”
Both men remember the arc of the conversation bending toward history — towards the golden age of Colorado football.
George served as the recruiting coordinator and director of football operations during the McCartney era and was on staff for the 1990 national championship season.
There was no overlap: George left Boulder in 1991; Dorrell arrived the following year as the receivers coach.
But the shared experience working under McCartney, when the Buffaloes were a perennial top-10 program, forged a bond.
“We talked about the success of the 1990s,” Dorrell said, “and I remembered all those Colorado-Nebraska games and why Colorado was successful.
“We drew on that history. We were on the same page. We both knew what it took to get back. Rick knew my mindset, what was needed to get where we need to be.
“There was so much crossover experience. I thought, ‘Wow. This is round blocks into round holes.’’’
George’s recall was similar.
“He was there for McCartney and Neuheisel and knew what we needed. And he had a recruiting plan. He knew what to sell, the campus and the way of life.”
The doorbell rang: FedEx.
Instantly, Dorrell’s dogs, a Yorkie and Basenji, went wild.
Dorrell excused himself and headed to the door.
George turned to Carl.
“I like this guy, and I’m going to offer him the job before we leave the house.”
Carl looked at George.
“Yep, this is the guy.”
Dorrell returned, and the discussion continued for another hour or so.
By 4 p.m., George was in a great place. Dorrell? He wasn’t sure where things stood.
“I walked them to the door and thought they would be calling later to tell me if I was in or out.”
Before he reached the door, George turned to Dorrell.
“I want you to be our head coach.”
Dorrell was surprised — thrilled, but surprised.
The son of a military man, he kept his cool.
“I need to talk to my wife,” he responded.
George thought to himself: “Smart man.”
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The Colorado duo headed out, and so did Dorrell. Kim wasn’t home, and he needed time to collect his thoughts.
He took the dogs for a walk.
“I knew in my gut that I wanted it, but I needed to debrief,’’ he said. “How would I exit Miami? I had to let (Dolphins coach) Brian Flores know.”
Kim returned, heard the news and was stunned — thrilled, but stunned.
Meanwhile, George updated his boss, chancellor Phil DiStefano, on the developments.
By 7 p.m., approximately 30 hours after the initial outreach, Dorrell called to accept.
Colorado’s second coaching search in 15 months was over.
Its third coach in three seasons was in place.
The Buffaloes don’t plan on making another hire for many years.
“I wanted stability, and I wanted discipline,” George said. “When you think about the discipline piece, we didn’t have a game (in 2020) that we couldn’t play because of our COVID issues. The players listened to him.
“I can’t believe I didn’t think of him earlier.”
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