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Tad Boyle made Colorado Basketball... and he's just getting started

William Whelan Avatar
September 28, 2016

BOULDER — It’s just after 10 a.m. on a cool late-summer morning in Boulder and I’m sitting across from Tad Boyle in his office, beneath wall-hanging murals of past Colorado basketball greats. There are the names and faces of those you’d expect, along with Alec Burks.

Burks was the first star of Boyle’s tenure in Boulder, the first Buff that Boyle held a postseason press conference with to announce an impending departure for the NBA. Seeing the framed still of him driving towards the basket reminds me that, somehow, it’s been nearly six and a half years since he arrived in Boulder and accepted the head coaching job from then-Athletic Director, Mike Bohn.

He looks a bit older, grey hairs starting to show up along the outline of his buzz cut, reading glasses around his neck. As strange as it seems, following this season, Boyle will have been a Buffs head coach for as long as Gary Barnett ran the football program, for more than half the time Bill McCartney and Ricardo Patton were in charge. Sure, he looks a bit older. But there’s no drop in energy when he speaks or coaches. This is still Boyle we’re talking about.

Life in Boulder has treated the head man well, he says.

“I said this when I got the job this is my dream job,” Boyle says with the same measure of reflection and appreciation for the opportunity he’s shown since his first day on the job. “I don’t feel any differently today.”

Through his time in Boulder, fans have witnessed the most hoops success since the days of Russell “Sox” Walseth and his three conference titles. Under Boyle, Colorado has made four NCAA Tournaments in six seasons, won the Pac-12 Conference Tournament, advanced to the Round of 32, been ranked multiple times, and set the program wins record for a season. As any coach would be, Boyle is proud of what he and his staff have done in Boulder.

He is not, however, content. Boyle has never been easily pleased here, as often shown thanks to the candid nature he has with local reporters. He speaks his mind, whether it’s about the play he’s getting from his point guards or the support he sees in the stands during the slow winter months before conference play. 

From day one, he’s worn a chip on his shoulder. That is not day one of his coaching tenure at CU, rather it is day one of his upbringing, of his basketball life.

“I grew up in Greeley, Colorado, the son of an English professor,” he says. “Colorado’s not a basketball state but I loved this game and I worked really hard at it as a youngster to be as good as I could become. I had the chance to play at the University of Kansas, which is obviously a really special place. So I’ve always had that chip on my shoulder as a player and it’s continued as a coach.

“Whenever I talk to people about Colorado basketball, they talk about what you don’t have. But I try to take the opposite approach and say, look at what we do have.”

During my first interview with Boyle, more than five years ago, I asked him what the potential for Colorado basketball was. How could he, in his first high-major gig as a head coach, lead Colorado to heights it has never seen, like a Final Four? Before answering, of course, he corrected me.

“How do we get back to the Final Four,” he said, turning the tables of our meeting while referencing Colorado’s Final Four appearances in 1942 and 1955, neither of which Boyle was alive to see.

Nothing has changed in the goal that Boyle has for his program, which is what he has always called, sustained success. Four trips to the Big Dance in six seasons is a nice start, he understands, but there is work to be done still.

Boyle doesn’t know it yet, not as we sit across from each other, me with my yellow notepad still empty after ten minutes of conversation and him leaning back in his office chair, hands folded in his lap, that things will have changed in Boulder by the time his team tips off practices the final week of September. Just down the street, Mike MacIntyre will have started the season 3-1 with a dominating performance in the Rocky Mountain Showdown, an admirable showing against Michigan, and a win over Oregon that will seem to have marked the corner being turned for football at Colorado. The Coors Event Center, so often a place of refuge for weary gridiron fans enduring a decade of futility, won’t need to play that same role this season. Colorado fans, at least those less inclined towards year-round attention, won’t be tuning into his program for any sort of distraction or because it’s the last show in town capable of success.

They’ll have the taste of winning on their tongues, eager to see whether or not Boyle’s program is ready for the next step.

“We’re in the process of sustaining (our) success,” he says, with his trademark head-weave when he gets ready to speak his mind. “When I look back on the six years that I’ve been here, we had one year where we could have had Andre, Spencer, and Alec on all one team. Timing is everything in life and so we’re looking for that year where everything kind of comes together.”

While Boyle hasn’t struggled to find wins, to find support for his program, it is timing that has nearly always eluded him. In his first season, with arguably his most talented team, it took the team almost the entire non-conference slate to find its footing under the new coach. By Selection Sunday, losses against programs like San Francisco proved fatal. The program was then thrust into the unknown, the Pac-12, where an improbable run to the Pac-12 Tournament title put the Buffs back into the NCAA Tournament. It was the type of run we’ve seen from many schools in March, though the most notable names on such a list often do it just one week later than Colorado did in its second season under Boyle. The second weekend of the Big Dance is where stories are fulfilled, not just teased.

