New coach leads charge into future
If a poll were to be taken of people that live in the Boulder area, probably less than five percent of those surveyed could pick CU men’s basketball coach Jeff Bzdelik out of a lineup of faces.
The former Air Force coach has made the trek up Interstate Highway 25 more quietly than a fall leaf settling on the ground.
The lack of excitement that surrounds Bzdelik in this city is more of an indictment of the job that former CU head coach Ricardo Patton did (or didn’t do) than it is of Bzdelik’s coaching ability.
Patton put this town and community in a coma for the better part of 10 seasons, and now it’s up to Bzdelik and his staff to breathe some life into a men’s basketball program that is in great need of some fresh air.
The rebuilding job that Bzdelik embarks on as his first season at CU gets ready to begin, is hardly the coach’s first.
Let’s have a little history lesson on the 17th head coach in CU history.
In August of 2002, after the Denver Nuggets could seemingly find no one else to take the position, they hired a little-known scout by the name of Jeff Bzdelik to take over a rebuilding team led by the highly touted rookie Carmelo Anthony.
The Nuggets went 17-65 that season. All of those who said that Bzdelik was in over his head and that he was incapable of leading an NBA franchise into brighter days were seemingly vindicated. So what did the coach do for an encore? Oh, not much except engineer the sixth-largest turnaround in NBA history. The Nuggets won 26 more games that season and made it to the NBA playoffs despite not winning 20 games the season before.
The coach was then unfairly and unceremoniously dumped midway through his third season by the franchise that he guided back to respectability – the belief within the Nuggets organization being that he didn’t have the stomach to handle the various personalities on an NBA team such as Anthony.
Never bitter, even though one could perfectly understand why he might be, Bzdelik thanked Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke for the opportunity to lead the Nuggets, and moved on.
Looking for more work, Bzdelik took on another challenge in replacing Joe Scott at the Air Force Academy. Scott had built the Air Force into a formidable force in the Mountain West Conference. Bzdelik’s job was to build on that which is never easy at any service academy, where acquiring Division I-caliber players can be tougher than opening up a Ziploc bag with greasy fingers.
Bzdelik installed his own version of the Princeton offense (though he admittedly disdains that term) where shooters and hard work are a requirement, not a gratuity. The Falcons went on a 50-16 tear in two seasons and made two trips to the postseason. The two-year run was the best ever for Air Force basketball.
After leading the Academy to two extremely successful campaigns the past two years, Bzdelik decided to continue on his journey through the Front Range and come to CU.
And Buffs’ fans couldn’t be luckier.
No offense to Patton, but if the two coaches’ basketball minds were on display at a science fair, Bzdelik would win first prize while Patton would be the kid standing in the corner of the room hoping his parents would be there soon to take him home.
Bzdelik is an excellent X’s and O’s kind of coach, not to mention a great leader and motivator. He has been successful at multiple levels and has been mentored by some of the greatest minds to grace the game. Guys like Pat Riley and Wes Unseld immediately jump to mind.
But Bzdelik is a realistic man also. He knows that he isn’t going to turn around this program with the snap of his fingers. Colorado basketball has spent the last decade, and probably more, falling behind the rest of its competitors in terms of facilities and a commitment to the sport. Understanding what it’s going to take for the Buffs to be competitive in the ultra-competitive Big 12, Bzdelik knows it’s going to take more than X’s and O’s. That’s why his contract states that if ground hasn’t been broken on a practice facility within three years of his arrival, he can pack his belongings and leave.
At the team’s media day last week, Bzdelik tried to ease expectations somewhat by saying, “I’m not a miracle worker,” and that his team must play with “desperate energy” just to be competitive.
He even joked that when it came time for him to make his preseason picks for the conference, that he picked the Buffs to finish 13th.
While it might not be possible for CU to finish 13th in a 12-team conference, Buffs fans are aware that expectations for this program haven’t been much higher in quite some time.
But if Bzdelik can achieve remarkable things with a dwindling NBA franchise and an Academy, why can’t he do it here?
Maybe the question isn’t why can’t he, but when will he.
Contact Campus Press Sports Editor Stirling Wade at firstname.lastname@example.org.