Peterson: Miracle on Folsom Street
That’s how Jeff Campbell described his emotions on Saturday night when, in a blink, Colorado football went from unwatchable to must-see TV again.
Yes, Buffs fans, there is a Santa Claus, and he’s coming down the chimney bringing “Louis” with him. Deion Sander Claus, that is.
“I mean, finally, we got somebody that is legit,” said Campbell, the proud Battle Mountain High School alum who starred at CU in the late 1980s before playing five NFL seasons, the last with the Broncos.
Campbell, whose mother lives in Singletree, and who was skiing deep powder in Vail on Thursday, said like other proud Buffs, he’d watched hopelessly as the program fell deeper into the abyss of irrelevancy over the last two decades.
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“Just terrible, because we had worked so hard to put that program in a national spotlight,” he said. “For about six or seven years there, we were ranked in the top 10 every year. And to see it decline to the point that it’s gotten to now has just been demoralizing.”
I was 9 years old when my family moved to Boulder in 1989 during Campbell’s senior season. The Buffs went 11-0 before losing to Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl. That team played with one heartbeat while dedicating the season to Sal Aunese, the dynamic option quarterback who was Campbell’s college roommate and who put Colorado on the national map under coach Bill McCartney. Aunese died way too early from stomach cancer, at age 21, in the fall of that unforgettable season.
A year later, the Buffs returned to the Orange Bowl to win their only national title. Four years later, when I was 14 years old, Kordell Stewart launched a 72-yard missile on the final play from scrimmage at the Big House in Ann Arbor, Michigan, that was deflected into the hands of Michael Westbrook to stun the third-ranked Wolverines and a crowd of 106,407.
It’s a play that my childhood friends and I re-enacted about a gazillion times after the game on the South Boulder street where I grew up.
Watching Westbrook haul in that prayer — I got the same kind of jolt when the email from CU Athletic Director Rick George hit my inbox at 8:27 on Saturday night with a five-word subject line: “It’s Time for Coach Prime.”
Yes, there’s no cheering in the press box, and the cliché that old sportswriters hate sports has some truth to it — but there’s also no denying that those pure things you loved as a child truly never leave you. At least those feelings don’t.
Then again, I would’ve believed that Santa Claus was real before I believed that Deion Sanders was really coming to Boulder until that email landed and my phone exploded with texts.
It’s why, 17 hours later, I had to be at Coach Prime’s introductory press conference to see it for myself. I’ve attended and forgotten more press conferences than I can remember, but this was unlike any I’d ever seen up close. In a packed, stuffy room that needed some airflow, you couldn’t help but get goosebumps when Coach Prime stepped to the mic and held forth.
Do you believe? Michael Slevin sure does. Or, as the legendary Keith Jackson called him on the ABC broadcast of the Miracle at Michigan game, “Mike Slevin from Vail.”
Slevin was the Buffs’ freshman kickoff specialist for that game. He’s now the president and owner of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Colorado Properties here in the Vail Valley, but those memories of his days kicking for Coach Mac and Rick Neuheisel and playing with Stewart, Westbrook, Matt Russell, Koy Detmer and the great Rashaan Salaam, Colorado’s lone Heisman winner, are never far from his mind.
Slevin joked in an email that I was kind to reach out to “a kicker who made his name doing kickoffs and in his first-ever football game, missed his only extra-point attempt off the left upright of a 3/4 empty Folsom Field against Northeast Louisiana.”
“The echo of the ball hitting the metal upright still haunts me to this day,” he wrote.
He also said, beyond the incredible hype that Sanders brings to everything he does, and the immediate buzz around a program that many around the country considered the worst Power Five job in college football, he sees similarities between Coach Prime and Coach Mac.
“The program needed a boost (understatement of the year) and while Coach Prime brings that with his approach, passion, and name recognition, in the era of NIL, social media followers, and hopes to make it to the NFL, Coach Prime is still dealing with 18-22-year-olds,” he wrote. “What separated Coach Mac from other coaches was the discipline he instilled upon the players.”
Cases in point: If you were five minutes early to practice, you were late. If you didn’t go to class, he would know, since Slevin said McCartney made his assistants walk through the classroom and take attendance.
“It was a caring environment but accountability and commitment were everything,” Slevin wrote. “I only heard Coach Prime’s press conference, but if he follows through with the type of environment and structure he outlined, not only will Colorado attract the talent necessary to compete, but each member of the program will leave a better person than when they arrived. I felt that that was Coach Mac’s legacy — you were better after being in his program and system.”
You got the same vibe from Coach Prime’s viral introductory meeting with the Buffs players in which he said earrings and hats were out — and that he was bringing his Louis Vuitton luggage with him. Translation: top recruits, heralded transfers, and coaches with instant name recognition.
Ryan Sutter, America’s favorite firefighter, certainly dug it. He walked on at Colorado during the McCartney era as an unheralded recruit and worked his way up the depth chart from a special teamer to a nickel safety to finally starting his senior year in 1997, in which he led the team in tackles with 170. As far as he knows, he still owns the CU record for most tackles in a single game.
Sutter also said, when reached Thursday driving from Denver to his home in Avon, that he’s been following Coach Prime on social media for years — for the same reasons he was so attracted to play for Coach Mac.
“It seems like Deion not only wants to bring the program back to prominence, but also he wants the students to represent the program at the highest level as people,” Sutter said. “Coach Mac was big about that too. I’ll always remember the speech where he said: ‘You have two things in life. And that’s your last name and you representing this football team. You know, don’t screw either of those up.'”
“I think that meeting was fantastic,” Campbell gushed. “I mean, he basically is laying it down. He wants to know: Do you want to be here or not? And there are going to be some of you that aren’t here and that’s just the way it goes. But you know what? Welcome to Division I sports. That’s how it should be.”
Yep, you’ve either got it, or you don’t got it. And Colorado fans now have something that every college football fan around the country might regret not having in short order as Coach Prime gets to work. You always throw up the Hail Mary because sometimes it connects when it lands.
It’s gonna be a great Christmas.
Nate Peterson is the editor of the Vail Daily. Email him at email@example.com