What if Spencer Dinwiddie doesn’t have, perhaps, the worst game of his career against Illinois? What if he doesn’t slip in Seattle? What if, what if, what if? That’s sports. Painful and unwilling to bend for the best media headline or feel-good story. Winning a season worth of college basketball games, or even just one, is incredibly difficult. Making the NCAA Tournament and advancing? According to Boyle, only those in the business of coaching truly understand the difficulty.

“A lot of people are frustrated that we haven’t moved farther and I understand that,” he says, his hands slightly off to the sides, palm up, raised in the air. “The Connecticut game was a disappointing game because we had it in hand and we had it under control before we let it slip away from us. That frustrates you as a fan, as a coach, and as a player. That’s certainly normal and I understand it.”

“I think match ups and luck of the draw have a lot to do with (tournament success). I think guard play has a lot to do with it. You win with guards in college basketball and when you have good, solid guard play it gives you a chance to advance every single time.”

Boyle thinks back to his days at Wichita State as an assistant under Mark Turgeon, one year after missing the NCAA Tournament with a team featuring four 1,000 points scorers—all from one recruiting class. The lone returner of that quartet fell to injury, forcing him to redshirt. Fans were disappointed, possibly worse. A golden opportunity had fallen flat, leaving the Shockers picked to finish fifth in the conference the following year. Six months later, Wichita State had won the conference and advanced to the Sweet 16, featuring former Denver East star point guard, Sean Ogirri. 

“The culture had been built,” he says, his voice gaining momentum like he’s about to come back to his current program, whose floor is not more than 100 feet away. “The winning expectations were there and guys stayed hungry and they stayed humble. It can happen when you least expect it.”

With all of that said, expectations still exist. Coming into this season, fans do expect a run. They’re waiting for the final breakthrough, even those that understand the complications of match ups, seed lines, bad days, and everything else that goes on during the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Boyle sees that potential in his current group as well, even if he won’t come out and share his optimism. In fact, when he speaks of what his current group might be able to achieve, it sounds less hopeful and more demanding.

“Now is the year where we need to reap those benefits,” says Boyle.

What if they don’t? What if, for whatever reasons, results fall short of where expectations were set? That is where a program must rely on its identity to carry it forward, the culture that has been established.

“We’ve had to build it from scratch from day one,” he says of the winning culture at CU. “Your job is never done. That’s the one thing about coaching, when you’re done learning and done growing you’re through…if you don’t, you’re going to be passed by. There’s no time where you can exhale.”

In classic Boyle fashion, he can still point out individual points in his career that still drive him crazy. He loathes and does not forget home losses. Four years ago, after signing a recruiting class that featured Josh Scott, Xavier Johnson as four-star prospects, Boyle talked about the next step for his recruiting and the programs that he knew they’d have to compete against.

“We haven’t beaten Stanford for a kid yet,” he remarks, knowing that there are some battles that will always be fought on uneven grounds. A degree from the University of Colorado is prestigious, he notes, but it doesn’t have the same cache as one from Stanford. The Buffaloes average a healthy win total under Boyle and his staff, but the head coach knows that some programs have more history, more pageantry, more built in advantages.

“We’re a developmental program,” he continues. “We’re not out there out-recruiting anybody. (We’re) going into year seven and we haven’t signed any McDonald’s All-Americans and we have haven’t had any one-and-done guys. We have to recruit really talented guys that have a chip on their shoulder, have big upside, and we have to develop them into legitimate players. I think this year’s team is a great example.”

Winning anything, building anything, in basketball looks different at CU—the willingness of fans to accept that fact won’t change it, now or ever. The recipe for the culture established in Boulder hasn’t come without its missteps and poorly chosen ingredients. Some players have not panned out according to their evaluation by the staff, a struggle felt on every campus in the nation. Some rosters haven’t gelled. Some games haven’t been executed, neither on the floor nor on the sideline, in ways that anyone involved would be happy to repeat. Maybe it’s irresponsible to try defining what exactly the Boyle era has been through six seasons and approaching its seventh.

It might be too early. 

After all, Boyle has three commitments for his 2017 class—all four-star prospects according to Scout. Such a class should be good enough to land the Buffs in the Top 25 nationally in recruiting class rankings. It would be the first such accomplishment for him in Boulder, despite his 2012 class being so highly regarded.

Boyle has aged since his first days in Boulder, when he watched balloons release in celebration on the front plaza steps of his future arena. But if his last few weeks of summer were any indicator, his energy is far from gone. The July recruiting calendar is arduous to get through, with flights every which way leaving almost every which hour. Then, after nearly settling in back in Boulder for the start of August, Boyle was off to support Team Colorado in The Basketball Tournament, with the finale played in New York City. Back to Boulder, then. Back to work, to building.

“My philosophy is you work your tail off and let the chips fall where they may,” he says, looking up from his desk, almost with a smile.


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