Skip to main content
Original Issue


The Colorado football team is winless, the sports programs are going bust, but Chuck Fairbanks has his $50,000 office

Last Saturday in Boulder, Colo. was idyllic. Nothing was wrong. Even the Chamber of Commerce couldn't quibble. Here was the University of Colorado, a beautiful campus in a splendid setting, bathed in clear, dry, 80° weather. Sunlight glistened off the Front Range of the Rockies, the changing aspen were at their peak of glory in the high country, and the students were everywhere, doing everything. A collegiate Camelot.

Whoops. Not quite. The Colorado football team dropped its third straight game, losing to Indiana 49-7, but, worse than that, the entire athletic program was running at a deficit that threatens its very existence. The best analysis of this black cloud was offered by Fred Casotti, Colorado's associate athletic director, who has been a member of the staff for 28 years. "I've seen the good times, the bad times and the in-between times," he said. "But nothing like these times."

Nobody has. The Buffaloes' once proud athletic program, with its national-championship-contending football team, is in near ruins, the result of un-monitored, unplanned and uncontrolled spending. Who's to blame? One of the prime suspects is Athletic Director Eddie Crowder, who is being accused of fiscal and administrative incompetence. He has been put on probation by the university president, Arnold Weber, who also docked him a month's vacation as a disciplinary measure, saying, "There wasn't an environment of managerial discipline or accountability in athletics."

The other suspect is the football coach, Chuck Fairbanks, whose personality, or lack thereof, has earned him the nickname "Stone." He is being scored as a non-stop, out-of-control spender. Did he really need a brand-new pair of shoes for each game? Did he really have to spend $50,000 to have his office redone? And how about the remodeling of the Buffaloes' locker-and weight-room facilities at a cost of $624,000 when the estimate was $125,000? Asked by the Rocky Mountain News about his free ways with other people's money, Fairbanks exploded. "I don't even understand this line of questioning." he said. "It chaps my ass."

From January 1979 to June 1980, the athletic department spent hundreds of thousands of dollars more than it took in. The best estimate puts the excess at $667,000 for the last fiscal year. The overall deficit was $819,943 going into the current fiscal year, but that was after the Flatirons Club—a bunch of high-rolling boosters—kicked in $300,000 out of what was supposed to be an endowment fund.

Four months ago, when it was estimated that the athletic-program deficit would exceed $1 million in 1980-81, the university axed seven of its intercollegiate sports. That's the most severe chop by any major school, leaving Colorado with eight varsity teams, the minimum number needed to qualify for Division I.

The Colorado football team is also bankrupt spiritually and physically. Tri-champion of the Big Eight only four seasons ago, it is now a disgrace. Last year. Fairbanks' first, the Buffaloes were 3-8. This season, in their opener against UCLA, they fell behind 56-0 by half-time. They lost 23-20 to LSU a week later and then last Saturday, in their first home game, rolled over for Indiana. In Crowder's subdued private booth his wife, Jean, watched the score mount to 35-0 by halftime and said, "Gee, that's too bad. We haven't played all that badly." Wrong. Colorado had played worse than badly, but Indiana was being a good guest and not running it up.

As a result of such ineptitude, fans are losing interest in droves. As recently as 1972, students bought 14,442 season tickets; this season they have purchased only a few more than 5,500. Plus, they're irked by the implementation of a $10-a-semester fee to help get the athletic program out of hock. The faculty attitude, says Jack Kent Anderson, a member of the Board of Regents, is worse. "If we let the faculty vote," says Anderson, "they'd wipe out football immediately."

Attendance at home games has fallen from a 1976 average of 50,032 to last year's 44,326, and that translates into a loss of revenue for a season of $342,360. Last Saturday, the Indiana game drew only 40,129. In 1979, football took in $1,862,640, $300,000 less than anticipated, and spent $1,910,948.

And, finally, the NCAA is winding up an investigation in which it has made 132 allegations of wrongdoing by Colorado over the last decade. The university has investigated itself and admitted guilt on 50 of the charges, including one in which Colorado concluded a coach was "overly involved in aiding a student-athlete to complete a term paper." The NCAA is expected to announce the penalties, if any, later this fall. Even more damning is the school investigating committee's conclusion that there is "a serious lack of commitment on the part of the university to recruit only potentially academically successful student-athletes."

Colorado's decline started when Bill Mallory, who wasn't a strong recruiter, was coach. He was fired in 1978, and the chance arose to get Fairbanks, then the highly successful head man of the New England Patriots. The Buffs got him, which is to say, the Buffs stole him. That incensed Patriot owner Billy Sullivan, who himself had stolen Fairbanks from Oklahoma. Acrimony ran wild, and Colorado, through the Flatirons Club, headed by Denver oilman Jack Vickers, had to ransom Fairbanks from his New England contract. That cost $200,000, plus $100,000 in legal fees. Essentially, a recruiting season was lost.

But Fairbanks finally arrived, and the state was thrilled. "We were so proud," says one Coloradoan. "We had hired God, and he would lead us to victory over Oklahoma. So he comes in and loses to Drake." However, before it was discovered that Fairbanks might be flawed as a deity figure, he said he had to remodel the Buffs' 12-year-old dressing room. Ring up $620,000. "The place looked shabby," says Fairbanks. So must have his office. Ring up $50,000.

Ah, yes, The Office. Nothing could have infuriated Coloradoans more. Amid a wave of cost-cutting, King Chuck is ensconced regally while the amount of money used to gussy up his place would have kept the men's gymnastics team on the bars and mats for a year. The Office. It has carpeting you would love—trust us—in your house: it has that barnlike paneling you want in your den but can't afford; it has indirect lighting, elegant furniture, a wet bar, a microwave. And the desk! Chuck, what is it? Fairbanks, colder than the winds that whip across the Front Range in winter, says, "It looks like pine to me. I don't know."

In fairness, some other coaches have nicely turned-out offices, too. But also in fairness, in this year's competition for Office You'd Most Like to Have, Fairbanks wins. And none of those other coaches fall behind 56-0 at halftime.

The Office. They'll never let him forget it. But, darned if he doesn't look like he belongs in it. He rests a cowboy boot across the corner of the pine(?) desk, he smokes Marlboros, he drinks black coffee. And he looks, he stares, he plots, he calculates. "Before you ask anything, the whole story is on the wall," he says.

In a way it is. For there are three pictures of derelict cowboys, as down and out as humanity allows. In the first picture one says, "I put all my profits back into ranch improvements." The next picture has one saying. "If this business is so damned good, how come there ain't more people in it?" And in the third one—Fairbanks' favorite—one of the cowboys says, "Reckon we'll just have to tighten our belts."

And then he starts talking. Slowly. More slowly than the slowest speaker you've ever heard in your life. Grass growing? Indeed, when somebody says hello, Fairbanks seems stuck for an answer. Around the university it's said, very softly, that Fairbanks has had the world's only successful charisma bypass operation. That hurts him because while his coaching ability is unquestioned—his numbers at Oklahoma (52-15-1) and New England (31-13 in his last three seasons) speak for themselves—his personality needs a little work. With an innocent smile and sly tongue, he could quip away a lot of the dollars—which are athletic-department dollars, not taxpayer funds. Lee Corso, the flamboyant Indiana coach, offered this advice in a discussion of Stone's demeanor: "Humor is not a sign of weakness."

Fairbanks started things off at Colorado—this is his second season—by refusing to speak to the Boulder Buff Club, a group of boosters who pay to belong to the club, pay for their lunches, donate to the football program. They care about Colorado football. This year, wisely, Fairbanks has relented. But his talks have club members nodding off. He sounds nice enough but he doesn't say anything'. His delivery doesn't stir the juices and get folks reaching for their checkbooks. The highlight of his talk last Thursday at the Flatirons Country Club came when he looked over the crowd of 127 (compared to 45 the week before) and said, "Damn, I hope we don't win one or we'll have to get a bigger hall." All the boys fell off their chairs laughing at that one, probably because they knew it was going to be their only chance to yuk it up.

But Fairbanks does get high marks for candor.

What shape is the football program in?

Pause. Pause. Pause. "It's an embarrassment for our football program to be in the condition this one is."

How good is Colorado?

Pause. Pause. Pause. "Not very good."

And when the athletic department made the panicky move last April of stopping all spending—President Weber told Crowder, "You put the clamps on, and if you don't, I'll really have the red ass"—Fairbanks donated two months' salary, about $7,500 based on his $45,000 yearly wage, to keep recruiting going. The good ol' Flatirons Club, which has contributed around $2 million to Colorado football over the last 15 years, kicked in another $50,000.

Fairbanks seems to have a knack for getting zapped on trivial matters. Like wearing those new shoes last year. Nobody knows why. "He thinks that's what going first class means," one Colorado fan suggests. He also, according to a locker-room source, insisted on wearing a coaching shirt only twice. Not twice before washing. Twice in his—and its—lifetime. Then there was the matter of the futuristic buffalo emblem he wanted designed for the helmets. When it was done, he didn't like it, but it still cost $1,600. So the helmets remain buffalo-less. Says one administration source, "Whatever Chuck wants, Chuck gets, and Chuck wants a lot. He has no limits unless somebody tells him." Fairbanks sniffs, "The football program is the foundation of this corporation. So you must insure the success of the bell cow."

When Weber called Fairbanks in to talk budgetary matters, Weber recalls that "I told him everybody has to accept fiscal discipline, including the football coach. I can't say he showed signs of exultation." This year's football budget is about $1.59 million, some $300,000 less than last year's. But Weber was quick to refute the notion that Fairbanks' ego might not fit in any room on the Colorado campus: "I reject that idea. Coaches, like faculty members, do have strong egos. The trick is to use those egos and not let them use you."

Still, it seems incongruous that in the face of severe cost-cutting, of watching every penny slavishly, Fairbanks last week was pulling out an architect's drawing of—you guessed it—a stadium expansion. It would add 10,000 seats (to the present 52,005) and would cost $6 million. Fairbanks says the seats will be needed because "without being egotistical, there are people who believe I can rebuild."

Weber places the blame for the Colorado catastrophe on three things. The first is the cost of women's athletics (around $500,000 last year), and it is in this area that the $10 student's fee will be applied. The second is the cost of paying off the new $7.75 million Events/Conference Center, which is primarily for basketball. When an ill-fated fund-raising drive rounded up only $200,000 toward the cost of the building, the bill was dumped on Crowder's desk. That meant another $350,000 a year. Both of these big expenditures hit for the first time last year. The third is what Weber calls a "lack of managerial controls." That points the finger at two people, former president Roland Rautenstraus, whose philosophy wasn't to say no but to wait until tomorrow, and at Crowder.

Crowder coached the Buffaloes from 1963 through 1973, including the glorious 1971 season when Nebraska, Oklahoma and Colorado were ranked 1, 2, 3 in the nation. Crowder was a tremendous recruiter, which is how it happened that the Buffs were always right at the top when it came to getting players drafted by the pros. Understandably he is ticked at the fire-Eddie mutterings. He takes a big puff on a big cigar and says, "When I came here in 1963 and they were dead broke and I worked 18 hours a day and made them money, they liked me fine. And they thought I was fine for 15 years. Then they loaded my back till it broke—mainly Title IX [women's athletics] and the Events Center—and now it's open season on me."

Sure is. Boulder real estate executive and sports fan Ken Penfold says, "Crowder brought on the mess, and you don't have to look any further. Our athletic program is the laughingstock of the country. He has shown no ability whatsoever to administer." Management Professor Dale Meyer, who was on a committee looking into athletics, says, "Somebody has to be responsible, and that's Crowder. He has to stand up and be counted."

The facts indicate that administration and financial acumen aren't Crowder's strong suits; fund raising and one-on-one persuasion are. Under his non-direction—and sometimes inattention—everyone had his own drum and marched to it. Crowder says he learned a lesson by this experience and by reading somewhere that the way to get an honest police force is to spend a lot of time finding honest cops.

Weber says he hasn't fired Crowder because "he has spent 17½ years here, during which, by and large, he performed well. There is enough blame in this thing for everybody. And I believe in the concept of progressive discipline because there are steps between exoneration and beheading." The vacation docking embarrassed Crowder, but he told Weber, "That's O.K. I haven't been on vacation for seven or eight years anyway." Reflecting on having his hands slapped, Crowder said, "I'm not a morbid kind of personality. If I have a bad day, I go have a drink with friends."

Minor sports clearly had a bad day on June 11. That was when men's baseball and wrestling, and men's and women's gymnastics, and swimming and diving were dropped. This would save around $350,000. The overall athletic budget was trimmed from more than $4.8 million to $4,175 million. Gymnastics Coach Sid Freudenstein says, "I've never felt so abused in my life."

It was sudden. Larry Schultz, the baseball coach, who is now an assistant at Iowa State, says, "We always preach to our players that the game isn't over until it's over. The problem is we didn't even know we were in a game." One of Schultz' starters, Infielder Mike Wing, was left without a team, and he's working to get his sport restored on a club basis, "The national pastime deserves to be played here," he says. "It's hard to realize you're through as an athlete when you've had no warning. Besides, I don't consider baseball a minor sport." But Crowder, who was all for the cuts, counters, "The average attendance at their games was 12. Nobody cares."

The crux of the matter is that football pays for everything else at most schools. (Of course, now it doesn't even pay its own way at Colorado.) Sometimes basketball is about a wash. Everything else loses, and there are those who wonder if the non-revenue sports should be contested on an intercollegiate basis. There were 81 men participating in the sports that were cut at Colorado, 22 women. Weber shakes his head and says, "It wasn't my dream that I would make my niche in the history of this university as the man who cut out seven sports."

Other schools aren't snickering at Colorado's problems because they know that there, but for the grace of God, go they. Already representatives of 10 major universities have gone calling on Don Can-ham, the University of Michigan athletic director, who runs one of the most successful programs in the country. "They're all on the brink," he says. And Canham isn't smug about his $9 million operation. His job is to fill 101,701 seats with paying customers for each home football game; because he is the best huckster in the nation and because Michigan usually wins, he gets it done. But he says if attendance should fall to 90,000, "we're in big trouble." At Nebraska, it's the same way. As long as sellouts of 76,000 remain a way of life, all's well. But at 65,000? "Trouble," says Athletic Director Bob Devaney.

The trend in college sport isn't a happy one. In the past year 33 teams competing in 14 different sports have been dropped. Among the biggies, wrestling has been abolished at UCLA, Georgia, Alabama, Florida and Utah; baseball is gone at SMU. Weber, who took over at Colorado last January and who fortunately has a wry streak, says, "If things keep going this way, Oklahoma and Nebraska can play each other eight times a year. It would be high-quality football but perhaps a little dull."

Which is what Colorado football is right now. The Buffs are a lot of things, primarily inept. "Fans don't come to see you play," says Crowder, "they come to see you win." If true, Colorado will play to a full load of empty seats as the fall progresses.

There was nothing to commend the Colorado effort against Indiana. In the midst of these dreadful times for CU—even the Colorado flag girls wear black—it was ironic that Indiana Quarterback Tim Clifford threw for five touchdown passes to set a record for most scoring throws by a Colorado opponent. The old mark of four was set Oct. 27, 1951 by an Oklahoma quarterback: Eddie Crowder.

After the game, Fairbanks had the look of a haunted man, the look of a talented coach who wonders how in the world he ever got himself into this mess. There are a lot of rumors around Colorado that Fairbanks will leave at the end of this season and that Crowder may be shuffled to another job. Both vigorously deny it. But if there's a light at the end of the tunnel, it must have blown a fuse, because it's awful dark in here.





On the campus, these are the signs of the times.



Although the baseball team has been shut out, Infielder Wing and wife pitch in to manicure the field.



President Weber spots another Buffalo boo-boo.



Athletic Director Crowder lost vacation time.



Helmet decals, never worn, wasted $1,600.